Will Scotland's population shrink without its own migration system?

The summer of 2016 is likely to be remembered for the Brexit referendum and subsequent rise to power of Theresa May. But another major event passed by unnoticed in June that year until official records were released 12 months later '“ Scotland's population had reached a record high.

Scotlands population reached a record high in June 2016 but there are concerns a cut in migration figures would see the level drop. 
Picture: John Devlin
Scotlands population reached a record high in June 2016 but there are concerns a cut in migration figures would see the level drop. Picture: John Devlin

That increase was driven by migration. Those moving north of the Border exceeded those leaving by 31,700, and included a net rise of 22,900 people from overseas and 8,800 from the rest of the UK.

It is no secret that Scotland - like many other European nations - has an ageing population. The Scottish Government has long been concerned that if migration to the UK is cut post-Brexit, Scotland’s population will drop in the long-term.

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The knock-on effect, it argues, is that fewer working age adults would be left to pay for the pensions and services relied upon by a growing number of retirees.

But do these demographic challenges justify the Scottish Government’s demand for a “tailored” migration system? The answer, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has indicated this week, is no.

On Tuesday it published an interim report which focused on migration from the European Economic Area (EEA). The report’s authors suggested Scotland does not have more need of migrants to stem population decline than Wales or the north-east of England.

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“Office for National Statistics projections suggest that if EU net migration was zero, the population in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would stop growing and even fall in the next 20 years,” it noted. “Though the population of England would continue to grow, some northern regions of England have similar projections to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Demography does not respect administrative and political borders.”

In its submission to the MAC, the Scottish Government pointed out that 70 per cent of Scotland’s land mass is classified as “remote rural”. Areas far from urban centres already face acute demographic issues. The population of the Outer Hebrides is predicted to decline by 13.7 per cent by 2039 – the steepest fall of any Scottish region.

But the MAC noted: “If the policy aim is to maintain population in these areas, one could seek to increase the flows of people to these areas or to address the reasons why people leave.”

The interim report made no policy recommendations, with a final paper due in September.

Meanwhile, a UK government minister this week rejected a call for Scotland to be given a seat on the MAC committee. Caroline Nokes told the Commons: “I do not think there is any greater case to put a Scottish Government official on it than one from the Welsh Assembly or indeed any county council who wanted to come forward pointing out there was a specific shortage in their area.”

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In response to the interim report on the impact of EEA workers, the Scottish Government’s Europe minister Alasdair Allan said: “The findings from this report are clear: lower migration is very likely to lead to lower growth in total employment and lower output growth, and a substantial majority of employers in Scotland remain concerned around future access to the EEA labour market.

“The report also recognises that population growth varies across the UK and acknowledges our argument that Scotland has a greater reliance on international migration for future population growth and to support our rural and island communities.

“The evidence is clear that the UK government’s position on migration does not work for Scotland’s needs.”