Rural visa pilot proposal: September 2022

A pilot proposal document, developed by Scottish Government in collaboration with local authorities and business sector organisations, about a targeted migration solution for remote and rural areas of Scotland, to meet the discrete and specific needs of these communities and their local economies.

5. Proposed pilot: Establishing a Scottish Rural Community Immigration Pilot

5.1 Overview

A Scottish Rural Community Immigration Pilot would be a community-driven, employer-based migration route, operating within the UK immigration framework. The approach would spread the benefits of immigration to smaller remote and rural communities in Scotland, enabling migration – based upon genuine employment opportunities – which have the best fit for the economic needs and service delivery of that specific community (either in respect to acute shortage, potential for future growth/regeneration, or for maintaining crucial local services and ongoing viability of communities).

Participating employers within identified geographic areas referred to as the ‘community’ would be able to advertise for vacancies (using SRCIP bespoke entry criteria). Those employers would assess prospective candidates, before recommending chosen candidates to the Home Office for security checks and final decision. Once a decision was approved, the migrant would be sponsored by their employer. Through the course of their pre-arrival and arrival, community partners - including the employer along with local services and third sector partners - would offer a package of integrated settlement support services for newcomers. Participating employers, in collaboration with Scottish Government and UK Government organisations, would have responsibility for ensuring that terms and conditions of the scheme continued to be met. Newcomers would be required to adhere to clear conditions of employment within the community as set out across the duration of the pilot. These conditions would be gradually eased over a period of four years, with a route to permanent residency with no mobility restrictions upon completion.

Though this proposal sets out how the SRCIP would be delivered in designated community areas, it is not within the scope of this proposal to identify which communities they would be. It is anticipated that decisions about the geographic size and boundaries of a participating ‘community’ would need to be taken in a shared forum between the UK Government, Scottish Government, Migration Advisory Committee, and local authorities. However, this proposal makes an initial suggestion that participating ‘community’ areas could be drawn using ‘Travel to Work Area’ (TTWA) geographic units to ensure appropriate size and configuration. It is proposed that between 3 and 5 community areas would be established across remote and rural areas of Scotland for the pilot scheme, and the pilot would run for an initial period of 5 years.

The below sections illustrate how the scheme would be implemented through accountability structures to be established between the UK Government, Scottish Government, local authorities, employers, and settlement partners. They include:

Design and Implementation:

  • Pilot scale and length
  • Conditions of employment, rights, and residency
  • Identification of designated Community Pilot Areas
  • ‘Strategic Skills Plan’ and entry requirements
  • Enrolment of sponsoring employers
  • Employers advertise vacancies and assess candidates
  • Candidates recommended by ‘communities’ to Home Office for final decision
  • Resettlement support provided by community partners
  • Monitoring and enforcement

Pathway Summaries (Stage by Stage):

  • SRCIP migrant pathway
  • SRCIP employer pathway

Evaluation of the scheme:

  • How will be the scheme be evaluated?

5.2 Proposal design and implementation

5.2.1 Pilot scale and length

It is anticipated the scheme should establish between 3 and 5 pilot communities across remote and rural areas of Scotland, trialled over an initial period of 5 years. This will enable comparisons between different areas during an ongoing evaluation of the pilot.

Caps or quotas on migrants entering the scheme would need to be discussed during the design phase. However, it is suggested that an initial cap of 300 migrants per designated Community Pilot Area would be permitted to enter via the scheme across the pilot’s duration. Aspirational year on year targets for numbers of new migrants entering each CPA should be agreed during the establishment of the scheme. In practice, the pace of the scale up of intake should be gradual, would depend upon the needs of the community itself, and would be monitored as part of ongoing evaluation of the deliverability of the pilots. It is anticipated that much of the cap would be filled within the first 2 to 3 years of the pilot.

A minimum of 5 years is recommended as the duration for the SRCIP model to be implemented, monitored and evaluated, with restrictions relating to employment ending after four years. Following the 5 year period, a review could be undertaken to establish whether the pilot should be extended or be formalised into a wider program. Should the scheme be terminated after 5 years, suitable measures would need to be taken in respect to migrants who had not completed a four years of the scheme – and therefore had not yet achieved permanent residency.

5.2.2 Conditions of employment, rights, and residency

Under the SRCIP, participants would be required to adhere to clear conditions of employment at the beginning of the pilot, which would be gradually eased over the first 4 years. These include:

  • First 12 months: requirement to stay in the relevant job based in designated Community Pilot Area (guaranteed by the employer).
  • First 24 months: requirement to be employed by an employer enrolled in the partnership.
  • First 4 years: requirement to be employed within the Community Pilot Area.
  • After 4 years: permanent residency, and no restrictions on mobility within the UK.

While the scheme would impose restrictions relating to employment within the designated Community Pilot Area, there would be no absolute restrictions on residency within the CPA during the 4 years of its operation. To enforce residency requirements within designated area boundaries would not only be challenging to effectively monitor and enforce compliance (with risks of over-intrusion), but also may inadvertently prevent migrants from taking up employment in the area, for example due to a lack of available housing. However, as long-term settlement within local communities is a key purpose of the scheme, it would be critical that the partners - as part of the settlement support - were able to remove artificial barriers, such as rigid residency requirements, and enable migrants as much as possible to reside in the designated community area.

A range of rights would be in place for incoming migrants on the scheme, and the exact composition of this would need to be agreed upon its design. However, in line with the recommendations of the Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population, it is anticipated migrants would have an ability to be accompanied by family members as appropriate. The current immigration system adopts a differential approach on the ability of migrants to bring families with them depending on the visa route. The SRCIP would have at its heart a desire for people to come to rural communities and settle. We know that families, and particularly children, are important anchors in integrating people within a community; it will be therefore be important that newcomers would be able to bring their immediate family with them. This would be on the same basis as those who are able to bring immediate family with them through existing visa routes. We would also anticipate migrants having access to public funds after 12 months.[9]

Whilst all employment requirements for those enrolled on the scheme would lift after four years, it is envisaged the provision of settlement and integration support, including the immersion of families into communities via embedding within the school system, would minimise newcomers’ desire to move once requirements are lifted.

5.2.3 Identification of designated Community Pilot Areas

This proposal does not seek to identify specific communities where a pilot would be implemented. Acknowledging that detailed conversations would need to be undertaken between the UK Government, Scottish Government and local authorities on potential areas, it provides a methodology with which the designated pilot community areas might be selected. The definitions of these areas would be of vital importance as they would be the foundation for where migrants on the scheme would be required both to work and supported to live.

Following analysis from the Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population, this proposal recommends using Travel to Work Area (TTWA) geographical units as the most suitable foundation to inform the geographic boundaries that would make up the designated pilot community areas.[10] TTWAs identify commuter areas where the population would generally take up employment in a larger town or conurbation nearby, as well as acting as more general ‘activity spaces’ within which people are likely to carry out most of their day-to-day activities; attending school, accessing public services and leisure facilities, shopping, etc.[11] A list of Scotland’s TTWAs which contain significant rural or remote geography is included in Annex A. However, this methodology could be applied more broadly across the wider UK, given that TTWAs are not unique to Scotland.[12]

As part of the proposal development process, other sizes of geographical units were considered as part of identifying the most appropriate designated area for a pilot to take place within. Amongst these, consideration was given to local authority boundaries (such as Highland Council), but given the scale of such an area, this was considered too broad geographically. Equally, data zone geographies were not considered suitable either, as due to their small size they would be unlikely to adequately capture where both employment and residential opportunities would likely be located.[13]

Working group membership

Local authorities

  • Argyll & Bute
  • Comhairle nan Eilean Siar
  • Dumfries & Galloway
  • East Ayrshire
  • East Lothian
  • Highland
  • Moray
  • North Ayrshire
  • Orkney
  • Perth & Kinross
  • Scottish Borders
  • Shetland

Other partners

  • Angus Growers
  • Grampian Growers
  • National Farmers Union Scotland
  • Scotland Food & Drink
  • Scottish Islands Federation
  • Scottish Rural Action
  • Seafood Scotland
  • Highlands and Islands enterprise
  • South of Scotland enterprise

While TTWAs would be the foundation to identify suitable pilot areas, communities would need to be consulted prior to implementation of the pilot to review these TTWA boundaries specifically in relation to the community locality, to ensure conditions were practical, compatible with the local area, and that localised skills requirements are able to be practically met.

Therefore, in delivering the proposed pilot scheme, between 3 and 5 TTWAs would need to be selected to become designated pilot areas. At the point of identifying and confirming any said area, there would be a series of tests to confirm the willingness and suitability of candidate TTWA (for example, Lochgilphead (in the above case, Argyll and Bute), supported by its respective local authority ) to deliver the pilot.

The suitability criteria for any given TTWA would be agreed formally by the scheme designers. For example, it would likely include criteria around migration need, remote and rural geography, critical infrastructure employer assurances (e.g. available schools, suitablehousing and transport), (demonstrable vacancies meeting standards, willing employer sponsors, assurances regarding enforcement), and evidence of potential for partnership working across public and third sector organisations for provision of high quality integrated settlement support . Once it has been established that the TTWA meets the suitability criteria and was agreed by the relevant delivery partners, the TTWA would subsequently become a designated Community Pilot Area (CPA).

5.2.4 ‘Strategic Skills Plan’ and entry requirements

In order to meet the specific needs of individual CPAs, it is anticipated that a Strategic Skills Plan would need to use a bespoke series of entry requirements specific to the scheme and the CPA – separate to the nationwide UK ‘one size fits all’ requirements within the current Points Based System of the Skilled Worker Route.[14] Labour markets in sparsely populated areas are particularly vulnerable, as small increases or decreases in labour supply can have large effects on the viability of the local economy.

This Strategic Skills Plan would be designed with the population, economy and service delivery requirements of the local community in mind. It is anticipated the Plan would need to include bespoke relaxations in regard to salary and skill criteria to give the pilot the best possible chance of meeting the needs of the CPA.

Once a CPA is designated, an independent Strategic Skills Plans would be developed for each pilot community in collaboration with the Home Office, Scottish Government, Skills Development Scotland, the local authority, and relevant community stakeholders – including relevant employers, local development trusts, and community planning partnerships.

Crucially, the Strategic Skills Plan would enable local employers within the CPA to advertise vacancies based on local need – these would include shortage occupations as well as other occupations with potential for local impact / growth.

Shortage Occupations: Occupations/sectors which – as agreed between local authorities, relevant skills bodies and labour providers in the pilot area – have a disproportionate number of vacancies and/or are unable to sustain their activities due to staff shortages.

Local Impact Occupations: Defined as occupations within significant growth industries for the CPA – as agreed by the developers of the Strategic Skills Plan, and other critical ‘resilience’ occupations of particular significance for local service delivery.

Criteria would need to be defined so that the Strategic Skills Plan could focus sufficiently upon local need, and occupations would need to be defined using the Occupation Coding Tool, created by the Office for National Statistics (as currently used for the Skilled Worker Route).[15]

Alongside the skills and occupations that are within scope of the Strategic Skills Plan, candidates would also be required to meet additional entry requirements, as agreed by the UK Government and Scottish Government – including language, educational, and community specific requirements, whilst also demonstrating they have enough money to support a move to the community. Any additional community specific requirements would need to be compliant with relevant equalities legislation.

5.2.5 Enrolment of sponsoring employers

As an employer-based route, once a CPA has been agreed and a Strategic Skills Plan is in place, employers located in the pilot area would have the opportunity to apply to enrol onto the scheme.

Any employer enrolled on the scheme would need to meet requirements set by the Scottish Government and Home Office. These would include:

  • aligning with the skills and priorities of the ‘Strategic Skills Plan’
  • complying with all relevant employment legislation and the Scottish Government Fair Work framework[16]
  • demonstrating they are an established employer within the area, and are able to provide at least 12 months full time employment after arrival
  • having been in continuous, active operation under the same management for at least two years in the pilot area
  • agreeing to support the migrant’s settlement into the community
  • passing national security checks

As part of the enrolment on the scheme, employers would be required to undertake training to familiarise themselves with the SRCIP route and their role and responsibilities as sponsors throughout the scheme.

5.2.6 Local employers advertise vacancies online, assess, and recommend candidates

Once enrolled as eligible sponsors on the scheme, local employers based within the community would be able to list job vacancies on community website pages (individual webpages for each community) created for the scheme. These pages would likely be hosted and supported on the website for the upcoming Scottish Government Talent Attraction and Migration Service and UK Government immigration webpages.[17]

Migrants would then be able to search for and apply to vacancies within a CPA. As part of its role in supporting the delivery of the pilots, the Scottish Government would provide direct support to local authorities in creating and maintaining these online vacancy boards.

Sponsoring employers would then be responsible for assessing applications from potential international migrants, carrying out (virtual) interviews, and making a decision on the best fit for the role. Once a preferred candidate is identified, the sponsoring employer would need to submit a ‘community recommendation’ (in partnership with the local authority and Scottish Government) on behalf of the incoming individual to the Home Office for approval.

As in the Canadian Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot, different communities may wish to add different ‘community criteria’ in the application process to ensure local relevancy and requirements are met as part of the recruitment process, before candidates are recommended to the Home Office. These assessment criteria may be designed to identify candidates who best fit the community’s needs and prioritise those who intend to reside in the community.

5.2.7 Candidates recommended by ‘communities’ to Home Office for final decision

After the application is approved, applicants would then be given a ‘recommendation’ or agreement in principle of employment from the sponsoring employer and CPA to support their visa application to the Home Office. This would be done through a discrete route set up through UK Visas and Immigration. The process would still require migrants to complete all necessary background information, biometrics, and security vetting checks as part of entering the UK.

Once a candidate’s visa application to the Home Office is approved, they would be issued their Scottish Rural Community Immigration Visa, granting them the right to live in the UK and work in the designated CPA.

5.2.8 Settlement support provided by community partners

Once the visa application is approved by the Home Office, the community – with support from the Scottish Government – would lead efforts to provide pre and post-arrival settlement support to newcomers arriving on the scheme. In the first instance, this support could take the form of a detailed information pack provided to applicants before their arrival in the pilot area, or bespoke support provided by the Scottish Government’s forthcoming Talent Attraction and Migration Service.

One of the key features of the settlement support will be to advise migrants about suitable local accommodation options, either through the employer or by signposting to other accommodation providers. It is anticipated that employers, as well as local statutory partners within the pilot area, will themselves provide direct assistance to incoming migrants around finding suitable accommodation. As has been highlighted by stakeholders throughout the development of this proposal, housing supply is a critical issue in remote, rural and island areas of Scotland. This will need to be considered in tandem with a rural visa pilot scheme to ensure there is sufficient supply of quality housing stock in designated community areas for incoming migrants.

The Scottish Government has committed to delivering 110,000 affordable homes by 2032, of which 70% will be for social rent, and 10% will be in remote, rural and island communities. In addition, Scottish Ministers are also developing a Remote, Rural and Islands Housing Action Plan (RRIHAP) which will support our broader rural housing ambitions. As part of this, Scottish Government will consider appropriate linkages with the proposed pilot scheme where possible.

In addition to assistance to find suitable accommodation, the settlement support package may include support for language learning, as well as detailed information on registering for schools within the local community, accessing health and social care services, and what welfare entitlements migrants are entitled to. Information regarding local culture and leisure facilities could additionally be made available as part of facilitating wider community integration.

5.2.9 Monitoring and enforcement

Enforcement is a part of all visa routes, and many visas currently in existence tie individuals to specific companies, universities, and roles. It is vital that such a place-based immigration route, such as the SRCIP, is monitored and enforced carefully to ensure the terms it sets for employers and migrants continue to be met throughout the 4 years of the scheme. These are particularly important in regard to employment conditions within the designated CPAs, as set out in section 5.2.3. Sponsoring employers within the community would have a vital role in monitoring and ensuring migrants continued to comply with these requirements. In addition, the Scottish Government and local authorities will work with the UK Government organisations to ensure relevant controls and enforcement procedures are met in relation to the scheme. It would be vital – given the likely relaxations of particular skills and salary criteria within the bespoke entry requirements in the SRCIP – that the scheme is not abused and is able to fulfil its objectives in terms of meeting the economic and service delivery needs of local communities.

5.3 Pathway summaries (stage by stage):

5.3.1 SRCIP migrant pathway

Identify and apply to scheme vacancies

  • Migrant consults community vacancy board, advertising jobs under SRCIP scheme.
  • Migrant submits application directly to employer sponsor, and – if selected – undergoes assessment and interview.
  • If successful, migrant receives ‘community recommendation’.

Obtain SCRIP Visa

  • Migrant submits application (incl. additional information for security checks) to the Home Office under the SRCIP route, enclosing community recommendation.
  • Receive approval from Home Office, awarded SRCIP Visa.

Arrival and support from employers

  • Receive pre-arrival information and support from the community partners (incl. employer sponsor).
  • Arrive in community – receive wider integration support from partners.
  • Adhere to conditions of employment and residency for first four years (Year 1 begins on day of arrival.

5.3.2 SRCIP employer pathway

Engage in scheme development

  • Employers in the community are consulted in development of ‘Strategic Skills Plan’.
  • Employers submit application to become sponsors with evidence they meet the required standards.
  • Once approved, employer sponsors complete required training and enrol upon SRCIP scheme.

Recruit for vacancies

  • Employers upload vacancies – required to meet the criteria of agreed ‘Strategic Skills Plan - on the community vacancy board under the SRCIP scheme.
  • Employer sponsors assess job applications of candidates, ensuring fit with entry requirements, and award “community recommendation” to preferred candidate.

Provide support to migrants

  • Employer-sponsors receive notification of Home Office security checks, and – if approved – issue migrant with pre-arrival information pack.
  • Employer- sponsors work with wider partners in the community to provide integration support package to migrants upon arrival.
  • Employer-sponsors provide the guaranteed full-time employment to the migrant for at least a year.
  • Employer-sponsors maintain record of the migrant residency in the community. Follow referral process to enforcement agencies if migrant in breach of either employer or residency requirements.

5.4 Evaluation

The over-arching and long-term goal of the SRCIP would be to deliver improved outcomes at a community level in remote and rural areas facing depopulation and/or skills shortages, by attracting migrants with the skills and profile that would best address the social and economic challenges created by population decline.

While a pilot duration of 5 years has been proposed, evaluation would need to take place over a longer timeframe to ascertain whether the scheme is successful in retaining migrants in the long term. Additionally, it may be difficult to establish a direct link between the operation of a pilot scheme and said outcomes given the range of other policy initiatives aimed at supporting remote, rural and island populations. The EAG has therefore identified specific medium-term criteria upon which the success of a rural visa pilot could be evaluated:

  • To what extent does the scheme attract migrants with the appropriate profile to contribute to the economic and social well-being of the local community in designated areas;
  • To what extent does the pilot support and enable the integration and long-term settlement of migrants and their families in these designated areas;
  • To what extent is the pilot successful in improving the number of working age migrants, children and young people in designated areas.

In addition to the first of these goals to evaluate how successful the pilot is in attracting migrants to the area, evaluators would obtain qualitative data from employers who had expressed an interest in the scheme but ultimately did not sign up, in order to ascertain the reasons for this and understand where improvements to the pilot could best be made.

Evaluation would be carried out iteratively throughout the duration of the pilot to capture process and implementation data during the pilot, both to gain insights into user experience and how well the process of pilot implementation is going and to track performance against the medium term indicators set out above. The EAG propose that entrants to the pilot scheme would enrol in a longitudinal survey upon arrival for the duration of their participation on the pilot, which would gather data on their residence, work, family status and other relevant indicators on an annual basis. Employers would also be required to enrol in a longitudinal survey to gain insights in to the process and implementation of the scheme from the perspective of those who need to fill specific skills shortages, while additional qualitative research could be undertaken in relation to the wider partnership of local organisations providing settlement support, to assess how efficiently this element of the pilot is delivered and whether the relevant services are sufficiently joined up in the process. Additional consideration would need to be given to how the scheme would be evaluated at the operational level, for example in relation to cost effectiveness and efficiency of implementation.

Data would then be gathered from each cohort of participants at the end of the 5 years – after all residency restrictions have been lifted – to ascertain whether or not they intend to stay in the pilot area, and their reasons for doing so. Analysis of this data will indicate whether the intended outcome of retaining working age migrants in remote and rural communities has been achieved, supported by evidence as to why the scheme has been effective. Extending the evaluation period for each cohort of pilot participants for 1-2 years after they have completed the scheme would provide further data as to whether the scheme has been successful in achieving longer-term retention of migrants within the CPA.

Given the partnership approach taken in the delivery of the scheme, it is proposed that the evaluation would benefit from being delivered collaboratively by all key delivery partners in order to ensure feasibility and agreed levels and processes for information sharing throughout the course of the evaluation, which would be carried out by the Scottish Government. At the end of the evaluation period, the Scottish Government along with input from local authorities and other relevant external partners would be responsible for producing a summative evaluation report, setting out how successful the scheme has been in achieving both the medium and long term intended outcomes, as well as any identified process or implementation issues and how these have been – or could be – mitigated.



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