Explainer: Will post-Brexit immigration curbs affect Scotland?

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Post-Brexit immigration under a Conservative government will affect Scotland - potentially to the detriment of business and services, explains Gina Davidson

Immigration lay at the heart of the EU referendum, with many believing it's what tipped people to vote Leave in their millions, and now it's becoming a major issue for the parties in the general election campaign.

Under Theresa May, the Conservative government put so-called "go home" vans on the streets to tray and tackle illegal immigration.

Under Theresa May, the Conservative government put so-called "go home" vans on the streets to tray and tackle illegal immigration.

The idea that immigration has led to the strains and stresses on services - health, housing, education and others - south of border in particular, is not a new one, and it was played to the maximum by Leave campaigns during the 2016 referendum. Who could forget the image of Nigel Farage standing in front of that poster?

The arguments employed by the Remain camp on how immigrants contribute more to the UK than they receive - indeed the Migration Advisory Committee said immigrants contributed more to the public purse on average than native-born Britons, with European newcomers the most lucrative group among them - and how much the NHS, social care, and other services rely on immigration, appeared to fall on deaf ears.

As a result, with Brexit looming Settled Status was introduced which has made many EU migrants to the UK feel decidedly unwelcome, and there have been warnings of a second Windrush scandal if the Home Office doesn't process applications quickly and efficiently.

So what are the two main parties saying about immigration now - and if Brexit goes ahead how will it affect Scotland which, with a falling birth rate, needs to attract workers to keep public services running?

"Equal" Immigration

After years of claiming they would reduce immigration to the tens of thousands, the Tories are now talking about an "equal" immigration system with no arbitrary target on numbers.

Boris Johnson's plan backs the ending of unlimited immigration from the EU because freedom of movement will stop if and when Brexit happens. Then his government would develop a points-based system where people who want to come and live and work here would be based on the needs of the economy and not where in the world they came from.

READ MORE: Immigration is vital so UK must be ‘truly welcoming’

The Conservatives say that from the start of 2021, when the post-Brexit transition period ends, immigration rules will apply to EU nationals and non-Europeans in the same way, with no preferential treatment for any group. If you're coming to do a job that pays £30,000 and above - then you're in.

Mr Johnson has also said any immigrants will have to pay a surcharge of £625 on arrival in the UK to cover the cost of care, whether or not they use the health service, and it's believed there will be a pledge to prevent immigrants from coming to Britain without a job unless they are highly-skilled scientists or entrepreneurs.

His manifesto is also expected to include a commitment to stop the payment of child benefit to migrants whose children live abroad. Immigrants will also no longer be entitled to state benefits until they have been in the UK for five years.

But there is still a nervousness about cutting numbers of immigrants drastically, and the CBI has warned against placing severe limits on low-skilled immigration which could risk inflicting “massive damage” to livelihoods and communities. "When we hear talk about brightest and best, I think that is a worry," Carolyn Fairbairn, the CBI director has said. "If you do want to build 200,000 houses a year, you don't just need the architects and the designers, you need the carpenters, you need the electricians, you need the labourers."

"Great deal of movement"

Labour, on the other hand, appears to be in a muddle over its plan for future immigration. Its conference voted in September, to "extend freedom of movement" if it wins the election but even at the weekend Jeremy Corbyn wasn't being drawn on whether that will be in his manifesto.

Of course Mr Corbyn has suggested in the past that EU immigration has depressed people's wages in the UK and said he was for ending what he described as the “wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe”.

However at the weekend he said he still expected a "great deal of movement" of people from the EU to the UK, stressing that it was needed for economic growth and public services and that migration from the EU had "enriched" the UK.

READ MORE: 'Immigrants not to blame for our economic woes'

Reports have said there was disagreement at Labour's manifesto approval meeting on Saturday on whether to incorporate Labour's conference policy of extending freedom of movement for workers. But Mr Corbyn said that while freedom of movement would continue if voters back Remain in the new referendum he wants to hold, if voters back Leave again, Labour would introduce its own immigration policy.

The policy would recognise the need for "high levels of labour mobility" but would be underpinned by stricter regulation of the employment market to prevent migrant workers "undercutting" employees here and to stop migrants being exploited.

He also said Labour would make it easier easier for the partners and families or those who had settled in the UK to join them.

The Scottish dimension

Immigration has been much further down the list of Scottish voters priorities than in other parts of the UK and since the Scottish Parliament was established there's been a general political consensus of the need for immigration to tackle Scotland's demographic challenges.

Attracting new blood is vital, say business leaders too, to ensure that public and private sectors have the workforce they need - otherwise there will be few to support Scots as the population gets older - and that the tax base continues to grow to be able to fund the services required.

Advisers to the Scottish government have said that the current UK government policy would see immigration fall to between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of recent levels, which could see the Scottish workforce shrink. Scotland's rural areas and islands, which are already vulnerable to declining population, could be the most badly hit.

The £30,000 floor on salaries is of particular concerns as the median Scottish salary is under £24,000.

Again, Carolyn Fairbairn of the CBI has said: "The trouble with the current immigration plan the government has put forward is it doesn't work for the whole country, and it certainly doesn't work for Scotland. We need the flexibility that allows Scotland to have the people it needs to grow.

"For many people wanting to come and work in Scotland the salaries are well below that, so we are looking for change and we are looking for a new immigration model that works for the whole country."

Of course immigration is a reserved issue, so the prospect of fewer immigrants coming to Scotland post-Brexit has resulted in demands for the policy to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament - for the Scottish Government to be able to grant residency and work rights to foreign nationals, on condition that they work only in Scotland.

It's a move a UK government, especially a Conservative one, is unlikely to grant, given the difficulties in policing where immigrants do settle, and worries it would let migrants into England "by the back door".

Ultimately, post-Brexit immigration under a Conservative government will affect Scotland, potentially to the detriment of business and services. Under a Labour government, the jury is still out.