Coronavirus (COVID-19): letter to UK government about future borders and immigration system

Letter from the Migration Minister to the Home Secretary.

This letter was sent to the UK Government Home Secretary from Migration Minister Ben Macpherson.

Dear Home Secretary,

The current COVID-19 pandemic and consequent economic crisis have unfolded at an extraordinary pace. As part of our collective response, the Scottish Government believes that the size and unique nature of the current shock means that the UK Government must pause and reconsider its plans for a new immigration system.

Furthermore, as we go through and beyond this crisis, I would like to develop a more collaborative approach to migration policy in order to create an immigration system that meets the needs of all parts of the UK. I would welcome a constructive discussion with you in good faith about these issues.

COVID-19: immediate changes to the immigration system

In light of the current crisis, there are some immediate changes required to ensure that everyone in the UK can access vital services. In line with some other European countries, I consider it necessary that all migrants should be granted Leave to Remain (LTR) during this difficult time. At the very least, I urge you to lift No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) restrictions and remove the Habitual Residency Test to ensure the welfare of migrants in the UK during the pandemic, something which the Prime Minister has said is a priority for the UK Government.

In addition, the UK Government’s decision in December 2018 to double the Immigration Health Surcharge was wrongheaded, as are current proposals to increase this charge to £625 per annum which would more than triple the cost in the space of only a year. It is unjust that the Immigration Health Surcharge means that people who settle in the UK effectively pay twice for healthcare services, both through the Immigration Health Surcharge and their own tax and national insurance contributions.

Whilst I recognise and welcome that the charge is being dropped for some health and social care key workers as part of the visa extension scheme, it is unfair that many other key workers will still have to pay this excessive cost to access the health service. Therefore, I urge you to drop the Immigration Health Surcharge for key workers across all sectors, particularly as many households will face financial difficulty as a result of the pandemic.

'Lower-skilled' workers

The COVID-19 crisis has clearly and starkly demonstrated the UK’s reliance on key workers, many of whom came originally from the EEA - essential front-line services and industries, on which we depend now more than ever, would not be sustainable without their support. Previously the UK Government has made assumptions about the value of different roles in our economy and society, unfairly describing many contributions as “lower-skilled”. The current experience has shown that we must value all skills and that the proposed salary selective approach to future immigration policy is inappropriate, and would be ineffective, and indeed damaging, in response to the skill requirements of a post-COVID-19 world. I strongly urge you to reconsider this proposed approach and want to work with you to recognise the vital role played by these key workers. The Scottish Government opposes an arbitrary salary threshold as a measure of whether or not someone should be able to work in the UK. If a threshold must be set then it should be well below the proposed level of £25,600.

The UK Government must also, once and for all, stop describing the contributions of many key workers as “lower-skilled” jobs, as this terminology is inaccurate and demeaning. Going forward the UK Government must show a greater appreciation of all contributions and this should be articulated in an inclusive and respectful way. The current global pandemic has powerfully demonstrated that what the UK Government may have previously described as “lower-skilled” jobs are in fact a whole range of absolutely vital roles, filled by dedicated people with valuable skills.

EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS)

It is the Scottish Government’s position that EU, EEA and Swiss citizens should not have to apply to retain their existing rights, and we continue to urge the UK Government to implement a declaratory system. However, as things stand, we also want to ensure that these people remain in Scotland and that they are informed and supported when applying to the EU Settlement Scheme.

The temporary closure of a number of support services to help people apply to the EU Settlement Scheme means that it is now prudent to extend the deadline for applications to the scheme, so that vulnerable people who require additional support are not doubly penalised as a result of the pandemic. Whether or not an extension to the deadline is granted, I continue to be concerned that EU, EEA and Swiss citizens who are unaware of the need to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme, particularly children and young people, will inadvertently become unlawfully resident in the UK.

Moreover, the Scottish Government maintains that the UK Government should remove the  requirement for EU, EEA and Swiss citizens to live in the UK for five years before being eligible for full Settled Status. Replacing the less secure Pre-Settled Status with full Settled Status would be a decisive action to secure the rights of all EU, EEA and Swiss citizens in the UK and remove the requirement for some individuals to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme twice. It would also be a simple step towards mitigating potential discrimination based on status and would reduce unnecessary bureaucracy for those delivering front-line services, those accessing front-line services and the UK Government.

Individuals granted status under the EU Settlement Scheme should also be given the option of receiving physical proof of their status. This would be in addition to, not instead of, a digital status. Some applicants will not have the skills or resources to access their digital status or to share it with others. I am deeply concerned that the lack of a physical document could hinder access to employment, housing, services or benefits to which people are entitled.

Timings: future border and immigration system

The robustness of the economy and the capacity of firms to engage with plans for a radically changed migration system by January 2021 are highly questionable assumptions at this time. This is why the design and implementation of the new immigration system should be reconsidered to ensure that businesses can be genuinely engaged in the development of the new streamlined system and properly prepared for its introduction. As you will be acutely aware, businesses across the UK expressed serious concerns about the proposed changes to the system at the time of publication, before the additional challenges brought about by COVID-19. There must be a significant risk that there isn’t sufficient time for the UK Government to be able to properly test and implement the system by January 2021. I also do not believe that there is sufficient time for businesses to prepare for what, for many, will be a very different approach to securing the skills they require.

There is an urgent need for a review and simplification of the current visa system if it is to be extended to EEA citizens, and the Scottish Government has welcomed the indication that the UK Government plans such a review. I would strongly urge that the costs of the current visa system form part of such a review – the immigration system should focus on what a prospective migrant can contribute, not on their ability to pay, and therefore fees and charges should be proportionate. I also welcome the fact that you have accepted the Migration Advisory Committee’s (MAC) recommendations that there should be an immediate pause in setting the minimum income threshold for the path to settlement and a full review of the requirements for settlement. 

Shortage Occupation List

It seems likely that as the UK economy emerges from the current downturn there will be long-term structural changes to the economy. This introduces an unprecedented level of uncertainty into any attempt to accurately predict the UK’s future skills needs. Therefore, the current timeline of September 2020 for the MAC’s review of the Shortage Occupational List (SOL) should be moved to a time when it will be realistically possible for the MAC to meaningfully engage with employers about their future skills needs and to produce a robust and flexible future-proofed list. The Committee note that this “is a substantial piece of work, on an important issue that will help shape the UK migration system and economy for years to come”, and so adequate time must be provided for them to undertake this important task diligently and effectively.

I support the continuation of the SOL for Scotland and the development of SOLs for Northern Ireland and Wales. However, in future it will be important to secure intergovernmental agreement on how the Devolved Governments will be able to meaningfully influence the development of their particular list, given the positive impact migration has on devolved areas such as local labour markets and public services. I would also like to discuss the future role of the MAC and how it can better serve the interests of the Devolved Governments, possibly through a shared secretariat amongst UK Government and the Devolved Governments.

Regional approaches and solutions

I would like to explore how we can apply a regional aspect to the migration system, for instance by weighting or awarding additional points to encourage more migrants to work outside of London and the South East. The Scottish Government previously supported the MAC’s recommendation to pilot a scheme to attract and retain migrants in remote rural areas and I would be very happy to work collaboratively with the Home Office on the design and implementation of such a pilot.


As well as the question of future skills needs, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic shock should provide an important opportunity to reconsider the UK Government’s overall aim of reducing levels of inward migration into the UK, which even before the COVID-19 pandemic was projected to have a deeply damaging impact on Scotland.

Without inward migration the UK faces population decline which will disproportionally affect Scotland: it is highly doubtful whether we can afford an increasing dependency ratio at a time when the tax base will likely have been severely eroded. It is abundantly clear that reducing migrant numbers will detrimentally impact on many sectors and industries that are particularly key to Scotland and the other Devolved Governments, including social care, agriculture, food processing, manufacturing, construction and tourism.

Intergovernmental Ministerial engagement

Finally, there has been no Ministerial engagement with the Devolved Governments on immigration policy since July 2019. It is vital that this regular engagement is reinstated at this time and I would be grateful if we could arrange a video conference as soon as possible, together with relevant Ministers from the other Devolved Governments. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the value of meaningful and regular communication between the UK Government and the Devolved Governments.

I have copied this letter to Kevin Foster MP, Parliamentary-Under Secretary of State (Minister for Future Borders and Immigration); Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster; Rt Hon Alister Jack MP, Secretary of State for Scotland; Jeremy Miles AM, Counsel General for Wales; Rt Hon Simon Hart MP, Secretary of State for Wales; Diane Dodds MLA, Minister for the Department of the Economy, Northern Ireland; Rt Hon Brandon Lewis MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland; the Home Affairs Committee and the Scottish Affairs Committee of the UK Parliament and the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee of the Scottish Parliament.

I look forward to receiving your responses to the points raised in this letter and an early discussion on the UK’s future immigration system.

Yours sincerely

Ben Macpherson



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