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Migration and Scotland

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 6:39 pm on 11th February 2020.

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Photo of Philippa Whitford Philippa Whitford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe) 6:39 pm, 11th February 2020

I declare an interest that many Members will know of: my husband, Hans, is German and has worked as a GP in Scotland for over 30 years, looking after Scottish people when they are ill, as indeed have many migrants from all sorts of places—not just Europe but across the world. I am talking about our colleagues, our friends, our neighbours, and I follow my colleagues in celebrating them.

There has been a failure to recognise the sheer scale of the challenge Scotland faces. Scotland is one third of the UK landmass. It is enormous. I know on the weather map it looks small, but it is not; it is actually huge. The James Hutton Institute points out that half of that is defined as sparsely populated, and those areas could lose a quarter of their population by the mid ‘40s unless action is taken. Because of freedom of movement, Scotland had a growing population for a number of years, but Scottish net migration fell across the EU referendum from 31,500 in 2015 to 21,000 in 2017. That is a fall of a third. That was the impact of Brexit, even though we had not left.

Scotland has faced forced out-migration over centuries, right back to the clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, when people were forcibly put on ships and sent elsewhere in the world. As Andrew Bowie pointed out, we did not just lose the individuals who left; we lost their children and grandchildren; we lost generations of people. As he also mentioned, in 2017-18, there were over 7,500 more deaths than births, with 2018 seeing the second lowest ever number of registered births. Scotland’s natural growth is falling, and all our population growth over the next quarter century is expected to come from immigration. Without it, we face a falling working-age population by the mid-2030s that will struggle to support our ageing population.

The hon. Member highlighted this demographic time bomb, but I did not hear him offer a solution. Some 14 local authorities in Scotland already have a falling population, and that includes my constituency in the south-west of Scotland. In remote and rural areas, it becomes a worsening spiral. We are left with older communities, so young people go on leaving, which means there are fewer children. The population becomes smaller and ages rapidly. These are often stunningly beautiful parts of Scotland to which people from elsewhere in the UK and Scotland retire. Now, they are very welcome, but unfortunately that actually adds to the problem of ageing. We can end up with communities that simply do not have enough young people within them to provide the health and social care, or even just the support that they need.

Mr Harper said that Scotland needed to up its GDP growth—that was the issue—but the Fraser of Allander Institute highlighted that GDP growth rates were directly linked to population growth rates. It is predicted that the UK’s population will grow by over 7% in the coming years but that Scotland’s will only grow by 1%. Indeed, if action is not taken, it may start to fall. The Migration Advisory Committee pointed out that EU citizens contributed £2,300 more in tax than natives, because they come here after someone else has paid for their education and training. Isn’t it a pity that that report was requested in 2017, and not in 2015, before the EU referendum, of which getting immigration down was made a central plank?

Our problem is that we need young people; we need young migrants to come into Scotland. I am talking about people of working age, who are low users of welfare, low users of the NHS and not collectors of pensions. We need to attract them, not with a job they can do for a few years, but to settle. That is what points-based systems are about—giving someone early on in the process the right to settle somewhere, make their life there and have a family there—and that is what Scotland requires.

These people bring to our communities the diversity, energy and vitality that can help us to retain our own young people. At present UK visas are based on earnings, so younger people earn less—even on the minimum wage—which means that they will not qualify for visas. Salaries are often much lower in rural areas, so they cannot attract migrants because of the salary thresholds. That hits key sectors in which Scotland is highly represented, such as tourism, food and drink, agriculture and fishing. I agree that is great to know that the number of seasonal workers will increase from a paltry 2,500 to 10,000, but before the earlier cut, the UK had 64,000. As the Member for West Aberdeenshire admitted, 70,000 might be a more realistic number, but when on earth will we reach that if the 10,000 is only a proposal?

As for fishing, many boats are tied up on the west coast of Scotland because of a lack of crew. That highlights the need for non-EEA visas, particularly for Filipino fishermen who come here. They do not bring families and they are not intending to settle, but they help to provide the training that can attract local young people to the industry. I have written to the Secretary of State in the past, I have written to Immigration Ministers, and the possibility of a seafarers’ visa has been discussed in the House. However, each time that possibility is raised, we are told that there cannot be any sectoral visas. So I can tell those who have said, “Oh, let us have sectoral visas” that this Government have already refused to allow them.

There has been a drop of a quarter in the number of European doctors coming to the UK since the Brexit referendum, a 90% drop in the number of European nurses, and a one-third increase in the number of European nurses leaving. In particular, young medical trainees cannot come here. Those who wish to become—like me—a surgeon are committing themselves to training that will last between 10 and 14 years. They can move when they are untrained and they can move when they are consultants, but they cannot afford to be kicked out in the middle, and they therefore require long-term security. According to the Nursing and Midwifery Council, 80% of UK-trained nurses are over 50, while 72% of EU trained staff are under 40.

The problem is that the Government are judging on the basis of earnings. They are judging on the basis of money rather than worth. They are not judging on the basis of the contribution that people make to the system and the wellbeing of the community. Simon Hoare admitted that we need a range of skills. As a surgeon, I can tell the House that I need an anaesthetist, but I also need an orderly, and I need someone who cleans the theatre. We need everyone, so there is no sense in this narrative of excluding unskilled people, or allowing them to come for no more than a year. Who is going to invest in their training?