Rural visa pilot scheme: letter to Minister for Safe and Legal Migration

A letter from Mairi Gougeon MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, to Kevin Foster MP, Minister for Safe and Legal Migration.

Kevin Foster MP

Minister for Safe and Legal Migration

January 2022

As you may be aware, Scotland’s rural areas have been experiencing population decline over a number of years and by 2019, the share of the working age population in our rural areas was 6-7% below the Scottish average. Population decline has a range of negative social and economic impacts on local communities. It restricts the local labour supply, means labour markets in rural areas can be more vulnerable, and affects public service provision as funding is typically population driven.

The Scottish Government presented this challenge to the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) who agreed and said “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 MAC recommended to the UK Government in 2019 to pilot a scheme to attract and retain migrants in rural areas and this was accepted by the then-Home Secretary, Sajid Javid MP.

We recognise that immigration is not the sole way to help support our more fragile communities and the Scottish Government is already taking steps to address rural depopulation, through our population programme, the development of the Islands Bond and our economic transformation strategy. However, we need to deal with a legacy of out-migration and depopulation, much of this pre-dating the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. This legacy and specifically its demographic impact means that we cannot just rely on retention of the existing population but need to attract new people, families and those of working age  working age people who can help to grow and sustain our communities. This is both a retention and an attraction challenge. Those who would seek to suggest that this is purely about retention lack understanding of the specific challenges facing many of our rural communities. 

Migration is a key lever to address depopulation as inward migration is the sole reason for our population growth and is needed to support our ageing population. The salary threshold for the UK’s immigration system and the Shortage Occupation List are not enough to attract working age people to our rural areas, and the Scottish Government has long argued that the current system does not meet Scotland’s migration needs.

It is notable that the Migration Advisory Committee accepted the evidence here of the need for a differentiated approach. When our migration strategy paper, Helping Scotland Prosper was launched in January 2020, the First Minister offered to work collaboratively with the UK Government to develop and trial such a pilot. We are still awaiting for a public response to this, but in the absence of a response the Scottish Government is continuing to explore practical solutions to the challenges experienced by Scotland’s rural communities.

Following the MAC’s recommendation to pursue the development of a pilot scheme on rural migration, our Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population published a report on potential options to be explored when designing such a rural visa pilot scheme in February 2021. The three potential options outlined within the report were:

a) Expanding Skilled Worker route. This would involve relaxing conditions for the Skilled Worker route in the new UK immigration system, specifically for employers in designated areas, potentially through a bespoke Shortage Occupation List for remote and rural areas.

b) Scottish Visa. This would build on the Scottish Government’s proposal for a Scottish Visa as set out in our January 2020 migration paper, but aimed specifically at designated areas. Instead of entrants being identified by employers, it would involve a points-based system, which could prioritise targeted characteristics.

c) Remote and rural partnership scheme. Modelled on the Canadian Atlantic Pilot scheme (Case Study 2 in the second EAG report), this would be an employment-based scheme, but as part of a wider partnership between local authorities, employers, public services and the voluntary sector, who would play a more active role in identifying which types of areas and employers would benefit most from the scheme, and would be engaged in delivering an ‘integration plan’.

As set out in our Programme for Government, we intend to progress with developing these proposals alongside local government and business partners to explore the best option to help support our rural communities. Once this work is completed, I would appreciate the opportunity to meet with you to discuss the outcomes and next steps.

I have copied this letter to the Scottish Government’s Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development.

Mairi Gougeon


T: 0300 244 4000


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