Ben Macpherson: Migration vital to Scotland’s bottom line

Ben Macpherson

Inward migration is crucial to Scotland’s growth and prosperity. People who choose to make Scotland their home provide a vital contribution to our country’s economy, enhance our collective social and cultural well-being, and help to make Scotland the open and forward-looking nation that it is today.

Since the Brexit vote, the Scottish government has been consistently clear that we unequivocally value and welcome the positive contribution that migrants make to our country. In particular, we believe that, short of full EU membership that the people of Scotland voted for, the least damaging option for the UK would be to maintain membership of the European Single Market and Customs Union after Brexit – only that would allow us to guarantee and protect all of the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and the rights of British citizens who have used their right of free movement to live and work in other EU Member States.

We are already seeing the negative consequences of Brexit. Fruit is rotting in the fields as there aren’t enough people to pick it. There has been a huge drop in the number of nurses registering from Europe. And just last week the General Teaching Council for Scotland have said that the number of EU teachers applying has plummeted.

The UK government’s recent White Paper, published more than two years after the Brexit referendum and only a few months away from the end of the negotiating period, doesn’t offer a clear solution or forward-thinking plan for the UK’s future migration arrangements with the European Union. It fails to answer the specific needs of our country. While it is welcome that the paper confirms the UK’s commitment to visa-free travel for EU visitors, which would be reassuring for Scotland’s tourism industry, there are still far too many unknowns about future UK immigration policy.

The earlier UK statement of intent on the EU settlement scheme aims to reassure EU citizens who want to enter and stay in the UK during the transition period. However, this delayed announcement didn’t take us much further forward either. The Scottish government doesn’t believe it is right that the UK government plans to make EU citizens pay a fee to continue to live in the UK, when EU citizens in the UK have entered freely with the right to remain and many have built their lives here. And it is totally unacceptable that we still have no meaningful indication from the UK government about what future system the UK plans to put in place if free movement does indeed come to an end after Brexit.

In the meantime, the latest migration figures published by the Office for National Statistics show that net migration to the UK from the EU, at +101,000 in 2017, is almost half of what it was before the EU referendum – and ever more EU citizens are leaving the UK, with an estimated 139,000 leaving in 2017. Against that backdrop, the immigration system for migrants outside of the EU is also creaking at the seams. Monthly caps on skilled workers have been breached each month since December, meaning the salary level needed to get a visa has risen by tens of thousands of pounds. This has forced the new Home Secretary to put in place a temporary exemption for doctors and nurses just to allow the NHS to recruit the staff it desperately needs, demonstrating how wrong-headed and economically damaging the current UK government’s policies are.

We believe it is now time for the Home Secretary to go a step further and remove the net migration target altogether. The UK government’s arbitrary, unworkable commitment to reduce net migration to the UK to the “tens of thousands” has misguidedly driven UK policy decisions on immigration for the last eight years. It’s insensitive, unhelpful, inflexible and the exact opposite of what Scotland needs.

Scotland’s population is ageing. Over the next 25 years, projections from the National Records of Scotland show that the pension age population will increase by 25 per cent, with the number of those aged 75 and over set to increase by almost 80 per cent. While there is an overall ageing population in many countries, the key difference in Scotland is that our working-age population is projected to grow by only one per cent and is even projected to decline if migration is reduced. In order to prevent adverse impacts on Scotland’s economic growth, it is vital that we continue to attract people to live and work in Scotland, with all levels of skills and experience and on both a short-term and a long-term basis.

These figures clearly show how vital migration is to Scotland and also help explain why the negative impact of reduced migration on Scottish GDP is set to be proportionally worse than in the rest of the UK. As things stand, Scotland will lose £5 billion a year by 2040, 4.5 per cent of Scottish GDP, through reduced growth as a result of the known impacts of Brexit leading to lower levels of migration. The rest of the UK will lose out as well, with GDP growth set to be 3.7 per cent lower than it otherwise would have been. That difference is equivalent to an extra impact of £1.2 billion in Scotland. The situation would be even worse if the UK ever managed to meet its net migration target. In that scenario, where net migration to the UK was reduced to “tens of thousands”, Scotland would lose over £10 billion per year in GDP by 2040.

These are only some of the important reasons why we believe that there is an urgent need for a tailored approach to migration for Scotland. The Scottish government discussion paper on migration, published earlier this year, sets out how the UK approach to migration is damaging Scotland and how a different Scotland-specific approach, with new powers for the Scottish Parliament, could significantly benefit all of Scotland. Public sentiment is increasingly recognising the harmful impact that UK policies are having on the lives of hard-working people – people who want to help strengthen our economy, enrich our society and, in many cases, build their lives with their families here.

The long-awaited UK White Paper simply doesn’t provide the much-needed reassurance that so many in Scotland wanted. There is still an opportunity in these final few months of negotiations for the UK to adopt the sensible position of remaining within the Single Market and the Custom Union, to mitigate some of the damage that Brexit will do. The Scottish government will continue to make that case and to argue for much greater engagement from the UK government to protect Scotland’s interests.

Ben Macpherson is the Scottish government’s minister for Europe, migration and international development. This article first appeared in The Herald.