For an Angus berry farmer or a Highland hotelier the news of a 23 per cent slow-down in the rate of UK migration growth is an ominous sign.
Thousands of businesses throughout Scotland would face difficulties if robbed of a reliable supply of skilled, motivated and competitively priced migrant labour, much of it from the so-called EU8 countries of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.
The Scottish Chambers of Commerce (SCO) stands squarely with those businesses who seek early assurances from the UK Government that the rights of migrant workers are secured, and that, despite Brexit, the UK and Scotland remain attractive destinations for EU workers.
Scotland’s economy, like its culture, has benefitted from European immigration since medieval times. The rapid rise in recent decades is not perceived as negative as it is in some English regions, where it has been seen as depressing wage growth.
In Scotland, the availability of migrant talent is more notable for advising previously underperforming sectors to grow, to the benefit of all. It is therefore essential that any Brexit deal does not deter talented fellow-Europeans from seeking work here.
Business wants clarity on the residency and employment rights of EU workers and, indeed, foreign workers more generally.
We need clarity on three issues. Firstly, the short to medium term rights of EU citizens currently living and working in Scotland, secondly the detail of what will happen in the transitional period, and thirdly the medium to long term policy for future immigration to the UK.
So far this detail has not been forthcoming, hence the anxiety caused by statistical straws in the wind such as yesterday’s ONS figures, or the recent projection that Scotland’s population growth to 2024 will be only 3.1 per cent on the current trajectory, compared to England’s 7.5 per cent increase over the same period.
The UK Government has much work to do to secure a satisfactory Brexit settlement with regards to immigration.
A good start would be to map the geographic spread of workers across the UK and identify areas of unmet demand and concentrations of supply. The SCO network believes that a more flexible approach should be taken by Westminster to meet the labour needs of parts of the UK. There are certainly lessons that can be learned from other countries with geographically differentiated immigration systems such as Canada and Australia.
The Scottish Government for its part could be doing more to ensure that Scots themselves are appropriately skilled to fill the needs of the economy as it develops, while also working to ensure that we have the kind of booming, business-friendly environment that will attract a higher proportion of EU or other would-be migrants looking at a map of the UK and choosing an end destination.
l Liz Cameron OBE is Chief Executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce.