Bill Jamieson: How open is an open door policy for Brexit Scotland?

Immigration has been a deeply divisive issue in England for years. But in Scotland there is a marked difference. Scots as a whole tend not to see immigration '“ a prominent issue in the Brexit referendum campaign '“ as a cause for division and acrimony. Indeed, because of Scotland's particular demographic circumstances, immigration is far more widely viewed as a necessity.

There are problems – regulatory and economic – in running an “open door” immigration policy. But Scotland’s main political parties are agreed on the need to encourage more migration. Indeed, as both the SNP administration and a recent paper from the Reform Scotland have argued, there is a compelling case for Scotland to be exempted from the immigrant visa cap that the Westminster government is seeking to apply across the UK as a whole.

So should Scotland have an open door? Many believe so. But there are both domestic considerations and practical constraints.

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The case for “open door” is powerful. Without immigration, Scotland’s population would be falling and our ability to staff key service sector areas – not only our important farming, tourism and visitor sectors but key public services such as the NHS – would be in jeopardy.

Scotland’s population in 2016 hit 5.4 million and now stands at the highest level ever recorded. But that increase is due to migration. Our birth rate has been lagging and continues to fall. Scotland’s General Fertility Rate (GFR) – the number of live births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44 – stood at 53.2 in 2015. This compares with 61.7 per cent for the UK as a whole and is the lowest of any other UK country or region.

Since then the figure has got worse. Scotland’s GFR has fallen to 52.6, while the UK rate has held up at 61.7. Over the next 25 years the number of births minus the number of deaths in Scotland is projected to be negative. All increases in population will be due to migration.

In 2017, the number of non-British nationals living in Scotland rose 12 per cent to 378,000, according to the National Records of Scotland. The number of EU nationals increased by 26,000 to 235,000, with the number of non-EU nationals increasing by 14,000 to 142,000. Overall, 7 per cent of the resident population of Scotland have non-British nationality.

This viewed in isolation may not seem much of a problem. But at the same time our population has been ageing with the result that a proportionately smaller working age population faces increasing demands in funding healthcare and welfare services for a rising population of over 65s.

The numbers of those aged 65 to 74 are forecast to rise by 17 per cent over the next 25 years and the numbers aged 75 plus to rise by 79 per cent.

The Scottish Fiscal Commission has sounded the alarm bells. “The size of the population aged 16 to 64, which makes up most of the working age population”, it noted, “is very important for the economy and public finances. These individuals are more likely to be working and will be generating the highest tax receipts, for example, in income tax”.

And the point was forcefully underlined by the recent Reform Scotland analysis: “Scotland needs migration. We need more working-age people to contribute towards public finances in order to be able to afford to meet the costs of our public services. We need to attract people to come and live and work in Scotland. And we need policies that will encourage immigration.”

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All this strongly suggests that the UK government’s policy of a net migration target does not fit with our needs for more immigration.

But here, in the face of widespread voter clamour down south for tighter controls on immigration, an apparent closing door has been pushed ajar in a move that could have major relevance for Scotland. The UK government recently announced it was relaxing immigration rules to allow in more non-EU doctors and nurses, excluding them from the visa cap to address skills shortages in the NHS.

But why should this relaxation be confined to the NHS? What of skills shortages in other areas of the public sector? Or in the pharmaceuticals industry? Or computer technology, electrical engineering, farming and fruit picking, and the tourism and visitor sectors? Once exemptions and allowances are made in one area, it is hard to exclude others which may have equally pressing needs.

That inevitably raises questions about why Scotland should need to resort automatically to migrant labour. Much is made of the recent record levels of numbers in work in Scotland – 75.2 per cent of the working age population is in work, up 18,000 on a year ago and close to an all-time high.

But arguably as much attention needs to be paid to our economic inactivity rate – those not in work, not receiving unemployment benefit and not in education or training schemes.

Scotland has some 729,000 or 21. 4 per cent of the working age population “economically inactive”. A breakdown by age reveals that almost 15 per cent of the population aged 25 to 34 are “inactive”, rising to 38 per cent among those aged 16 to 24.

Even allowing for sickness, disability and unpaid caring duties for family members, this is a high figure – and even more remarkable when considering that, according to Skills Development Scotland, some £2 billion of public money is spent each year on skills training. Encouraging more migration should not obscure or lessen the need to encourage more of the home working age population into work.

At the same time, there would need to be regulatory controls in place to avoid Scotland simply becoming a “pass through” or transit destination for skilled migrants who arrive in Scotland but then move south into England. That risk would be heightened if, for example, income tax rates for middle and higher earners settle at higher levels than those in the rest of the UK. This would suggest the need for border controls between England and Scotland. But that’s not what most would wish to see.

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Nor should we opt for a clean break with UK controls and pursue an “open door” policy, should we be blind to the limits of our capacity to cope with an uncontrolled influx. That inevitably brings greater responsibilities on welfare and housing costs.

So far, Scotland can take pride that we have coped well with integration. And we have avoided the political turbulence and policy chaos that is now engulfing continental Europe over the free movement of peoples.

But there are constraints. According to Shelter, over the three-year period 2014-17, one million people in Scotland (each year) were in relative poverty after they had paid their housing costs. Some 16 per cent of people in Scotland were living in relative poverty – around 860,000 people each year. This compares to 15 per cent in the previous three-year period and suggests a slowly rising trend since the all-time low in 2011-14.

So there is a compelling case for visa cap exemptions for skilled labour in Scotland – but common sense suggests caution before going all-out for “open door”.