Plan for Scottish visa: First Minister's speech

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's speech at the launch of migration paper.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: 

Good morning.

This is the beginning of a momentous week for Scotland, the UK and indeed Europe as a whole.

On Friday night, Scotland, as part of the UK, will leave the European Union. That act – which is contrary to the will of the majority of voters in Scotland – will be a source of deep regret for many of us. On Wednesday and on Friday, I will be saying more about Brexit and its broader implications for Scotland’s future.

My words today are not about Brexit, but they are about a subject which is relevant to Brexit. I’m going to talk about immigration – an issue which has shaped Scotland’s past, is central to Scotland’s future, and which will be profoundly affected by Brexit.

For much of Scotland’s history, more people have left this country than have come here. That outward migration is the main reason why Scotland is one of only four countries in Europe whose population fell during the final part of the 20th century.

During this century, that story changed. People from across the world have chosen to make their lives here.

Many of those people have come from the EU, and particularly from the countries which joined the EU in 2005. As a result, in the first decade of this century, Scotland enjoyed its highest population growth in more than a century. Our population has continued to increase since then.

That reversal – the fact that Scotland is now a place people come to, rather than leave, is one of the best things to have happened during my time as an MSP.

These new Scots have made Scotland’s population younger – something which is important to the sustainability of public services.

They have also contributed to our culture, our economy, and to the life of communities across the country.

They are our colleagues, neighbours, friends and loved ones.

We should be honoured that they have chosen to make Scotland their home.

In addition, of course, free movement has given people from Scotland the freedom to study, work and live in countries across the continent.

And so one of the tragedies of the EU referendum for me was that free movement – something which has brought massive benefits to Scotland – was so often portrayed as a something harmful, something which needed to be restricted.

As a result, the desire to end free movement became a key reason why Theresa May ruled out a soft Brexit - leaving the EU, but staying in the single market. Instead, ever since the referendum, the UK has been intent on doing one thing which will harm Scotland – weakening our trading ties with the EU – in order to do something else which harms Scotland – ending free movement.

The paper we are publishing today sets out some of the possible impacts of that.

It highlights the fact that – despite the welcome growth in our population in recent years – Scotland still has an ageing population. As a result, the number of deaths in Scotland, is expected to be bigger than the number of births, in every one of the next 25 years.

In addition, in some parts of the country – especially but not solely rural areas – there is still a history of young people leaving their communities – often for cities across the UK and further afield.

As a result, without inward migration in the years ahead, Scotland’s population will fall.

In fact, even if migration from the EU continues, but is reduced by half – something which is entirely possible following Brexit - the working age population will decline in Scotland. That’s not the case in the rest of the UK.

The end of free movement will harm the whole of the UK – but it will be uniquely harmful to Scotland. It is likely to weaken our economy, damage the delivery of our public services and make some communities less sustainable.

That is the reason for today’s paper. A common, UK-wide approach to immigration has not worked in Scotland’s interests for some time now – despite the relative successes of the last two decades. But Brexit will undoubtedly exacerbate what was already a significant problem.

And so at a time when the UK Government is having to rethink its policies, as a result of Brexit, we want to ensure that its approach to immigration takes full account of Scotland’s needs.

The document we are publishing today sets out in detail how we can enable more people to live, work and study in Scotland in the future.

It is designed to work under devolution – although its principles, and the practical measures it requires, could then be adapted for an independent Scotland.

It is a realistic, practical, deliverable set of measures to address one of the most significant long-term issues that Scotland faces.

I believe that its proposals are in tune with a significant and growing consensus in Scotland. There is cross-party agreement in the Scottish Parliament about the benefits of immigration. And there is widespread support - in the parliament and across civic Scotland – for the idea that Scotland’s distinctive needs, require distinctive solutions.

That is recognised by organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses, the Scottish Council for the Development of Industry, the STUC and others.

In fact, this paper has been shaped through discussions with a wide range of organisations across Scotland – several are in the room today – as well as by the deliberations of our Expert Advisory Group. I thank all of you for your contributions.

There are essentially three elements to what we are proposing today.

The first is that– as well as being able to apply through the current UK procedures – people who want to come to Scotland should also be able to apply for a Scottish Visa. Successful applicants would be required to live in Scotland – as defined under the Scottish tax code – as part of the conditions for such a visa.

To administer the Scottish Visa, we propose a split of responsibilities between the UK and Scottish Governments. For example the Scottish Government could define the criteria for the visa; receive and assess applications; and then nominate successful candidates to the UK Government.

The UK Government could then verify the identity of applicants, and make relevant security checks, before issuing the visa.

Other administrative models are also possible, as we make clear. None of our proposals are set in stone. But the paper puts forward detailed plans, which we believe to be workable, and which we believe should form the basis for discussions with the UK Government.

And one point I want to stress – since it’s something which maybe isn’t immediately obvious to people in Scotland and indeed the rest of the UK – is that although what the Scottish Government is proposing here is important, and worthwhile, it is not actually especially difficult or radical.

It is not at all unusual for immigration policy to be a devolved issue. In Canada, provincial governments are able to set criteria for selecting immigrants. The provincial government can then nominate successful candidates to the federal government.

In Australia, too, states and territories can use regional visa programmes. In fact, Australia last year significantly expanded the regional element of its immigration system.

Devolving immigration powers is a tried, tested and effective way of enabling devolved governments to meet the needs of their communities. Given Scotland’s specific needs, it makes sense to try it here. The UK Government should work with us to deliver a Scottish Visa.

The second element of our proposal relates to rural areas. Some rural and island communities in Scotland face population decline.

We are already doing a lot to address this – by promoting economic development, supporting the construction of affordable housing, improving transport links and developing our digital infrastructure.

But even allowing for all of that, it seems likely - given that rural areas have an ageing population – that these policies on their own will not encourage population growth. So inward migration is vital to ensuring the sustainability of communities in some rural and remote areas.

The proposals outlined by the UK Government for immigration policy after Brexit seem unlikely to benefit rural areas.

Allowing immigration only for jobs with a salary of more than £30,000, for example, would rule out many jobs in rural areas.

Even if that proposal is dropped – as seems possible – it remains the case that overly restrictive immigration systems often tend to concentrate immigration within cities.

And so again, alternative solutions need to be found. That’s why the UK Government’s Migration Advisory Committee – based partly on evidence the Scottish Government provided - has recommended a pilot scheme specifically for rural areas. In July, Sajid Javid, the then Home Secretary, accepted that recommendation.

The Scottish Government has asked to be part of these pilots. We have not yet heard anything further from the UK Government. In the meantime, we will commission our Expert Advisory Group on Population and Migration to consider what a pilot approach to migration in rural areas would need to achieve, and how it could be delivered.

Again, none of this should be controversial. The need of rural areas is clear, and has been accepted by the UK government’s own committee. So the UK government should proceed with its pilots. The Scottish Government will do everything we can, to help make them a success.

That ties in with the third theme of this paper. For as long as Scotland remains part of the UK – we will work constructively with the UK Government. And we will try – not simply to implement distinctive Scottish policies – but to influence the UK’s overall approach to immigration.

One example of that is the U.K.’s family migration rules. They are among the most restrictive in the developed world. So the Scottish Government will continue to argue for a more generous approach.

Fundamentally, we don’t want Scotland to be a place where individual workers are here on sufferance – we want to be a country where families can build their future.

A second area relates to fees. The UK Government wants the income it gets from fees and charges to pay for much of its border and immigration system.

It therefore imposes an immigration skills charge of £1,000 per year. In practice, that means employers often have to pay £5,000 upfront to hire a migrant on a 5 year visa.

The UK Government has also doubled its health surcharge from £200 a year to £400, and now proposes to raise it again to £625. Since this charge is also payable upfront, that would potentially leave a family of four - if they are on a 5 year visa - with an immediate charge of more than £12,000.

The result is that working migrants pay for their health care twice over – through their taxes and through the surcharge. In some cases, the people paying the health surcharge are actually working in our health service. The increases to the charge are in my view immoral. And they are also counterproductive – by deterring migrants who would have benefited our economy and our society, they cost us far more than they will ever bring in.

Finally, in a no-deal scenario – which is still worryingly possible, given the timetable the UK Government has imposed on itself - the UK is proposing that EU citizens would be able to apply for a “temporary leave to remain” within the UK for a period of three years.

There are two things about this. The first is that - given how much Scotland has benefited from free movement in recent decades, it is almost heartbreaking to think about future EU migrants having to apply to stay for such a short period of time.

But secondly, even if you agree with a time-limited leave for EU citizens, the UK’s current proposals take no account of Scotland’s needs. Scottish undergraduate degrees typically last for four years – whereas many undergraduate courses in the rest of the UK last for three years.

The UK’s proposal clearly puts Scottish universities at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to attracting undergraduates. It deters future students, and it damages Scotland’s interests. It is a scheme which no Scottish parliament, of any political make up, would ever have considered, let alone endorsed.

And because of that, it illustrates the broader need for change.

The current UK immigration system simply is not designed with Scotland’s interests or needs in mind.

Because of that, it does not work for Scotland.

And with the end of free movement under Brexit, things are likely to get worse. That presents a long-term risk to Scotland’s prosperity, our public services and the sustainability of some of our communities.

The proposals for change set out in today’s paper - a separate Scottish visa, a pilot programme for rural areas, and changes to the UK approach – are realistic and deliverable.

They are not intended as “take them or leave them” demands – we are happy to discuss and negotiate how they can be implemented.

But I am clear that our ideas must be taken seriously, and acted upon.

Fundamentally, the UK Government’s approach to immigration is creating a major long-term problem for Scotland. The UK Government has a duty to work with us to put that right.

The Scottish Government will seek to sustain and strengthen the consensus that already exists in Scotland on this subject, and so we will work with other political parties, and with wider civic Scotland –as well as with the UK Government - in order to achieve change.

By doing so, we can address Scotland’s distinct demographic challenge. We can ensure that we continue to welcome talent from across Europe and around the world. And we can help to secure a more successful future for everyone in this country.

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