Migration: helping Scotland prosper

Paper detailing how a tailored migration policy, within a UK framework, could operate to meet Scotland's distinct needs.

A place-based route for migration to rural areas

Rural Pilot Schemes

Population change in our most remote rural and island communities has received increased attention due to a growing body of evidence around the nature and impact of depopulation in rural Scotland. This was reflected in the first report of the Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population, who highlighted the challenge faced by remote rural and island and sparsely populated areas.

The Rural Economy Action Plan set a goal to increase the number of people living and working in rural Scotland. The proposed National Islands Plan contains a strategic objective for Scottish Ministers to address population decline and ensure a healthy, balanced population profile across Scotland’s islands. Increasing the population of rural areas of Scotland is included as one of four outcomes for the revised National Planning Framework. 

The intention is that this will be achieved through a number of mechanisms and policy levers – including economic development, and skills. The Scottish Government is already taking action coordinated through the Ministerial Task Force on Population to address challenges around housing, transport and digital connectivity. In recognition of the particular challenges for some remote communities around population change the Scottish Government committed in our Programme for Government to develop an action plan to support repopulation of our rural and island communities and work with partners to test approaches using small scale pilots.

However, migration is a key lever to address depopulation of rural Scotland – as the Expert Advisory Group concluded, past out-migration and the ageing of the population that remains means natural change cannot contribute to recovery in these areas. The Scottish Government has emphasised the challenge for remote rural and island communities of ending free movement and restricting immigration, as many of these areas are particularly dependent on migration to sustain communities, and very few roles in rural areas would meet a £30,000 salary threshold for instance.

The Migration Advisory Committee highlighted evidence from the Scottish Government on remote communities in their report of May 2019, and recommended the UK Government pilot a scheme to attract and retain migrants in rural areas. 

They said:

“The Immigration White paper briefly discussed the particular challenges faced by some remote communities, notably de-population, and the possible role for the immigration system in addressing those problems. We have also had responses highlighting these problems from the Scottish Government and some employers in these areas.

“The current migration system is not very effective in dealing with the particular problems remote communities experience. If these problems are to be addressed something more bespoke for these areas is needed. The international evidence suggests that such regional schemes can struggle to retain migrants in the areas they were recruited in once they have the freedom to move, so the key question is whether migrants into these remote areas settle there permanently or leave for other parts of the UK

“The only way to address this question in the UK context would be to pilot a scheme that facilitated migration to these areas, then monitor what happens over several years and evaluate the outcomes. The MAC is willing to provide advice on the design of a pilot scheme for remote communities.”

The previous Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, made a Written Ministerial Statement on 23 July 2019 accepting the recommendation to develop a pilot scheme.[ii]

Although there has been no further indication from the UK Government on how they will approach these pilots, the Scottish Government is ready to work with them to design and develop solutions in a UK migration system tailored to Scotland’s needs.

The Scottish Government therefore intends to commission the Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population to consider what a pilot approach to migration in remote areas would need to achieve in order to benefit Scotland’s rural and island communities, in order to further inform thinking around this interesting proposal. These pilots could form the basis of an additional place-based migration scheme to complement the Scottish Visa proposal.

Learning From International Examples

The Expert Advisory Group has already looked at the experience of immigration policy and demographic change in Australia, Canada and continental Europe. They find that national and local governments have sought to address geographic shortages through encouraging population retention and increased migration. Immigration can provide an effective and efficient mitigation as part of a wider package of measures.

Canada and Australia both have regionally differentiated points-based systems. They have traditionally been human capital schemes, but also build in employer-based considerations. They offer extensive rights and pathways to settlement. As well as regionalised immigration programmes in each country, the Group also analysed Canada’s recent Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program to promote retention in remote areas, which is of particular relevance to Scotland. 

Most European countries have adopted employer-based programmes, and those most relevant to addressing shortages created by demographic change are programmes that encourage longer-term settlement, spanning a range of occupations and skills levels. The Spanish Catalogue of Hard-to-Fill Occupations, and the Swedish 2008 Immigration Law are examples the Group considered. 

Key Findings

Importance of job offer: Especially in remoter regions, a job offer helps to promote labour market integration and encourage settlement.

Rights and retention: Even where entry is conditional on a specific job or place of stay, over time migrants’ rights expand. 

Promoting settlement: Schemes can encourage longer-term settlement through weighting selection criteria to those most likely to stay in the region or through working with employers and community organisations to support settlement.

Regional differentiation: Schemes can seek to address geographic shortages through either direct or indirect differentiation.

Enforcement: The schemes carry different challenges in relation to enforcement related to complexity and the role of employer sponsorship.

Vulnerability: Risks for migrants if scheme not tied to employment, higher in sectors associated with casual and informal work.

Ministerial Task Force On Population

Against the backdrop of Scotland’s ageing population, and population shift both from west to east and from rural to urban areas, the Scottish Government has established a Ministerial Task Force on Population. Chaired by the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, the Task Force seeks to deliver a cross-government approach to improve Scotland’s population profile by helping make Scotland’s communities more attractive places to live, work and bring up families. 

The Task Force will focus on work underway across Scottish Government including talent attraction, rural policy, infrastructure, islands policy, transport and public services to identify any gaps and what areas of work need to be intensified. 

The impact of population change varies across Scotland with rural and island communities particularly vulnerable. Rural areas are home to one-fifth of Scotland’s population as well as approximately a third of Scotland’s small and medium sized enterprises. 

Research by the James Hutton Institute has established that the historical legacy of depopulation means that Scotland’s sparsely populated areas are at risk of losing more than a quarter of their population by the middle of the century if current demographic trends are left unchanged. In addition to focusing on total population the Task Force will therefore also consider the dispersal of population across Scotland and how the economic benefits of future sustainable population growth are realised across all communities.

While there will be a strong focus on maximising the impact of devolved policies on population and demographic change the reality is that with a falling birth rate and an ageing generation of Baby Boomers, any future population growth over the next 25 years will be driven entirely by migration including from the rest of the UK. International evidence clearly demonstrates the extent to which other nations facing similar demographic challenges are using immigration policy to help to address population change.

Case Study: Non-EU crew in Scottish fishing fleet

In addition to the vital contribution made by EU citizens to the success of Scotland’s seafood industries, non-EU citizens are highly skilled, highly sought after workers, who make a vital contribution to the success of the Scottish fishing fleet. 

The Scottish fleet has taken, and continues to take, positive steps to attract new domestic entrants (recognising the ongoing difficulties in doing so due to factors such as the strength and attractiveness of the oil industry). Some access to non-EU labour will, however, continue to be required in the short to medium term as the fleet continues its stated ambition to transition to a largely, or fully, domestic crew. This dependence will, in all likelihood, be exacerbated even further if the UK Government insists on ending freedom of movement from the EU; with the fleet likely replacing current crew from the EU with those from outwith it, given ongoing difficulties in recruiting domestic labour. 

The key concern relating to the current system for employment of non-EU nationals relates to the ongoing use of transit visas. While the use of this route allows the fleet to employ non-EU crew who would otherwise be inaccessible under current immigration law, it is a wholly inappropriate means of crewing the fleet. 

Use of this visa route limits non-EU citizens to working outwith 12 nautical miles, severely restricts their right to enter and remain in the UK, and means that UK employment law does not apply to these workers (including the UK “National Living Wage” and the ability to freely change employer). This places workers in some parts of the fleet at significant risk of maltreatment and exploitation; up to, and including, possible offences under the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015. The payment of low wages to foreign crew also significantly undercuts domestic labour, hampering efforts to attract new domestic entrants. 

From an industry perspective, and in addition to the impact on workers, by arbitrarily restricting non-EU crew to working outwith 12 nautical miles, the use of transit visas also creates an uneven playing field based on the geographic location and operational area of fishing vessels; with the west coast fleet being disproportionately unable to utilise non-EU labour, despite having, in many cases, the greatest need for additional crew. This element is particularly punitive for the west coast fleet where inshore waters (i.e. within 12 nautical miles) are among the best fishing grounds for langoustine. 

In view of the above, the current immigration system demonstrably does not meet the needs of either employers or workers in the Scottish fleet.


Email: Migration@gov.scot

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