It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. The opening remarks of Stuart C. McDonald were constructive in tone and content, although I may not have agreed with them all.
Leaving the European Union provides us with a unique opportunity to reshape and maximise the benefits of immigration to the UK, through a sensible, fairer system that nurtures talent at home while attracting the best talent from around the world for the benefit of the UK economy. Although I wholeheartedly welcome the skills-based approach to immigration in the White Paper, it failed to recognise the differing immigration needs of sectors in different parts of the country. One of the many criticisms of the European Union was its blanket approach to regulation; what was right in one part of the European Union was not always right in the other. We should not lose sight of that, or make the same mistakes in the United Kingdom.
As a Scottish Conservative, let me say that I am unashamedly pro-immigration. People from across the world have made East Renfrewshire their home. Immigration is good, necessary and desirable; we want it, and we need it. I also discard the notion that migrants are somehow solely responsible for pressures on our public services and the housing market. The reason why people cannot get a GP appointment in East Renfrewshire has nothing to do with an influx of eastern Europeans, and everything to do with the Scottish National party’s woeful handling of health matters in the Scottish Parliament. Blaming problems in our personal lives and in the nation’s life on migrants is lazy and wrong.
Turning to the White Paper, it is vital to regional and sectoral economies across the United Kingdom that our approach to immigration be flexible, based on evidence, and not one-size-fits-all. Many of Scotland’s key sectors—food and drink, oil and gas, fisheries and agriculture—have real and specific needs. I think that the failure to recognise that was one of the reasons why the White Paper was met with such hostility and negativity from various groups and business and industry leaders across Scotland.
As has already been discussed, under the current proposals, to be granted a work visa a migrant must secure a job paying at least £30,000 a year. I am not sure who that threshold was designed for, but it was certainly not designed for the labour market in Scotland, or, presumably, for any other labour market outside London and the south-east. While it would be great if average earnings were £30,000 a year, that is not where we are as an economy. It is important to remember that salary and skills are not the same thing, as is frequently demonstrated in this place.
Fisheries, agriculture, hospitality and care jobs range from low to medium-skilled. They are industries that depend heavily on migrant workers, and they do not pay anywhere near £30,000. It would, of course, be brilliant if we could see more domestic workers going into such professions in the future, but in the short term, if those industries are to operate as they do now, they will need continued relatively easy access to labour. I welcome the Home Office’s reflection on the £30,000 figure, but I question the legitimacy of an arbitrary threshold, and I am not sure that regional differentiation is the answer. Personally, I should prefer a uniform threshold at a lower level: a threshold of about £18,000 might be sensible.
Similar logic applies to student visas. Under the current proposals, the UK will offer leave to remain under student visas to last for three years. Given that a normal undergraduate degree course in Scotland lasts for four years, that proposal is clearly hopeless and needs to be changed, as I think the Home Office has already recognised.
Overseas students not only choose to invest large sums in higher education across the UK, but spend significant sums while they are here, contributing growth to the economy and also adding to indirect taxation revenue. I do not want to see a student visa system that incentivises overseas students to pick universities elsewhere in the UK while Scotland potentially misses out on those benefits simply because it structures its degrees slightly differently. We should also consider the longer-term benefits of retaining highly skilled students in the UK jobs market, including the benefits to our economy. We need an immigration system that nurtures the best talent to remain in the UK, deploying the skills gained here, rather than encouraging a brain-drain to the detriment of our economy, whether in Scotland or in the rest of the UK. I therefore think that post-study work visa schemes should be a priority.
We on the Scottish Affairs Committee have done a great deal of cross-party work in this regard, considering in particular the issues of changing demographics in Scotland and depopulation issues. Thanks to the Government’s record, we have pretty much full employment, so the idea that gaps can be filled by our growing the “indigenous workforce”—or whatever the term is—is a fantasy. Technology takes time, and only goes so far; we need, and will always need, people to come to our country to work. However, we must also ask ourselves why a smaller percentage of those coming to the UK from the EU come to Scotland than should be the case on the basis of our population.
What we desperately need, both in this Chamber and in the one up the road, is a mature debate on why fewer people than we want and expect come to Scotland, why people leave, and what meaningful action both Governments can take in the years ahead to change that. What we do not need is the attitude of Fergus Ewing, one of the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretaries. When it was pointed out to him that evidence given to the Scottish Affairs Committee about the seasonal agricultural workforce showed that some people in Bucharest had said that they were not very interested in coming to Scotland to pick soft fruits, he said that all that showed was that the UK Government and their agencies could not be trusted to sell a positive story about Scotland. I thought that that was incredibly immature and not remotely helpful, and suggested an unwillingness to engage seriously with the issues that we face.
Demographic challenges are acute throughout the UK. Unsurprisingly, I reject the notion that the answer lies in devolved immigration policy, especially when, as far as I am aware—I am sure that an SNP Member will correct me if I am wrong—it is still the SNP’s position that the devolved immigration policy should be implemented and enforced by the Home Office through border control, presumably so that the SNP can blame UK Government agencies for any problems, as it does in every other context.
My hon. Friend Stephen Kerr mentioned some of the agencies that do not support the devolution of immigration policy. It is important to note that that is not because it is not technically or theoretically possible, but because it is not desirable, and not in the best interests of Scotland. A number of organisations have stated clearly that Scotland’s needs could and should be best met through a UK-wide system.
We need the future immigration system to be nimble and flexible enough to adapt to the changing requirements of our economy. The ridiculous “tens of thousands” target has never been met, and does not fit the requirements of the United Kingdom. No arbitrary targets, please: the right level of immigration for the UK is whatever number is needed at that particular point in time, in the areas where we need it.
We need a flexible immigration system that works for every part of the UK. In Scotland, that means recognising the needs of different sectors of the economy. Farming, fish processing, hospitality and social care all rely heavily on foreign labour, and will continue to do so. Business leaders have rightly voiced concerns about the immigration White Paper, and those concerns should be taken on board and reacted to. Changes must deliver for Scotland.