Scottish Visas

First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:00 pm on 22nd January 2004.

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Photo of Christine May Christine May Labour 12:00 pm, 22nd January 2004

To ask the First Minister what discussions the Scottish Executive has had with the Home Secretary regarding the possibility of a Scottish visa to encourage overseas students to stay in Scotland after graduation. (S2F-555)

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

First, I would like to make it clear that there will be no Scottish visa. However, Scotland's population is falling and we need to attract new people and to nurture and retain our home-grown talent. We are working with the Home Office to encourage people, including overseas students, to settle in Scotland and I hope to make an announcement on that soon.

Photo of Christine May Christine May Labour

I am grateful to the First Minister for his answer and, in particular, for his comments on the need to nurture home-grown talent. Will he join me in welcoming some of that talent, the pupils from Carleton Primary School in my constituency, who are in the gallery?—[ Applause.]

Scotland has a declining population and there are skills shortages in certain technical and professional disciplines. For example, a firm in Glenrothes in my constituency might have to go abroad to recruit advanced software engineers. Will the First Minister assure the chamber that he will raise the matter when he next meets the Home Secretary and when he next discusses the fresh talent programme?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

As I told the chamber two weeks ago, I have had a series of meetings on the situation that we face in Scotland with the Home Secretary, who is extremely supportive. We have a population that, on current projections, will drop below 5 million by 2010; a working-age population that will drop below 3 million by 2027; and a ratio of those who are not in work to those who are in work and paying taxes that will deteriorate between now and 2027 unless we take action to tackle the issue.

I am absolutely determined that we do all that we can not only to retain Scottish talent and Scottish people in Scotland and to encourage Scots to return home, but to encourage people from elsewhere in the United Kingdom to choose a better quality of life and to come and work in Scotland. I am also determined that we ensure that those such as overseas students, thousands of whom graduate from Scottish universities every year and who would like to stay, even for a short time, get a better chance to do so. I hope to make announcements on that to the Parliament soon.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I welcome the proposal to give foreign students extended visas as at least a partial solution to a declining population, but is the First Minister aware that many asylum seekers who live in Scotland also have skills of which we are desperately short and that they would grab with both hands the opportunity to work rather than be dependent on state support? Will the First Minister enter into discussions with the Home Secretary with a view to giving asylum seekers the right to apply for permission to work, as they could do even only a few years ago, so that they can start to make a positive contribution to the communities in which they live?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

As Ms Sturgeon knows, the Home Secretary has a difficult job to do in managing the process of asylum and immigration into the United Kingdom as a whole. I resist commenting on his policies, but I am keen to ensure that the UK Government's asylum and immigration system is designed to benefit Scotland and its economy. That is why we are involved in discussions about some realistic and practical measures that can help us to turn round our population decline. We will continue to concentrate on those measures, but, in the meantime, once asylum seekers have been granted asylum, we will do what we have done successfully in the past three or four years: we will do all that we can to integrate them into Scottish society, including into work and productive activity.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I commend the First Minister for the stance that he has taken on the issue by trying to attract foreign workers and for facing down criticisms of that policy from those whose motives are, I suspect, little short of racist. However, does the First Minister accept that it is really economic opportunity that attracts immigrants and that, unless his Executive takes steps to improve Scotland's economic performance, all other measures are simply window dressing?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Economic opportunities are important and, at the risk of threatening what I hope is an emerging all-party consensus on the importance of the issue, I hope that Mr Fraser might acknowledge that they are better today than they were a few years ago. However, economic opportunities are only part of the picture and many people choose to come and live in Scotland because of the quality of life—the quality of our schools, public services, environment and people. When we sell Scotland abroad and in the United Kingdom as a place in which to live and work, we sell it on economic opportunity and on the quality of life that people can enjoy when they get here. I hope that the package that we are putting together will sell both of those messages equally and with equal success.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

I welcome the First Minister's approach, but when he uses the word "skills", will he be mindful of the shortage of dentists, doctors and other branches of the medical profession that we face in Scotland? Will he ensure that those specialties and skills are on the agenda when he next meets the Home Secretary?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Yes, I will. The matter was first raised with me by the business community more than a year ago in relation to some of the more traditional trades and the sort of skills that Christine May mentioned. However, I am conscious that we have other professional skills shortages in Scotland, particularly in dentistry, which is a topical issue this week. There might be issues on regulation and the qualifications that are required to practise in Scotland, and we will consider those.

Only this week, I was approached by a consul general from one of the central European countries, who told me of a dentist from that country's capital city who was on a walking holiday in Scotland last year, felt that Scotland was probably the best place in the world in which to live and who, when he read on the internet this week about our problem with dentists, offered to come and live and join the profession here. If we can get that kind of response from the odd press release by Mike Rumbles, we will be doing very well.