Tom Peterkin: Alistair Darling's call for immigration devolution hopeful

As the most prominent veteran of the Better Together campaign, Alistair Darling is well used to arguing passionately for the benefits of Scotland working in concert with the rest of the UK across key policy areas.

Alistair Darling has called for Scottish control over immigration. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

As the most prominent veteran of the Better Together campaign, Alistair Darling is well used to arguing passionately for the benefits of Scotland working in concert with the rest of the UK across key policy areas.

So, when someone with the credentials of the former Labour Chancellor suggests examining the possibility of Holyrood having more control over immigration, it is time to sit up and take notice.

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Like others – notably Scottish Government ministers – Mr Darling is aware of the contribution EU migrants make to the Scottish economy and the demographic challenges posed by a rapidly ageing population.

Giving evidence to the House of Lords’ European Union committee, Mr Darling signalled his approval of Scotland having a distinct immigration policy post-Brexit to take account the importance of attracting fresh talent north of the border.

“Other countries seem to have a go at it. I do think it is something needs to be looked at,” Mr Darling said. With those couple of sentences, Mr Darling added his voice to a growing body of opinion that believes a bespoke Scottish immigration system should at least be considered to mitigate the impact of leaving the single market.

His former Labour Cabinet colleague Douglas Alexander has called for Scotland to be given the power to issue its own work permits to attract skilled workers.

Nicola Sturgeon has advocated control over immigration being devolved to Edinburgh. Her magnum opus “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, published at the end of last year, had Holyrood control over immigration at its heart as she sought to protect Scotland’s relationship with the EU single market and its commitment to freedom of movement.

Since then the Scottish Parliament’s European Committee has published a report calling for a differentiated immigration system upon EU withdrawal. The report cited precedents in countries like Canada and Australia, where there are different immigration policies within a single state, and proposed this should be looked at for Scotland and other parts of the UK. The arguments for a bespoke arrangement were further underlined by the Scottish Government last week with the publication of the latest population statistics.

The Scottish population is expected to go up from 5.4 million currently to 5.69 million in 2041, a rise of five per cent. But, according to the National Records of Scotland (NRS), all the projected population increase over the next decade will be due to net in-migration – 58 per cent from overseas with 42 per cent from the rest of the UK. That striking statistic led to Scottish ministers warning of the “critical importance” of maintaining existing freedom of movement with our EU neighbours.

All this comes against a backdrop of growing concern about the impact of Brexit on industries such as soft-fruit farming, which relies on 15,000 seasonal workers most of whom come from elsewhere in the EU.

Yesterday that particular issue was raised at Prime Minister’s Questions when Kirstene Hair, the Tory MP for the berry-rich constituency of Angus, warned of the “uncertainty” facing the soft-fruit sector. Theresa May said issue would be looked at by the independent Migration Advisory Committee, which reports to Home Secretary Amber Rudd.

Perhaps the furthest the UK Government has gone was when Scottish Secretary David Mundell said Scotland’s “distinct needs” would be met within a UK immigration policy when he appeared before Holyrood’s European Committee.

As far as devolving immigration powers to Holyrood goes, the official UK Government line is that the proposal was considered by the Smith Commission and rejected. Moreover, the Westminster Government believes the practical difficulties of having Scottish-specific arrangements would be extremely challenging to overcome. That was acknowledged by Mr Darling when he remarked that it would be “fraught with difficulty” to have a seperate system while maintaining an open border with England.

Some experts have suggested having a Scottish National Insurance number could give some immigrants the right to work in Scotland but not south of the border.

But, with the UK Government determined to maintain the integrity of the British internal market after Brexit, any proposal that makes it more difficult to work in one part of the UK than another is likely to fall on deaf ears.

Comparisons with systems in Canada and Australia, as advocated by Holyrood’s European committee, are discounted on the basis that arrangements that work for sparsely populated and enormous geographical areas do not necessarily translate to a densely populated, small island.

The Migration Advisory Committee is looking at skills shortages in Scotland, but evidence compiled so far suggests they are not dissimilar with other parts of the UK.

But perhaps the most compelling argument against a separate Scottish system – as far as the UK Government is concerned – is to do with realpolitik.

Given that tackling immigration levels emerged as the touchstone topic of the Brexit campaign for Leave voters, the UK Government has little appetite for compromise on the issue. Whatever the merits of Mr Darling’s argument, any proposal that could lead to concerns about people using a more liberal immigration regime in Scotland to move to elsewhere in the UK will receive short shrift from Mrs May.

The UK Government is likely to counter calls for a Scottish immigration system by arguing that SNP ministers should be using existing powers to make Scotland an attractive destination for immigrants – rather than raising taxes. With Ms Sturgeon set to publish a paper on tax today, the Tories are hopeful that their argument will resonate.