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Migration Advisory Committee Report

– in the Scottish Parliament on 18th September 2018.

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Photo of Gordon MacDonald Gordon MacDonald Scottish National Party

1. To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the recent Migration Advisory Committee report and its implications for Scotland. (S5T-01225)

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

As this is my first time speaking as Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development, I draw members’ attention to my voluntary entry in the register of members’ interests. For transparency, I refer the chamber to the fact that my partner is employed by Christian Aid Scotland.

Before I answer Gordon MacDonald’s question directly, it is important for me, as a new minister, to say that 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, they enhance our collective social and cultural wellbeing, and they 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. As a new minister, I want to make that affirmation absolutely clear.

The Migration Advisory Committee report that was published this morning will be deeply disappointing to businesses and employers across Scotland. Employers want a system that recognises the importance of European Economic Area citizens; that is simple and low cost; and which meets their sectors’ needs. As the British Future report showed yesterday, people across Scotland also want a system that gives the Scottish Government more responsibility. Today’s report acknowledges none of that.

The Scottish Government will continue to listen to business. We need to ensure that we will have enough healthcare professionals, teachers and other professionals working in Scotland, that we will have the workers for a thriving rural economy, and that our universities will be able to attract and retain talent from around the world.

The Migration Advisory Committee was not asked to consider those issues, and it did not fully consider the social and cultural benefits that come from being an open and connected European nation. The Government will therefore consider whether to commission further research and independent expert advice, where that is necessary to ensure that Scotland’s needs are taken into account.

Photo of Gordon MacDonald Gordon MacDonald Scottish National Party

Do the recommendations in the MAC report—for example, the idea that Scotland’s demographic issues, including its ageing working-age population, can be solved by raising the retirement age—completely misunderstand much of the Scottish context? Surely there are simpler and more effective ways of tackling a shortfall of workers in our public services, such as attracting more migrants of working age to live here.

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

Absolutely. Gordon MacDonald has raised important points about demographics that the MAC report did not consider appropriately or fully. According to official statistics, all of Scotland’s population increase in the next 25 years is due to come from migration. However, the MAC report did little to consider Scotland’s needs; instead, it suggested—remarkably—that increasing the pension age would be a preferable approach for managing demographic change. That is a completely unsustainable position that many people across Scotland will reject, as we in the Scottish Government do.

Yesterday’s British Future report, which was based on ICM polling, showed that there is clear public support in Scotland for giving more powers to the Scottish Government, which is accountable to this Parliament, to develop a tailored approach to migration that would meet Scotland’s distinct needs and which the Parliament would endorse.

Photo of Gordon MacDonald Gordon MacDonald Scottish National Party

The MAC report acknowledges that the devolution of immigration powers is ultimately a political choice. The Scottish Government’s outward-looking, welcoming and positive approach to immigration could not be further removed from the right-wing rhetoric that emanates from the United Kingdom Government in the Brexit context. The poll in yesterday’s

Herald showed that two thirds of Scots want immigration powers to be devolved. Is it not high time that Westminster listened to that demand?

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

Absolutely. It is important to reiterate that paragraph 7.72 of the MAC report acknowledges that devolution of immigration powers is ultimately a political choice. Gordon MacDonald is right to say that the Scottish Government’s

“outward-looking, welcoming and positive approach to immigration could not be further removed from the right-wing rhetoric that emanates from the United Kingdom Government”.

A year ago, the migration observatory at the University of Oxford published a report that specifically considered a regional migration system. It concluded that the arguments against a regional visa system are not about practicalities, but about politics.

As has been mentioned, the British Future report that was published yesterday provided clear messages. First, it made it abundantly clear that people do not trust the UK Government to manage immigration. It said that only 15 per cent of the people whom ICM surveyed think that the UK Government has

“managed immigration into the UK competently and fairly.”

The report also said:

“The current immigration system does not command public trust and support.”

Secondly, and very importantly to us in this Parliament, people were also clear in the poll by ICM about the sort of change that they want to see. Sixty-four per cent of people in Scotland agreed with the proposal that the Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should have the power to decide how many visas are issued to people who want to work in those parts of the UK.

There is a clear, building and growing consensus that in order to meet Scotland’s economic and demographic needs, we need more powers to come to this Parliament so that we can create tailored solutions. It is time for the UK Government to listen to the calls from business, universities and across civic society, and to listen to the people of Scotland, of whom two thirds believe that more powers should come to this Parliament, so that we can manage our migration system in a more humane and forward-looking manner.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

Does the minister agree that we should end the discrimination against European Union workers that is mentioned in the report?

The report’s authors say that they “are not convinced” that a route should be created for low-skilled workers. The minister will be aware that tier 2 visas currently apply to a list of occupations in which there are shortages, including in cybersecurity, paediatrics and games design.

I agree that Scotland should have a say in an immigration policy that is fit for the whole UK, and I have argued that consistently, but I would like to know what list of occupations the Scottish Government has put forward for tier 2 visas, and precisely what dialogue ministers have had to make the case for Scotland’s interests to be addressed in that list of occupations. Surely there must be a case for low-skilled workers to be on that list.

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

I thank Pauline McNeill for that important question. There is an interesting balance between high-skilled and low-skilled workers. The way that the report prefers some people over others is disappointing, and will be disappointing to industries across Scotland, including tourism and hospitality, agriculture and social care, which rely on low-skilled workers.

We welcome the fact that the report argues for a lifting of the cap for tier 2, but that will not be a substantial enough change to bring to the Scottish economy the number of workers that we need to fulfil the demands that exist in the public and private sectors.

With regard to the occupations list, there is reference to the matter in paragraph 7.73 of the report, in which there is acknowledgement that there is a difference between the shortage occupation list in Scotland and the other devolved areas and that of the UK. As minister, I have pressed the UK Government on that. I met Caroline Nokes, the Minister of State for Immigration, in the summer and pressed her on that point, and she gave me an undertaking that the UK Government would look at how there could be Scottish Government input and, potentially, wider input from Scottish civic society and business to that occupation list in order to make sure that it is fit for purpose.

I am pursuing a follow-up meeting with the secretary of state in order to continue to press the point. I will also meet the chairman of the MAC and will take up the matter with him, in due course.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

I say to the minister that social care workers are not “low-skilled”, in my opinion.

Social attitudes to immigration in Scotland are very similar to those across the rest of the UK. Does the minister agree that putting limits on the number of people migrating to the UK is arbitrary, and that what we need is a fair, humane and non-discriminatory policy that meets the needs of the nations and regions of the UK in an inclusive way?

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

I thank Neil Findlay, too, for that important question. I share much of the sentiment in it.

First, I absolutely value all skills in our economy. The point that I was making is that one of the problems with the MAC report is that it includes a hierarchy that stresses some skills more than others. I deeply value the commitment of social care workers in my constituency and throughout Scotland. That is also the view of other Scottish Government ministers. Our social care sector is highly regarded, and we want the people who work in it to stay and continue to contribute, and to take care of the people whom we know—our neighbours, friends and people in our communities.

Neil Findlay was absolutely right to bring up the wider point about the UK Government’s arbitrary, insensitive, unhelpful, inflexible and unworkable commitment to bringing migration down to the tens of thousands. He was right to point out the wrong-headedness of that approach, both logically and in principle. The fact that the report asks for a lifting of the cap for tier 2 suggests that there should be a shift in thinking on that point across the board. I share the sentiment in Neil Findlay’s question on that point.