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Migration and Scotland

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 4:01 pm on 11th February 2020.

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Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General) 4:01 pm, 11th February 2020

My hon. Friend is right, and the sooner that happens the better.

So what do we seek to achieve through today’s debate? I have been in this place long enough to know that even in the rather unlikely event that I make one of the greatest speeches in Parliamentary history, neither the immigration Minister, Kevin Foster nor the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Douglas Ross is going to suddenly perform a 360-degree U-turn and wholeheartedly embrace every aspect of these proposals, much as I would love that to be the case. I am simply asking the Ministers, particularly the immigration Minister, to engage with them seriously. Indeed, I make that request of all Members in all parties.

After the recent publication of the report from the Migration Advisory Committee, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce said:

“Business will want to see the Scottish and UK Government working seriously and closely together on these and future recommendations, ensuring appropriate policies are devised and implemented that work for businesses and our economy”.

In anticipation of the Scottish Government’s report, Scottish Labour’s external affairs spokesperson said

“Scottish Labour supports exploring a degree of flexibility within an overarching UK immigration system”.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Conservatives said:

“We’re willing to look at any proposal which helps Scotland prosper in this new era.”

I say to the Ministers that if they were to speak to their MSP colleagues, I think they would find—privately, at least—a degree of sympathy for the proposals that the Scottish Government are making, so I ask them please to engage with them as well.

In contrast, all we had from the Home Office was an unnamed spokesperson dismissing the proposals before they could possibly have been read, and we have since had a fortnight not so much of serious engagement but of knockabout politics, nonsense and soundbites. To draw a line under this skirmishing and to show that the UK Government do indeed treat with respect the suggestions put forward by the Scottish Government and supported by Scottish business, unions and civic society, will the immigration Minister meet Scottish Government Ministers and officials before he finalises the new immigration White Paper and introduces the new immigration Bill? That was something that his predecessor bar one, Caroline Nokes, did on a regular basis when she attended Cabinet as immigration Minister, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman can take his Department back to that form of constructive engagement. That would be far better than the nonsense and soundbites that we have been served in the fortnight since the Scottish Government’s paper was launched.

I want to address some of those soundbites now. We have been told for the 100th time that the UK Government want an immigration system that works for the whole of the UK. Believe it or not, I am quite happy to support that ambition too, as it is entirely consistent with what the Scottish Government propose. We simply believe that a system that works for the whole UK can—and, indeed, must—reflect the different needs and circumstances of its different parts. The Scottish Government paper expressly proposes further change to the UK-wide immigration system. This would involve changes that could benefit all of the UK as well as practical, tailored policies that provide solutions to Scotland’s needs, drawing on international models. There is a whole chapter in the report dedicated to whole-of-the-UK policy change, if only we could get people to read it. Is the Minister seriously saying that the Canadian migration system does not work for all of Canada because it has different rules for different provinces? In fact, most people there would say that the systems and rules work better for the whole precisely because they are tailored to suit the different parts.

We have also been told for the 100th time that immigration is a reserved matter. We are all absolutely aware that that is the case for now, but it does not have to stay that way, and we certainly would prefer that it did not. Once again, however, nothing in the Scottish Government’s paper is inconsistent with that. I have explained that, ideally, it would be for the Scottish Government to draft the criteria and to consider applications for a Scottish visa. However, it could be the UK Government who define the criteria and rules, receive and assess the applications and issue the visas. The UK Government do, of course, implement a shortage occupation list for Scotland, illustrating that tailored approaches are perfectly possible, even if they are not willing to go as far as formal devolution. Again, this is all in the Scottish Government’s paper, and I encourage people to read it.

We have also been told a few times that the Migration Advisory Committee has rejected the idea of a devolved system, but that is absolutely not a fair representation of what the MAC said. It is true that the Committee decided, on balance and accepting that there were good arguments on both sides, that if the Government want a salary threshold for tier 2 visas, it should be one salary across the UK. That went against the majority of stakeholder submissions, particularly from Scotland. Nevertheless, it is totally wrong to say that the MAC rejected the case for devolving migration powers or introducing tailored rules for Scotland. To quote the MAC report directly:

“We acknowledge the desire of the Scottish Government for immigration to become a devolved rather than a reserved matter, a question on which the MAC takes no position seeing it as a political rather than an economic question.”

The one part of the MAC report that we do call on Ministers to implement is its recommendation that a pilot project should be established to look at retention of migrants in remote and rural areas. That is a recommendation that the former Home Secretary—now the Chancellor of the Exchequer—accepted in a written statement back in July last year. An entire chapter of the Scottish Government paper is about wanting to engage in the pilot process, and the Scottish Government have tasked their own expert group on migration and population to consider how that could best benefit Scotland’s rural communities. Again, our ask is simple: will the immigration Minister meet Scottish Government Ministers and engage with them on how that pilot scheme could work in Scotland?

Another old chestnut is the argument that issuing a small number of Scottish visas would make the UK system too complex. That takes some brass neck, given the state of UK immigration law and the complexity and bureaucracy that successive UK Governments have imposed on those who come into contact with it. When it comes to work visas, it is widely accepted that while the bureaucracy of the tier 2 system might be surmountable for large multinational companies, it is ill suited and incredibly cumbersome for the small and medium-sized enterprises on which the Scottish economy is more reliant. The Scottish Government paper expressly adopts as one of its principles the need for the migration system to be easy to access and understand, and indeed the MAC and the UK Government have accepted the importance of making the process simpler. The visa proposed by the Scottish Government seeks to make things simpler still for employers by avoiding the burden of formal sponsorship and ensuring that salary thresholds do not exclude particular jobs. There is every opportunity for the Scottish visa to make life simpler for employers and applicants, rather than more complex.

Finally, the Prime Minister brought up the ludicrous old argument about a tailored system making a border a necessity. Hon. Members will know that successful tailored so-called regional migration systems exist right across the globe, including, of course, in the Government’s favourite Australian system. Not a single one requires internal borders. I might also quietly point out that the UK is happy enough to share an open land border and a common travel area with a country that has an entirely independent immigration system. Over the past five years, Ireland has issued an annual average of 27,000 visas to non-EEA nationals who of course have no right to live and work across the border in Northern Ireland or in any other part of the UK. Next year, EU migrants going to Ireland will fall into that bracket as well, roughly doubling the number of people who will arrive in Ireland with the right to live and work there, but not in the UK. But no one is saying that we need additional checks on people coming into other parts of the common travel area. That is because thinking of immigration control as simply what happens at the border is to fundamentally misunderstand it.

Most immigration control depends on what happens in country. Successful enforcement includes selecting people who are most likely to comply with their visa restrictions, then on placing appropriate conditions on what people can and cannot do once they have passed through the border, and only then on the enforcement action and sanctions that are applied if people do not comply.

The UK’s main work route for non-EU nationals, soon to be rolled out to EU nationals, operates in precisely the same way. People have a visa that is tied to a particular employer. We do not make them comply by erecting a border around them or their workplace, we simply recruit a person we trust to do the job, place conditions on their visa and rely on enforcement and sanctions in the small number of cases where that is needed.