Derek Mackay hit out at Westminster’s commitment to reduce the overall number of people coming to the UK, complaining that “the right wing, Brexit madness of the hardliners in the Conservative Party sets the immigration policies of this country”.
Figures earlier this year showed net migration to the UK from the European Union has fallen to the lowest level in nearly five years, with an estimated 90,000 more long-term EU migrants arriving in Britain than left in the 12 months to September 2017.
But an SNP-commissioned report on Scotland’s economy highlighted the need for the country to attract more workers as part of efforts to deal with an increasingly elderly population.
The Sustainable Growth Commission said an independent Scotland could have a new visa system, as well as a “Come to Scotland” package of incentives to attract people.
Mr Mackay said the commission had set the target for Scotland “to be the most talent friendly country in the world”.
The Finance Secretary spoke of the “enormous benefits to Scotland’s economy, demography and society that migration offers us”, adding that a new system tailored to the country’s needs could “help realise those benefits”.
SNP backbencher Ivan McKee pressed him on the issue at Holyrood ahead of the “impending economic disaster” of Brexit.
“The damage to be inflicted on the UK and Scottish economies by the imminent chaotic Brexit cliff edge is well understood,” Mr McKee said.
Mr Mackay told him: “I would absolutely agree with that.”
He added: “A scenario where net migration in the UK was reduced to the tens of thousands, an aspiration of the Conservative Government - that would be in line with the UK Government’s target if they achieved that - but Scotland would lose over £10 billion a year in GDP by 2040 if that were the case.”
The Finance Secretary continued: “Clearly the needs of the population of Scotland are different from the rest of the United Kingdom, that is why there is divergence in opinion between the governments’ positions.
“We do need the levers to be able to make the right decisions in that regard, as well as the actions to encourage more people to come.”
Tory deputy leader Jackson Carlaw claimed the SNP government would be “better to set a comprehensive tax regime now to keep skilled Scots here and encourage key workers from across the UK, Europe and the world to come and contribute both to our culture and the economy”.
With the Scottish Government having increased income tax for higher earning Scots, the Conservative said the Sustainable Growth Commission report was “a savage indictment of this government’s high tax policy and involves Scots already suffering to pay even more to attempt to attract those currently appalled and resolutely staying away”.