Westminster report: Scotland-specific immigration system ‘not justified’

Scottish Ministers want power over migration, arguing migrants are essential to prevent population decline. Picture: Steve Parsons/PA Wire
Scottish Ministers want power over migration, arguing migrants are essential to prevent population decline. Picture: Steve Parsons/PA Wire
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Demands from the SNP for Scotland to be given control of migration powers are not justified, a major report on European immigration to the UK has found.

A UK-government commissioned report has ruled Scotland’s economic situation did not justify having a migration policy different to the rest of the UK.

The Migration Advisory Committee’s (MAC) study of immigration under EU free movement rules said Scotland’s economy did not need a “very different” migration regime to meet its labour requirements. The report said any changes by devolved administrations would be a “political decision”, not economic.

• READ MORE: 64 per cent of Scots want immigration powers devolved to Holyrood

Scottish ministers say Scotland’s historic trend of population decline, particularly in rural areas, means some control over migration should be passed to Holyrood – a demand the UK government has resisted.

The SNP said the document was “deeply disappointing”.

The MAC report was also drawn into a separate row over its recommendation that citizens from European Economic Area (EEA) countries should lose the preferential treatment they enjoy under free movement rules, despite acknowledging that post-Brexit trade talks with the EU would likely involve discussion of special immigration status.

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Business leaders also expressed disappointment the landmark report, which will have a major influence on the UK government’s migration policy after Brexit, recommended a series of new barriers for EEA migrants, warning it could lead to labour shortages and harm the economy.

The MAC study, considered the most comprehensive, evidence-based look at UK migration policy in recent years, found EU free movement hasn’t had a major impact on employment levels or wages in the UK. It concluded that EEA migration had “neither the large negative effects claimed by some, nor the benefits claimed by others”.

The report also said if “immigration is not to be part of the negotiations with the EU and the UK is deciding its migration system in isolation, we recommend moving to a system in which all immigration is managed with no preferential access to EU citizens”.

Other recommendations include scrapping the cap on Tier 2 skilled work visas and having no specific migration route for low-skilled work, with the possible exception of a seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme.

• READ MORE: Preferential immigration rules for EU citizens should end, report says

Scottish migration minister Ben Macpherson said: “With all of our population increase to come from migration over the next 25 years, migration is absolutely critical to Scotland’s future prosperity.

“However, the MAC report does little to consider Scotland’s needs and instead suggests that increasing the pension age would be a preferential approach to managing demographic change – a completely unsustainable position and one which we and many across Scotland would reject.

“This report will also be deeply disappointing to businesses and employers across Scotland who asked for a simple, low-cost approach to migration, which took into account the requirements of their sectors.”

He said the report’s proposals “completely ignore” sectors such as tourism, agriculture and forestry and “fails to address their major concerns about current and future access to workforce”.

Scottish Conservative constitution spokesman Adam Tomkins said: “The SNP’s call for immigration to be devolved is therefore entirely unnecessary and could actually be detrimental.”

He called on the SNP to abandon calls for a separate immigration policy, saying it could require a “border at Berwick”.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said the immigration debate should be “fought UK-wide” and warned against “cutting ourselves off and looking at this issue in isolation”.

Nick Marston, chairman of British Summer Fruits, reacted angrily to comments in the MAC report stating the UK berry industry was “small, low wage and low productivity in the wider UK context” and should not use a new seasonal workers’ scheme “to avoid the need for higher productivity” through greater use of technology. “Without access to seasonal workers ... our successful berry industry will cease to exist,” Mr Marston said.

The British Chambers of Commerce said the MAC’s recommendations “are unlikely to meet the needs of all employers” and warned “any sudden cut-off of EEA skills and labour would be concerning, if not disastrous, for firms across a wide range of regions and sectors”. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development warned many UK employers would face “significant challenges” in accessing skills and labour.