What is Scotland's attitude to immigration?

  • Published
GlasgowImage source, Getty Images
  • Immigration may not be as hot a topic as it was, but post-Brexit, there are big questions about the numbers of people allowed into the country, and under which rules
  • Scotland has a consensus political approach, though public views on the issue are close to those in England and Wales
  • There is a case being made for Holyrood to have the right to issue its own visas and work permits, to meet Scottish recruitment and demographic needs

Immigration has dropped down the list of voter priorities. They may think as they did about it, but not as strongly. It's not the same priority.

That may be because immigration numbers have dropped since the Brexit referendum. It may be because voters expect Brexit to ensure an end to the free movement of EU citizens in and out of the UK.

Or perhaps the post-Brexit referendum discussion of immigration has raised the public's understanding of the importance of non-British nationals to running public services.

In Scotland, the debate about immigration plays differently. Since the middle of last decade, there has been cross-party consensus at Holyrood that immigration is an important part of the answer to Scotland's demographic challenge. Without new blood, Scotland's workforce will age, and it would become more difficult to support public services for those in retirement.

That consensus began when Labour's Jack McConnell was first minister, and the SNP has enthusiastically made the case for immigration since it took office in 2007. Retaining free movement and recruitment of EU nationals is one of its main reasons for supporting continued EU membership.

Aussie rules

Public opinion does not follow Holyrood's consensus. Scottish attitudes to immigrants' impact on the economy and on British culture were found to be very similar to those in England and Wales, in the most recent social attitudes survey.

While more than 40% of Scots surveyed thought immigration was good for both the economy and for culture, 17% thought it bad for the economy and 20% undermining of culture.

Asked in two YouGov polls in 2017 if there are too many or too few immigrants in Scotland, there were very similar results: 37% saying "too many", 40% saying "about right" and 10% saying immigration is too low.

Immigration policy comes under Westminster control. Since 2010, there has been a drive (unsuccessfully) to cut net immigration numbers, much of it driven by Theresa May as home secretary and then prime minister.

There have been some moves to relax that approach under Boris Johnson, but the precise direction of Conservative is yet to become clear. In a BBC interview with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, it was also unclear whether he wants immigration up or down.

Business and universities are pressing for a post-Brexit migration policy to be sufficiently flexible that they can recruit the workers they need, at specialist level and at other levels of skill.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The NHS is also highly dependent on foreign nationals to fill vacancies, while many British-trained health professionals choose to work overseas

Some sectors are dependent on temporary migrant workers, led by farming. EU nationals form a large part of other sector's permanent workforces, from finance in the City of London to fish processing.

The NHS is also highly dependent on foreign nationals to fill vacancies, while many British-trained health professionals choose to work overseas.

There has been criticism of a Conservative government plan to limit immigration to those coming to jobs paying above £30,000. But the points-based system, drawing on Australian experience and being developed by the Home Office, is one that could win more support, depending on how the points are applied.

Rural challenge

Expert advisers to the Scottish government reckon that the current UK government policy would see immigration fall to between 30% and 50% of recent levels. Population would continue to grow, but more slowly, while the workforce would shrink.

The group pointed to a particular concern if post-Brexit immigration means fewer people from overseas settling in rural areas and islands, which are particularly vulnerable to declining population. Lower average pay in these areas would make it harder to attract incomers who could reach the immigration pay threshold.

It also suggested that would bias immigration in favour of men, and the policy could lead to a wider range of different nationalities, and shorter stays in the country.

The big immigration question for Scotland, while in the UK, is whether it could and should have its own migration powers - being able to grant residency and work rights to foreign nationals, on condition that they work only in Scotland.

A version of that applies in Australia, where state governments can issue work permits. It is argued that it would be harder to make it work in a smaller country, and could let migrants into England by the back door.

But there has been increasing traction for the idea, particularly as businesses have felt frustrated by the Theresa May approach to cutting numbers. It has been suggested also for north-east England and for the City of London.,