Representatives from the food and drink sector, tourism, social care, small businesses and Scotland’s largest employers all voiced their concerns, with some backing the Scottish
Government’s demand for the power to introduce a separate visa regime in Scotland.
It follows the publication of a policy document setting out the detail of the points-based immigration regime that will come into force from 1 January 2021, with the aim of driving down the number of migrants working in “low-skilled” jobs.
EU citizens will be treated equally to those from outside the EU for the first time since the creation of the single market, with criteria for work permits heavily weighted to those with a “skilled” job offer who earn over £26,500 per year.
All immigrants will be required to have a sufficient level of proficiency in English.
Home Secretary Priti Patel defended the plans from claims they would be ineffective and were driven by “xenophobia”.
But Ms Patel was attacked over the claim that more than 8 million “economically inactive” British citizens residents would be able to enter the workforce and fill skills gaps if net migration falls.
She said it was “about time businesses started to invest in people in this country”.
Office for National Statistics figures show that around two-thirds of that population are made up of students, carers, retired people, and those who cannot work due to short or long-term sickness or disability.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said Ms Patel was “clearly clueless” and claimed the new immigration regime was “potentially devastating for our health and care sector”.
Responding yesterday on Twitter, the First Minister said it was “impossible to overstate how devastating this UK government policy will be for Scotland’s economy.
“Our demographics mean we need to keep attracting people here – this makes it so much harder.
“Getting power over migration in the Scottish Parliament is now a necessity for our future prosperity.”
Ms Sturgeon added: “Tory immigration policy is offensive in principle – it labels vital workers, making a big contribution, as ‘low skilled’ and slams the door in their faces.
“And it is disastrous in practice – it will badly damage our economy. We must get powers to create policy for our needs and values.”
Business leaders in Scotland lined up to criticise the plans, with the chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink describing them as “hugely worrying”.
James Withers said the slowing of immigration post-Brexit was “already hitting hard”.
“This policy fundamentally misunderstands how our economy works and how crucial immigration is in a country whose population will decrease without it,” he said.
“This mustn’t be interpreted as a fear of losing ‘cheap labour’. The average salary in Scottish food and drink is double the living wage. This is about our pipeline workforce.
“There’s many cases of low-skilled workers coming to Scotland and now running big operations. We want more.
“The slowing of immigration post-Brexit is already hitting hard. In 2018, 14 of Scotland’s local authorities suffered depopulation.
“They were mostly rural and island areas, where so much of our farming, food, drink and tourism industries have their foundation.”
His concerns were echoed by Tracy Black, director of CBI Scotland, who said the plans posed “real challenges for businesses in Scotland”.
“Key sectors, in particular our vital hospitality, tourism, agriculture and care industries, will be concerned about how they can recruit people across all levels of skill they need, not only to grow but to fulfil existing commitments,” Ms Black said.
'Threat to Scottish tourism'
Scottish Tourism Alliance chief executive Marc Crothall said the new rules were “the biggest threat to Scotland’s tourism industry”.
“Scotland’s situation is unique; we have very fragile areas in our economy and it is more important than ever that we’re able to attract and retain people, particularly in the Highlands and Islands and other rural areas,” Mr Crothall said.
With the care sector already struggling under pressure from local government funding cuts, the chief executive of Scottish Care, Donald Macaskill, warned that potential workers from inside and outside the EU already believed the UK had “shut up shop” after Brexit.
“The average salary in the sector is £17,000 and the UK government refuses to designate our sector in Scotland as experiencing a skills shortage.
“But I am deeply offended by equating social care as low skilled, when frontline care requires great skill, empathy and compassion.
“The UK government says it should be possible to encourage the long-term unemployed to do these jobs, but we don’t want just anybody looking after our most vulnerable people.”
The chief executive of the National Farmers’ Union Scotland, Scott Walker tweeted: “We need a system that recognises the different regional requirements across the UK. Scotland-specific work permits would do that.”
Andrew McRae, the policy chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in Scotland said: “When you consider that only five per cent of Scottish small businesses have used the current immigration system, it’s no wonder small employers will be concerned at these plans.
“The system is notoriously complex and costly and few small businesses will be able to absorb high administration costs – or have the resources to prepare for new rules in ten months’ time.
For well-known sectoral and demographic reasons, Scotland’s small employers have a greater reliance on EU workers than the UK average. Small businesses need a system that reflects Scotland’s needs without tying them up in red tape.”
Newly-elected Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw gave only qualified support to UK ministers’ plans, saying he would be “working with them to ensure Scotland’s needs are appropriately met going forward”.
“We will continue to have conversations with industry and sectoral groups from across Scotland about their needs from the immigration system, and will continue to represent their views to the Home Office,” he said.