I welcome the opportunity to focus on an issue that affects families and communities across Scotland. Many members in the chamber will have had experience of intervening on behalf of constituents who face the prospect of family separation because of the UK Government’s family immigration rules.
The UK Government’s approach to migration is simply not working for Scotland. We face different challenges in relation to population, demography and rurality. Our population is ageing, our working age population is falling, and so is the proportion of the population that is children and young people. All our population growth is projected to come from inward migration. Last year, 14 of our local authorities experienced depopulation. Scotland needs people to come here, to bring their families and to build their lives here.
There is a practical case for change, but there is also a moral case. This goes to the heart of what type of country we want to be. Are we a welcoming country—a country that prioritises the needs of children and families—or are we a country that forces people to choose between living in their home country or with their loved ones?
It has been a busy few days for immigration. We have had a whole series of changes to immigration rules. There are 102 pages of changes, which tells us something about the complexity of the immigration system. The UK Government has announced proposals for a 3-year European temporary-leave-to-remain visa and it has made a welcome, if long overdue, announcement on the reinstatement of a post-study work visa.
The reinstatement of a post-study work visa is testament to the hard work over many years of elected members, universities, employers and partners across Scotland. Last week’s announcement shows that, when there is a clear evidence base for change and when we work together and with partners, we can make a difference. We can secure change in the system, and we need that change.
Let me be clear: there is an evidence base for a change to family migration policy. Since 2012, the UK Government has steadily eroded the family reunification rights of UK citizens by introducing a minimum income threshold of £18,600, which rises if there are children; extending the period before which migrant family members can apply for settlement; and restricting the rights of adult dependant relatives to join their families in the UK. That has got to a point where it is almost impossible to meet the requirements.
Since the implementation of the new rules, there has been a 41 per cent reduction in the number of visas granted to family members, from the peak in 2007. Those figures represent thousands of families across the UK being forced into separation and told by the UK Government to rely on emails, text messages and video calls to maintain their family life.
In 2015, the migration observatory published data showing that 58 per cent of people in Scotland did not meet the financial thresholds to bring a non-UK spouse and two children into the UK through the family migration route. The policy has a greater negative impact on women, young people and people living outside London. The Children’s Commissioner for England has published research estimating that almost 15,000 children are growing up in so-called Skype families because their parents cannot live together in the UK as a result of family migration rules. The research report states:
“Thousands of children are being forced to grow up without a parent solely as a result of these Rules.”
The UK’s family migration policies are the direct legacy of a hostile environment policy that is underpinned by an irrational and unachievable target to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. Under the policy, British and settled families in the UK have had their rights to be joined by family members severely restricted, which has forced many to choose between staying in the UK and being with their family. The exception to that has been free movement. People have moved across Europe, fallen in love, had children and established their lives, safe in the knowledge that, wherever they chose to put down roots, their free movement rights would allow them to return home with their families. However, the UK Government’s determination to end free movement threatens that security. In a no-deal scenario, once free movement ends, UK families in the rest of Europe will be subject to the full weight of the UK Government’s punitive approach to family migration, should they wish to return to the UK.
Those are the reasons why we are calling on the UK Government to take a different approach to family migration to improve the rights of people in Scotland to bring close family into the country with them. That kind of migration is crucial to Scotland’s future. I have talked about evidence, but there are real people behind each of the statistics—real families and real children. Take the case of Anthony Duffy and Julianna Colaianni, newlyweds from Edinburgh who were told by the Home Office that they did not earn enough to meet the minimum income threshold. They have been forced to live apart for almost their entire marriage, which simply cannot be right.
It is also not right that children who were born in Scotland or who spent their formative years here can be ordered to leave so easily. Denzel Darku spent his formative years in the UK. He was a Queen’s baton relay holder for the Glasgow Commonwealth games and had been studying at the University of Stirling to become a nurse. Despite that, his application to stay was refused and he was told to leave the UK. Following high-profile media and ministerial interventions, he was rightly granted permanent residence.
The Habibimarands, an elderly couple from Edinburgh, have been in the UK on and off for 40 years with their four British children and 11 grandchildren. They acted as co-parents to one of their grandchildren to allow the boy’s mother to continue her work as a national health service nurse. Despite that, they were ordered to leave the UK because they were not considered to be close family members.
Happily, following a campaign by the community, the
Habibimarands were eventually allowed to stay. I welcome the fact that Home Office ministers change their minds on some cases, yet in each of those cases, the families and their communities, often supported by elected members, have had to fight every step of the way to change the decision. While some families have received good news, many other families face being torn apart. What we need is a broader discussion about whether the family migration rules are fit for purpose. That is why the Scottish Government will shortly commission the expert advisory group on migration and population to look more closely at the impact that current family migration rules have on families in Scotland, with particular regard to the impact on areas of devolved responsibility.
I call on colleagues across the chamber: let us speak clearly and seek to make a difference for families and communities across Scotland. We have demonstrated, when we identify that children need to have their family located with them and that rural and remote areas face depopulation, that there is a real evidence base that Scotland needs something different.
Let us also show that Scotland has a heart, and that we are a country that values families and children and does not tear families apart. Let us make the case for change, and for a fair, humane and compassionate approach to family migration that allows families to build their lives in Scotland and make a positive contribution to our society and economy.
That the Parliament notes that the UK Government’s family migration policies are considered to be some of the least family-friendly immigration policies in the developed world, according to research such as the
Migrant Integration Policy Index 2015
; further notes that the current rules are not fit for purpose and are leading to forced family separation in communities across Scotland; believes that Conservative administrations have steadily eroded the family reunification rights of UK citizens and that its proposals to end free movement of people will mean further detrimental impacts on the families of EU and UK citizens; notes that Scotland’s distinct population needs mean that all of its future population growth is projected to come from migration, and calls on the UK Government to end its increasingly restrictive and arbitrary approach to family migration, scrap the minimum income threshold of £18,600, implement a fair and humane approach to family migration and allow families to build their lives in Scotland and make a positive contribution to society and the economy.
Migration policy has always been a controversial topic. For some time, we in the Scottish Conservatives have sought assurances from the UK Government and ministers and have been putting pressure on them to listen to and act on our concerns and demands. Leaving the European Union presents the UK with a unique opportunity to develop and shape a new, fairer immigration system that can work for all parts of the UK. It is an opportunity that should be seized by us all. The UK Government has taken note of our concerns and a raft of migration policies have come out recently. We welcome those.
Th e UK Government has said that if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, freedom of movement will end. We want a deal and we should do all that we can to achieve a deal. Having said that, EU citizens’ rights will be guaranteed, and they will be covered by a temporary leave to remain scheme until the full new immigration system goes live. That will ensure minimum disruption while we put the arrangements in place to chart a new course for immigration.
Time is tight, and I would like to make some progress.
In anticipation of changes to migration policy following Brexit, the UK Government has commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to assess international points-based models. That is in preparation for the UK moving towards a points-based immigration system that will ensure that we continue to attract the best and the brightest from around the world.
A points-based system will mean that we can prioritise what people can contribute to Scotland and the UK, rather than prioritise where they come from. Indeed, it is exactly the same type of immigration system that the Scottish National Party proposed for an independent Scotland in its 2013 white paper on separation.
All too often in recent years, however, politicians have spent significant time and energy blaming Westminster and criticising the UK Government for its immigration policy. We in the Scottish Conservatives have been uncomfortable about that policy; we have challenged it and we continue to do so. Indeed, we should be looking to have a constructive dialogue about how we can deliver a better immigration policy that works for Scotland.
I appreciate the member’s points. It has taken seven long years for the Tories to undo the damage that has been done. In the spirit of what Mr Stewart is saying, particularly in relation to the subject of this debate, which is family migration, will he join me and my colleague Ben Macpherson, as members of other parties have done, to work constructively to present a case on behalf of all of the Scottish Parliament and try to influence the changes that are about to take place to that immigration policy?
If we need to come together, I do not see any obstacles to achieving that. As the cabinet secretary pointed out, if we work together, we can achieve things. We have done that in the past, so I will be happy to have some dialogue.
When it comes to UK migration policy, the Scottish Conservatives have always done that. We have not always immediately agreed with our Westminster colleagues’ approach, but we have made positive and proactive suggestions on what they can do and where we should be going. That approach has paid dividends.
We called for a scheme that would ensure that, after Brexit, our agricultural sector continues to have access to seasonal workers. The UK Government listened and, earlier this year, began a pilot for 2,500 non-EU agricultural workers, which runs until December next year.
As we have discussed in the chamber, we have long campaigned for an enhanced post-study work visa to support the Scottish higher education and research sectors. I pay tribute to Liz Smith and Ruth Davidson for what they achieved in that area. I also pay tribute to the university and research sector, which has put forward a strong case. I am delighted that it has been recognised and that there has been a change in the way that we will go forward with that. Once again, the UK Government has listened and has just announced the re-introduction of a two-year post-study work visa.
That is the type of collaborative working between politicians in Westminster and in Holyrood that people in Scotland expect, and that is what they deserve. It is good when we talk and have that dialogue, because it can achieve more for us.
The same principle applies when it comes to debates about family migration. Under the current system, there are some restrictions on family members who wish to migrate to the UK from countries that are not in the European Economic Area. Partners of British citizens require a visa to come and live in the UK for six months or more. They must be able to demonstrate a certain level of proficiency in the English language and earn a minimum salary—that has already been talked about.
Family migration is a controversial and emotive issue. It is a normal and innate human desire for members of families to want to be close to one another. No one wants to see children forced to live thousands of miles away from their parents or for people to be unable to care for their elderly relatives. The current UK family migration rules admit primarily spouses and children. There are greater restrictions on elderly relatives who want to come here.
We all want to accommodate family migration as best we can. However, we need a family migration system that is fair for people from all countries, while ensuring that family members who migrate to the UK have appropriate opportunities.
As we said, since the decision was made to leave the European Union, we have had a great opportunity to create a fundamentally better immigration system for the whole of the United Kingdom. The Scottish Conservatives welcome the UK Government’s plans to review the immigration system—including family migration—and we hope that all parties can work together constructively across the chamber and with the UK Government to find solutions that work better for individuals and for Scotland.
I move amendment S5M-18885.1, to leave out from “the UK Government’s family migration policies” to end and insert:
“, in June 2019, the Home Secretary asked the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to review salary thresholds and to consider whether more flexibility was required; further notes that, in September, the Prime Minister announced plans for fast-track visas for scientists, two-year post-study visas for international students were also announced, and the Home Secretary asked the MAC for further evidence on flexibility in migration rules; believes that these actions amount to a fresh approach for UK migration policy; further believes this should be sustained into family migration; notes that net migration to Scotland remains positive, and believes that the Scottish Government has many other powers to attract families to Scotland, including tax, economic and education powers.”
I welcome this afternoon’s debate on family migration policy.
As the cabinet secretary said, the announcement on the post-study work visa is welcome, and the cross-party effort in Scotland should be recognised. It is a small step in the right direction, but we need more. Scotland is facing serious demographic challenges and migration will play an important part in addressing our needs in healthcare, education and many industries.
In this debate, there are two issues to consider. First, we must consider how the current immigration system is damaging family migration, the inherent inequalities in its operation and its impact on people who want to make their homes in Scotland and across the UK. Secondly, we must consider what future migration policy will look like after the UK leaves the EU, and how a continuation of the current approach will damage our economy, society and culture.
Scottish Labour will support the Scottish Government motion.
Our 2015 manifesto committed to scrapping the minimum income threshold that was introduced by the Conservative-Liberal coalition in 2012. That sets an annual income threshold of £18,600 for the sponsoring partner, which rises to £22,400 if the partner being sponsored is bringing one child, and rises by a further £2,400 for each additional child. It places a barrier to family unification for those on lower and moderate incomes. It is applied equally to partners of non-EEA citizens who are either British citizens or non-British citizens with indefinite leave to remain. The policy discriminates against working people on lower incomes who are often doing work that is vital to our economy and our social fabric in jobs that are sometimes difficult to recruit to. The sharp increase in income required for the addition of each child further discriminates against families and splits parents and children.
Although the UK Government’s child policy was upheld by the Supreme Court, it was criticised for the lack of safeguards for the welfare of children. The Conservatives’ obsession with reducing immigration, in the face of the evidence of its benefits, led it to treat family migration in the same way as any other migration, and to continue with a policy that puts family reunification beyond the means of too many people. Its approach must be changed if the UK is to uphold values of compassion and fairness.
A 2018 report by Oxfam and the Refugee Council found that three quarters of refugee families in the UK have been separated from relatives who are not eligible for family reunification under existing immigration rules. The UK Government adopts a restrictive approach to families, denying too many refugees—including children—the right to be reunited with their families. UK Government policy continues to break up families, and we need change that approach so that it recognises the right to family life and the need for vulnerable people, who are here legitimately, to have the support of their families.
We have seen a steady erosion of the family reunification rights of UK citizens. We now live in a global economy, and that impacts on the world of relationships, as well as that of industry. A process of checks and balances is needed when relationships require immigration rules, and it needs to be fair, transparent and reasonable. We have a responsibility to UK citizens to appreciate the way in which the world has changed, and to have an immigration system that reasonably supports their decisions.
It is very concerning that leaving the EU under the current proposals will mean that freedom of movement for EU citizens will be replaced by the current family migration policies. Families who currently live in the UK have access to the settled status scheme. In recent weeks, I met with the Perth EU citizens support service and I was at the launch of the Fife EU settlement scheme partnership. Both report a worrying low rate of applications at this stage. The uncertainty that surrounds the UK’s relationship with the EU may be contributing, but we all need to help with efforts to make application as easy as possible and support families to stay together.
I recognise the conciliatory tone of the Tories’ amendment, but they have only recently had to roll back from the declaration that freedom of movement would end abruptly in the case of no deal, and it is clear from the Brexit white paper that the intention is still to replace it with a restrictive immigration system. The white paper’s focus on income and economic needs does not recognise the human factor that is needed in an immigration system that can bring long-lasting benefits to a country.
People need the opportunity not only to work in the UK but to settle here, have a family, contribute to community life, bring diversity and enhance our society. Evidence shows that those who come as family migrants are more likely to settle in the UK long term than those who are here to study or work. Scotland’s demographic challenge shows that we need more migrants who take that decision. We have a history—as does the rest of the UK—of containing settled communities that make significant contributions to our country.
The focus of today’s debate is the need for urgent change to the UK Government’s restrictive family migration policies, which are damaging to families and to our society and economy. We can send a strong message of the need for change not only for Scotland, but, as Labour’s manifesto and policy agenda demonstrates, for the whole of the UK.
I welcome the Government’s motion on this issue. However, it is worded very diplomatically. It says that the UK has the
“least family friendly immigration policies in the developed world.”
That does not fully capture the horror and callousness of the UK Government’s immigration policies. They are not just the “least family friendly”—they are overtly hostile and racist.
Last week, my colleague Ross Greer highlighted a couple of individual cases and gave the example of the Home Office officials who were alleged to have lied to their European counterparts in order to illegally deport child trafficking victims. There are many other such examples.
We are all familiar with the examples from the Windrush generation. Paulette Wilson, a mother and grandmother, was detained by the Home Office and threatened with deportation to a country that she had left as a child 50 years previously. She was minutes away from deportation to Jamaica before she received a reprieve. Richard Stewart, a father, was told that he had overstayed and was denied a passport when he wanted to visit his mother’s grave in Jamaica. He died before receiving an apology or any compensation from the UK Government. Sarah O’Connor, a mother, was denied benefits due to not having a passport and was unable to get a job. She ended up having to declare bankruptcy, and she also died before receiving an apology or compensation.
At least 83 members of the Windrush generation were deported. The Home Office has been unable to contact 42 of them. At least 11 have died since, but the full number might be higher. Countless other people have had their lives turned upside down as they have lost jobs, been denied welfare and become homeless because of the racism of the Home Office. In many cases, people have spent thousands of pounds and have been driven into poverty by challenging Home Office decisions. Compensation has been promised, but it has not been forthcoming.
It is not just the Windrush generation. The Home Office was so keen to detain one Nigerian woman that it even held her baby son in detention with her. More than 600 children under the age of 11 have been detained since the Government claimed, back in 2010, that it was committed to ending child detention.
The Home Office has proved time and again that there is no tactic too underhand for it. It used a child’s medical records—comments that she had provided to a psychiatric nurse when she was suicidal—in an attempt to deport a family to Albania by claiming that they were lying about their asylum application. How many families have been thrown into turmoil because of the racism and incompetence of the Home Office? Those examples are the result of deliberate Government policy.
Some changes have been made following the Windrush revelations, but, for the most part, the policies remain. In fact, the Government continues to make the hostile environment even worse. It has now announced that it intends to end family reunification for child asylum seekers—known as the Dublin regulation—if it succeeds in taking the UK out of the EU without a deal.
We must remember that many of those stories originate from before 2015. It is not only about the current Conservative Government; when the policies were introduced, the Conservatives were aided and abetted by the Liberal Democrats. Prior to that, new Labour oversaw the detention of thousands of children for immigration purposes.
The scale of the problems are too great to solve with a few policy changes at the edges. It is not just that the policies are not working for Scotland. If a hostile environment did work for Scotland, it would still be wrong; it does not work for people. It is clear that racism is embedded in the Home Office. That organisation must be abolished if we are to achieve a migration system that is based on compassion and support.
It is no exaggeration to say that the UK’s family migration policy is one of the least family-friendly immigration policies in the developed world. The 2015 migrant integration policy index stated that the UK had
“One of the most restrictive and expensive paths to settle permanently and become UK citizens”.
As Patrick Harvie said, we should remember that that research was compiled before the Brexit vote occurred. Given the rhetoric that we hear on leaving the EU, I cannot imagine the policies becoming any more open in the foreseeable future.
Just last year, we saw the UK Government’s appalling treatment of the Windrush generation. That is not the type of policy that we should wish to have in Scotland.
Perhaps the UK Government’s approach can be best understood from Theresa May’s 2013 statement. She said:
“we can deport first and hear appeals later ... There are some who seem to think that the right to family life should always take precedence over public interest in immigration control”.—[
, 22 October 2013; Vol 569, c 158.]
I wonder if the Tory members who are here would care to say in their speeches whether they agree with that.
Scotland needs people to come and settle here. Migration has been a major driver for our economy. Scottish people are living longer and having fewer children. That has created a gap in our workforce, which has been supplemented by those who come from overseas and make Scotland their home.
Those who come to Scotland to live and work contribute by growing our economy and contributing taxes for our public services. Scotland relies on migration for population growth more than any other part of the UK. That applies to both EEA and non-EEA people. Therefore, I hope that all members across the chamber tonight will vote for the Scottish Government motion and support the calls to scrap the minimum income threshold of £18,600 and implement a fair and humane approach to family migration.
On EU citizens specifically, we are still in the dark about what rights EU citizens will have post-Brexit. The Home Secretary’s remarks last month showed that the UK Government wants to end freedom of movement as soon as possible. Any restriction on freedom of movement will be severely detrimental to Scotland’s economy. As has been said, Scottish Government analysis shows that, on average, each additional EU citizen working in Scotland adds more than £10,000 to Government revenue and more than £34,000 to gross domestic product annually.
I will take a moment to mention briefly some local examples of how the UK Government’s migration policies are affecting people in real life. Colleagues may remember the situation involving Derek and Volha Merry from Coatbridge that I raised in the chamber last year. Mrs Merry is from Belarus and works as a translator. The family has a daughter who was born in Scotland. Despite that, Mrs Merry received quite a hostile message from the Home Office telling her that she had no right to work or study here and that she had seven days to leave the UK. She was given seven days to leave her husband and young daughter.
I wrote to the Home Office and the Prime Minister. Our Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs did likewise. Ultimately, the Home Office relented, but only after the case received significant media attention. Not everybody will get such attention. If the Merrys had not contacted their local representatives, the UK family migration policy would have split up their family. That is not acceptable. I spoke to Mr Merry a few days ago and, every day, the family still lives with uncertainly over their status. That is not acceptable either.
I will give another example. Just a few weeks ago, some constituents came to me after having received a response from the UK Government about a visitor of theirs who was here on a short-term visa to celebrate a significant christening. They reported that they were sent a standard letter that did not even match up with the information provided and did not ask for any further information. I wrote to UK Visas and Immigration, and I am grateful that diligent and hard-working staff there noted the discrepancy, sought the required information and, ultimately, had the decision reversed.
This is where I disagree a wee bit with Patrick Harvie, but I do not disagree with the main point of his argument. That case demonstrates that the fault lies with the policies and not the staff at the Home Office and other departments. Immigration policies across the board need to be changed and made more flexible in taking into account individual circumstances.
I, again, emphasise what I said during last week’s immigration debate: Scotland and the wider UK owe a great deal to migration.
Historically, this country has been one of openness and tolerance, with a global outlook. That is as true now as it has ever been. In international terms, the UK has a high level of immigration in relation to its population size. That is testament not only to our immigration system but to the popularity of the UK as a destination
People want to come to this country, and we all benefit from that. However, it is also the responsibility of the UK Government to administer a fair, rules-based immigration system that recognises the needs of our communities and takes account of the areas of our economy where immigration can be of most benefit.
As members know, the UK Government is working towards the creation of a new immigration system. That will reflect a new approach after the end of the EU’s free movement rules, when the UK’s immigration policy will be set wholly by the United Kingdom.
Quite rightly, there is a wide process of consultation taking place at the moment. During last week’s debate, I emphasised the importance of passing a withdrawal agreement that will give the country the best opportunity to prepare our future migration policy and will avoid a no-deal Brexit. The same point applies here. Equally, I would hope that this is a process with which the Scottish Government is fully engaged. I do not expect the UK Government and the Scottish Government to agree on every point, but that consultation is an important exercise that will inform the creation of a system that reflects the needs of the whole of the UK.
As Alexander Stewart highlighted, just last week, the Home Office announced the new graduate route, which will make new arrangements for post-study work. That follows several years where the parties in this chamber have been in agreement that post-study work is an area that needs attention and that a new route should be created. After much scrabbling around to find some reason to criticise the announcement, the SNP finally settled on calling it a “screeching Tory U-turn”, ignoring the fact that, for years, the Scottish Conservatives have been advocating for a post-study work scheme to be renewed. In short, the views of the parties, of universities and academic institutions and of business and employers were heard.
We can also point to the issues arising with seasonal agricultural work. My colleague Kirstene Hair, as MP for Angus, represents a constituency that is particularly famed for its soft fruit production. Again, we have seen a positive response from the UK Government to these needs, with progress made on creating a seasonal agricultural workers scheme.
The seasonal agricultural work pilot is tiny compared with the needs of the sector. On a related point, if we focus on the issue of the brightest and best graduates, we ignore the main issue, which is that Scotland needs families. If people come individually for temporary agricultural work, they will not bring their families with them. Will Jamie Halcro Johnston work with us to ensure that we attract families to come and stay in Scotland, so that we can tackle the depopulation that is taking place in 14 of our local authority areas?
As Alexander Stewart said, we will work with the Scottish Government in areas where we agree on action that will be of benefit to Scotland. However, I am trying to highlight the fact that working with the UK Government and engaging in consultation with it has seen results. It would be good if we saw that approach taken more widely across the chamber.
Today, the Scottish Government has raised the minimum income threshold for dependent family members who are seeking to come to the UK. In this case, there is a clear balance between migrants’ perfectly reasonable wish to bring family members and partners to live with them in the UK and Government’s responsibility to wider society. Quite legitimately, those who come to the UK do not always have recourse to public funds. In circumstances such as that, it is clear that a family member must be able to provide adequately for that person. We know that, under the current scheme, there are circumstances where different considerations apply—exceptional circumstances, such as situations where the right to a private and family life under the European convention on human rights is triggered.
There is a legitimate debate about how to apply minimum income requirements for the families of migrants who move here to work. However, we should be aware of the additional hurdles that a differentiated system creates, not only for Government but for migrants themselves, who receive additional restrictions.
I hope that the Scottish Government and my colleagues around the chamber will play a full part in the current process as we move towards a new immigration system that better fits our needs.
We are running out of time, so I will have to cut the final speeches short; I will let those speakers know shortly by how much. At this point, I will have to cut people off at four minutes.
I want to focus my remarks on refugees, who are the most vulnerable group of people who are affected by the rules that we are discussing. Among refugees, the most vulnerable group is that of unaccompanied children. The Amnesty briefing for today’s debate says:
“Children who are in the UK alone and who have refugee status have no right to be reunited with even their closest family members. Because of this rule, children living in safety in the UK live without their family for perpetuity.”
The Home Affairs Select Committee has criticised that rule and has used the word “perverse” to describe the situation in which children who have been granted refugee status in the UK are not then allowed to bring their close family to join them.
I want to put that cruelty into some kind of historical context. It is 80 years since the last Kindertransport brought Jewish children from Nazi Germany to the safety of the UK, in 1939. The rescue programme began after Kristallnacht, in the previous year, when Jewish homes and communities were terrorised by Nazi thugs. Kindertransport transported 10,000 unaccompanied children to safety and has historically been portrayed as a humanitarian gesture, but aspects of the policy were heartless. Parents were not allowed to accompany their children, who were fostered out to complete strangers. Of course, many children never saw their parents again, because, having been unable to follow their children to safety, they died in the extermination camps.
Great Britain and other countries knew that the situation for Jewish people under the Nazis was intolerable but still restricted immigration. After the 1938 Évian conference, the UK, France and the United States left without committing to change their restrictive immigration policies. The approach was relaxed, with Kindertransport, but it was made clear that the policy would apply only to children under 17 and that parents and older children would not be included.
When we look back today at Kindertransport, that rule seems barbaric to us. We might be forgiven for thinking that such things would never happen today and that we would take a more humanitarian approach. However, as we have heard, that is not the case. Today’s rules are not so very different from the rules that applied to the Kindertransport families all those years ago.
Amnesty has pointed out the deep unfairness in our treatment of the children of refugee parents who get asylum status in this country. Under family immigration rules, parents are allowed to bring children with them only if the children are under 18. That seems terribly uncaring as well as unrealistic. A 19-year-old is officially an adult, but as anyone who has grown-up children knows, young people up to the age of 25 or 26 still require a great deal of support.
Indeed, this Parliament has recognised that. We passed the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, which recognised the right of care-experienced young people to have support up to the age of 26. I was proud to be a member of the committee that put that provision in place. Little persuasion was needed, however, because we all know that parents support their children well into adulthood. We help them with accommodation and we support them through relationship break-ups, job losses, exam pressures and all the other challenges that life throws at them. If children from privileged backgrounds need that continuing parental support, how much more do the most vulnerable young people require it, whether they are care experienced, refugees who are fleeing from persecution or migrants who are split up from their families because of the rules?
The rules do not apply only to refugees. It is reckoned that around 15,000 children in the UK are living without a parent because of the migration system—a system that we are now planning to extend to EU citizens.
I agree with the wider points about Scotland’s need for migrants. I wanted to concentrate on the humanitarian aspects of a system that is completely unacceptable.
Immigration and asylum policy is one of the hardest policy areas. Who would want to be the minister who has to make those decisions?
Over the past few years, most of us have witnessed the scenes of children trying to reach Europe and Britain, often fleeing conflict and war in which we ourselves have been involved. The most notable example was Alan Kurdi, the child who was washed up on a beach. The image of poor Alan’s body lying on the beach perhaps changed public opinion and showed people the human reality of how decisions affect children across the world.
According to Oxfam, three quarters of refugee families in the UK have been separated from relatives because they are not eligible for family reunification under existing immigration rules. The children of people who are eligible to remain are sometimes deported because they are not eligible to remain, despite having lived in the country for years. The fact that a child can live here with their family only to be deported when they turn 18 is one of the issues that most breaks my heart. What is the sense in deporting a young person, when their family is here?
I made friends with a Syrian family who arrived here on the resettlement project. Some years ago, they approached me to tell me about their sister who had been left behind because she was not selected to join the family. We see how hard it is for families; they will probably never see their sister again unless they can finally get to the end of the conflict of the Syrian war.
Most notably, it was Lord Alf Dubs, who was himself a refugee, who said that we cannot allow the far right to exploit refugee and migration issues here. We must take time to show the human aspects of family separation and get the public behind a kinder policy. The UK arbitrarily capped the number of lone children to 480, which has been a harmful policy. Children were living in appalling conditions in northern France—I saw that for myself when I visited the Calais jungle—and the Greek islands, with no family to care for them. Alf Dubs said that there should probably be a Europe-wide project, with the UK being part of a wider humanitarian policy; we should certainly do that with our European neighbours.
That hostile background to immigration and asylum seeking leads us to where we are, which is a crazy and unhelpful approach to European citizens who have witnessed that. Now, under the Brexit policy, the lack of confirmation and lack of giving those citizens confidence about letting them live here with their families is nothing short of shocking. Priti Patel, the new Home Secretary, announced that freedom of movement will end on 31 October. All that she is interested in is being able to say that it will end, regardless of whether or not it is sensible in any aspect. Furthermore, there are reports that she wants to toughen the Home Office stance on immigration by using secondary legislation, where again there is not likely to be any scrutiny.
I support whole-heartedly what Fiona Hyslop said today about the need for a policy for Scotland that recognises that we have a decline in our population. Apart from the values that we hold about immigration, there is a necessity for a policy that would allow us to address that. If the devolved Parliament is truly a partner with the United Kingdom, there must be more movement by the UK Government to recognise that Scotland’s economy will be harmed if it does not allow a flexible immigration policy to identify the industry sectors in which we need more workers. There are solutions to the issue, which Claire Baker has spoken about many times in the chamber.
I welcome the debate on the need for this Parliament to highlight why the current UK system of migration is failing communities across Scotland. When we talk about migration, we are talking about people who choose to come to Scotland—like my husband, who is a new Scot, originally from the USA. He, like others, chose to come here to live and work and to contribute to our proud, diverse society.
I will focus my contribution on two main points: first, the need for a different approach to migration in Scotland, and secondly, the lessons to be learned from the current out-of-touch UK system.
Scotland faces different challenges in relation to population, demography and rurality from the rest of the UK. The figure of 2,500 seasonal agricultural workers for the whole of the UK is not enough; Scotland’s share has been allocated as 650, which would not pick the berries in Mairi Gougeon’s constituency.
Population growth has been the main driver of economic growth in Scotland and the UK in recent years, which shows that the best way to boost our economy is through investing in people and attracting people here. Our population is growing older with a rise in the number of people retiring, and our working-age population is reducing. The Scottish Government’s analysis shows that, on average, each additional citizen from the EU working in Scotland adds more than £10,000 to Government revenue and more than £34,000 to gross domestic product each year.
Instead of welcoming people to the country, the UK Government puts barriers and hurdles in the way. I point to the regulations on family reunification, which mean that the families and partners of people who are already here find it harder to come to work and live with them. Information from the migration observatory at the University of Oxford shows that family reunification has decreased by 30 per cent under the current Conservative Government. The system is broken and it must be fixed.
My office has had several constituents come for help with immigration issues. Although members of the UK Parliament should be picking up cases that involve the exercise of reserved powers, local residents have contacted me directly because they have had slow responses—or no response at all—from their constituency Conservative MPs. I will give one local example. The Sbita family—a mum and dad from Tunisia and their four children, three of whom were born in Scotland—have made their home in Scotland for more than seven years. They faced imminent deportation to Tunisia simply because they could not afford to pay the fee of almost £8,000 for processing their family visa application. While a Home Office decision was being appealed, the family were not allowed to work, earn or even seek welfare support. The Sbitas relied on the generosity of a local charity named Massive Outpouring of Love—MOOL—and on the help of their mosque and their neighbours. Thankfully, with help from the First Minister and the Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development, I was able to help to overturn the Home Office decision and the family have since been granted leave to remain. However, for hundreds of other families across the UK, that is not the case.
The UK Government’s current family migration policy is considered to be one of the least family friendly in the developed world. The proposed minimum salary threshold of £18,600 is prohibitive and does not take account of salary levels in many sectors across the country, such as healthcare, catering and hospitality.
In concluding, I again put on record my thanks to the Scottish Government. I join others in supporting the cabinet secretary in all that she does to press for powers on migration and immigration to be devolved to this place.
Mr Harvie has already had his opportunity to speak; I have only three minutes to do so.
In the limited time that I have, I also say in reference to another speech that we heard, that we should, as a country, be proud of every life—British and Scottish—that was laid down during the second world war, to fight for children who were escaping the hell of Nazi Germany. Many of those who fought for freedom were our ancestors, so in the debate we should not minimise the role that they played in that event. The hyperbolic attitude of some members differs from the very genuine comments that I heard at the outset of the debate from the cabinet secretary, who made some very valid points in relation to the motion.
In previous debates, Scottish Conservative members have been very clear about whether—or not—they have agreed with proposals that have come out of Whitehall. In many cases, we have agreed with SNP members and we have had discussions on areas of commonality. The needs of Scotland—
I am sorry, but I really do not have time. I wish that I did, in which case I would take the intervention.
There is commonality among us on immigration, which we should pursue through cross-party discussions. It is a very sensitive issue on which there needs to be dialogue that is a little bit more respectful. Such dialogue should happen not just among members here, but between Governments and between them and the industries that we seek to serve.
There is a myth that, in Scotland, attitudes to immigration are somehow hugely different to those in the rest of the UK. We know that they are not—as poll after poll and survey after survey has shown us. Indeed, I was surprised to read in a recent survey that about half of Scots feel that immigration levels are too high. I do not necessarily agree with that view, but it was an interesting piece of analysis to have come out of that survey. In fact, according to numerous surveys, Scotland is the only part of the UK in which, in some communities, attitudes to immigration seem to have stiffened since 2016.
We should be mindful that, outside the political bubble, there are clearly reservations about the sort of free movement that is advocated by the Government in its motion, and by its members on the front benches, in debates such as this.
We know that we have a deficit of skills and an issue with our working-age population, but despite 40 years of free movement in Europe, our immigration rates fall well below those of the rest of the UK. Immigration policy is not simply about setting rules or entry criteria. We need to have a joined-up and adult discussion about how we nurture talent, retain skills and educate people, so that we have the talents that we need and do not lose people to south of the border or elsewhere.
If the Government is serious about influencing reserved policy on the subject, and if the tone is genuine and respectful, I guarantee that we Conservative members will have a constructive and serious conversation about it. However, I do not think that the motion does justice to the ministers on the front bench. We can all do better than that.
Here in the Scottish Parliament, we recognise the benefits of migration to our nation. People who move to Scotland to work or study find new friends, new homes and a new way of life. They contribute in many ways to our nation, and they make it vibrantly diverse.
Migration is not just about visa applications and bureaucratic process: it is deeply personal, and it shows a pioneering and adventurous approach to life. Migration is made up of many people who love Scotland and want to call it home. It is important that we recognise that personal aspect, when we discuss the topic.
It is in Parliament’s interest to work towards incentivising inward migration. Scotland has unique demographic circumstances. From the 1960s until the turn of the millennium, there was an almost constant drop in population. That was in contrast with the position in the rest of the UK, which saw almost constant growth over the same period, so there are differences that need to be addressed. That demographic polarisation necessitates a tailored solution to encourage migration into Scotland.
Our story now is one of population and economic growth, as positive benefits of migration. However, that is under threat from the impending loss of freedom of movement and from the hostile environment that is now faced by people who want to make Scotland their home. The context of Brexit compounds our need for tailored migration policy. Devolution of some migration powers to our Scottish Government ministers and this Parliament, or collaboration with the UK Government on specific regional visas, would facilitate policy that has the capacity to be responsive to Scotland’s acute needs.
Projections from National Records of Scotland and the Office for National Statistics show that natural change—that is, the number of births minus the number of deaths—is projected to be negative in Scotland for all of the next 25 years.
The topic should not be divisive. Scotland needs an approach to migration that makes it possible for people to live here on normal salaries with their spouses and children by their sides. It is in our collective interest to create a welcoming environment and visa process—one that is notably different from the current system. To do so, we need to recognise the current system’s difficulties. In that way, we can identify how to make it easier for people to live, work and make a home for themselves here in Scotland. I had a lot of really good stuff to say on that, but I cannot say it because I do not have time.
If we have an opportunity to tailor a Scottish visa system, I urge ministers to engage on that issue. By doing so, we can allow families to stay together and to call Scotland their home.
In general, this has been a well-meaning debate. Members seem to agree on the key proposition in the motion, which is that UK policy is failing families of refugees and families who have come here as economic migrants.
If that principle is accepted, there must, I would have thought, be some room for us to work together.
I note that the motion says:
“Scotland’s distinct population needs mean that all of its future population growth is projected to come from migration”.
It is also true to say that the current immigration policies are failing Scotland.
I note that the cabinet secretary talked about the “moral case”, which undoubtedly exists, but she also talked about Scotland being a welcoming place. However, I take Jamie Greene’s point about social attitudes in Scotland. All of us have a responsibility in that respect, and we have work to do to project and talk publicly about the benefits of immigration and the need for economic immigration to Scotland, such that a person could knock on a door anywhere in Scotland and that point would be made to them.
I accept Alex Rowley’s point that some individuals in Scotland might hold views that are not much different to views that are held in other parts of the UK, but does he accept that Government and the main political parties in Scotland have shown a completely different view of immigration from that which those in England have shown?
Yes—but the point that I am trying to make is that we need to make a positive case in order for more people to come to live here. The cabinet secretary made the point that when families come here, it is more likely that they will put down their roots and stay here, so I think that we are in agreement in that regard.
I have no problem agreeing that t he current Westminster Government policy is not serving the needs of the people of Scotland—but, let us be honest: the belief that immigration is a major problem exists partly because politicians have failed to tackle the issue and make the case for it. If we knock on somebody’s door and they tell us that immigration is a problem, we find, when they go through the issues, that in fact their concerns are about lack of housing and queues for the NHS, for example, and not immigration. If we can start to make the case for immigration, we will, I hope, build support across Scotland. People will then come here and have a good experience and see the friendly attitude that we all like to think Scotland has. All I am saying is that we should not be complacent about that.
We need to be open to examining what alternative immigration policies could be introduced and how we can work together, so I hope, based on Alexander Stewart’s positive contribution, that the Tory party is willing to have that discussion. It should not be beyond us to find an immigration policy that is right for Scotland, and it should not create a constitutional crisis. Let us work together with the Government to find a way forward.
It is clear that this has been a spirited debate. I will keep my remarks brief, given the limited time that is available.
When we discuss immigration, we should all remember the people who are at the centre of the debate. That point was rightly acknowledged by the cabinet secretary. It is easy to get caught up in the sheer politics of the issue, but away from some of what has been spoken about in the chamber today, however passionately, it remains the case that we are talking about the fate of real people—their lives, their stories and, most important, their futures.
I state clearly that the Scottish Conservatives believe that immigration is hugely invigorating and positive for Scotland. It is good for our economy, with people coming and using their talents for the country’s benefit. It is good for society, as it makes us more diverse and outward looking. It is also good for our culture, as it allows us to explore new ideas and enhance our own traditions. However, it is also important that immigration is managed and that the rules that are put in place are adhered to and applied fairly and equitably.
Although the Home Office makes mistakes, it is right that we have in place an appeals process that is simple to navigate and can provide redress where appropriate. In my past life as a lawyer, I acted for asylum seekers in the tribunal in Glasgow, and I have seen at first hand the challenges that are presented to those who are victims of the immigration system.
I understand the worry that many people feel when a loved one is caught up in that system and I acknowledge the cases that have been referred to. However, we have to apply the rules equally and, in fairness to everyone, we should not promote a situation in which there is one rule for some and another rule for others.
In my view, it would be wrong to suggest that the UK Government has not reformed our immigration system for the better, with a marked and positive change in approach most recently. Alexander Stewart and others have mentioned some of the points that I am about to make, but they bear repeating.
For example, I strongly welcome the announcement of the reintroduction of the two-year post-study work visa, which will allow international graduates in any subject to be able to stay in the UK for two years to find work. We have long campaigned for that, with Liz Smith and Ruth Davidson advocating some kind of post-study visa system in the past. Universities UK said that it
“will put us back where we belong as a first choice study destination. Not only will a wide range of employers now benefit from access to talented graduates from around the world, these students hold lifelong links with the UK”.
I should also touch briefly on the proposed £30,000 minimum threshold for highly skilled migrants seeking five-year visas. Many of us think that the proposal—and it is only a proposal—deserves reconsideration. I am pleased to note that, in June, the then Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, asked the Migration Advisory Committee to review the salary thresholds and to consider whether more flexibility was required. Pauline McNeill spoke about flexibility, and that is an example of the UK Government considering whether there should be more.
Conservative members do not support the devolution of immigration or a differentiated immigration system for Scotland, given the detrimental impact that that would have on the many business organisations that rely on there being a UK-wide system. We support a pan-UK immigration system that works for Scotland and addresses Scotland’s needs, and leaving the EU presents a unique opportunity to develop a responsive migration system that does just that.
The UK Government has just announced it that will move to a points-based system to attract migrants. It is worth reminding members that the SNP demanded that in its 2013 white paper on independence, which said:
“We plan a controlled points-based system to support the migration of skilled workers for the benefit of Scotland’s economy”.
I look forward to the SNP supporting the UK Government in that regard.
I reiterate my earlier remarks that Parliament has a duty to debate migration in a frank and honest manner. I believe that there is more consensus around the subject than today’s debate might have shown. It is right that the UK Government is now reforming aspects of our immigration system to encourage people with skills to work and live here, and to make it easier for those who study in the UK to remain in the UK and use their talents here.
Without doubt, the mood and tone of the UK Government’s approach are changing and we strongly believe that its actions amount to a fresh approach that should be sustained into issues around family migration. That would allow us all to work together and have a sensible and reasoned discussion about how we can improve family migration policy in a way that works for Scotland.
This debate is important and I thank colleagues for their contributions. The threat of the UK leaving the EU and the resulting end of free movement has thrown into sharp relief the deficiencies in the existing UK domestic migration system that results in the enforced separation of many families across the UK.
It is clear from members across the chamber that everybody agrees that there needs to be change. There is agreement that there needs to be a fair, humane and managed family migration system. We need to change to having such a system; now, more than ever, it is urgent that the system should change positively to meet Scotland’s needs.
The debate has been quite broad—it went beyond family migration, but that is understandable. In Scotland, there is a practical case for changing family migration policy. Figures that were released by the National Records of Scotland on 11 September show that the birth rate in Scotland continues to fall. The number of births registered in the second quarter of 2019 was 5.4 per cent lower than in the same period in 2018 and is the lowest number of quarter 2 births since civil registration began in 1855.
Scotland needs people to come and build their lives here. Evidence shows that the ability to bring family members to Scotland is an important factor when we are encouraging migrants to stay for the long term, and not just for temporary or seasonal work, however vital that is. We need people who can stay here to support our economy, our public services and our communities. We can no longer afford to accept the existing punitive rules when we need families to come here. As Fulton MacGregor reminded us, each migrant contributes £10,000 to the economy.
We know that there are concerns about the UK Government’s changes, but we do not know the status of those changes. If there is to be an opportunity for change in the UK’s immigration system and
“a radical rewriting of our immigration system”—[
, 25 July 2019; Vol 663, c 1460.]
as the Prime Minister has suggested, let this Parliament say clearly that improving the rules on family migration must be part of that rewriting.
The Conservatives have asked us to work with the rest of the UK. We do that—we have consistently engaged with the UK Government on a variety of issues. I even remember speaking to Damian Green, when he was at the Home Office, about some of these issues. However, we need to know what the status of the UK Government’s immigration white paper is. Do the Scottish Conservatives agree with that white paper or is it a dead duck that they expect to be scrapped? Do they agree with us that the white paper, in its current form, should be scrapped?
It is vital that the Scottish Government and this Parliament are fully involved in the development of the UK Government’s proposals. The debates and discussions that we have must be open, frank and inclusive if we are to ensure that any new system truly works for Scotland and in the interests of Scottish families. If we as a Parliament can come together to shape family migration policy, it will be all the stronger if we do so collectively and on a cross-party basis.
The proposal to end freedom of movement means that people who in good faith have built their lives across Europe face having to navigate the barriers of the domestic migration system if they want to bring non-UK family members to Scotland. In countries across the world, there are people who were born and brought up in Scotland who would love to return here to bring back their expertise and experience, but the family migration rules mean that they cannot bring their spouse and their children with them to live in Scotland. That cannot be right.
Jamie Halcro Johnston made the point that it is legitimate that migrants seek to bring family members into the UK. However, in many cases, it is UK citizens, not migrants, who are prevented from bringing in their family members. Alexander Stewart said that leaving the EU will provide an opportunity to review the family migration system. It is the UK Government that has reduced the rights of UK citizens to bring family members into the UK—that policy was adopted entirely separately from the EU. There needs to be a bit of understanding on the part of the Conservatives of the family migration issues that we are trying to address.
There is a practical case for change, as Pauline McNeill said, but there is also a moral case, as many members said. Scotland is a country that wants to welcome people, not to tear families apart. This debate is about the type of country that we want to be and how we treat not just those people who choose to come to Scotland, but those people who were born and brought up here. We must understand that the family migration rules are about removing the rights of UK citizens in pursuit of a meaningless migration target. That is why we will commission work from the expert advisory group on migration and population that will be crucial in informing the debate, and I look forward to sharing the group’s findings in due course.
The cabinet secretary seems to be implying that she would like the freedom of movement principle to apply globally. If that is correct, I very much agree.
Is it not astonishing that although the political right constantly argue about human liberty and the need for small government that does not interfere with people’s lives, the exception to that is immigration, on which they almost fetishise state power and state violence instead of individual liberty and freedom?
There is a moral case for change. We must make sure that we provide political leadership in such debates. I think that Alex Rowley was absolutely right: anybody who seeks political leadership must face down the arguments of the far right, who, in seeking to politicise migration and immigration to the extent that they have done, have caused the fear that many individuals have, which is leading, in some parts of the world, to a tension that is extremely worrying indeed. We can and should do something about the issue here in Scotland.
I call on members across the chamber to join the debate and send a clear message about the needs of Scotland’s communities. Collectively, we need to be successful in persuading UK ministers to change decisions in individual cases. More important, we need to persuade them to change the policy. We can be positive and constructive in how we do that. We may have different ideas on the means by which we get the powers to make those decisions, but let us shape a family migration policy that is fit for the 21st century, is fit for the Scotland that we seek to create, and is fit for the children and the families we serve, whether they come from Scotland or come to Scotland from the rest of the Europe or indeed other parts of the world. Scotland is not full up; we have a welcoming approach to maintain and we want to make sure that the policy is fit for purpose. Let us develop a migration policy for families that is fit for purpose for Scotland.