Theresa May “has a problem with immigration”, according to her now ex-colleague Anna Soubry. The statement was taken as a none-too-subtle hint that Soubry believes the PM might be a bit racist. Whatever the truth, it’s certainly true that an unbending and often puzzlingly aggressive approach to immigrants has defined May’s career in frontline politics.
Unhappily, May is about to give Scotland a problem with immigration, too, if in a different way. A report published today by the Scottish government’s Expert Advisory Group on Immigration and Population delivers the stark warning that the nation faces a reduction in net migration by between 30 per cent and 50 per cent over the next two decades, due to changes proposed by May’s recent white paper.
There is great consternation at the heart of Nicola Sturgeon’s government about Westminster’s post-Brexit immigration policy. This worry is due to demographic need: Scotland has the lowest fertility rate in the UK, and any increase in population over the next 25 years will have to come from immigration. The 65-74 age group is expected to increase by 17 per cent, while the number of people aged 75 and above is projected to rise by 79 per cent.
Those working in Scotland’s vital tourism industry are also concerned. As one senior figure put it to me this week: “If Europeans think you don’t like them, if you give the appearance of hostility, then why on earth would they come here? What would you do in the reverse situation?”
It’s not that immigration is a silver bullet, but it plays an important part in supporting the Scottish economy, improving productivity, avoiding labour shortages, and supporting the tax base. This will only become more important in the years ahead.
The Expert Advisory Group, made up of distinguished academics, argues that while under May’s plan, Scotland’s population would continue to grow, it would be at a significantly lower rate, leading to a gradual decline in and ageing of the working-age population.
Because most future EU migration would be channelled through the Tier 2 visa system, with a proposed minimum salary threshold of £30,000, the cut would hit some sectors and areas particularly hard. Textiles, social care, leisure and travel, and sales, all rely heavily on lower-paid migrants. Scotland’s rural areas, where immigration counters depopulation, do too.
The report finds that “overall, 63 per cent of workers in Scotland earn less than the proposed £30,000 salary threshold for Tier 2. In occupations such as textiles, social care, leisure and travel, sales, and elementary occupations, almost no jobs would qualify for a £30,000 threshold.”
In the social care sector, less than 10 per cent of workers earn above £25,000. With tight budgets, councils are unlikely to be in a position to raise salaries, which could lead to labour shortages. “The brunt of these shortages is likely to be borne by friends and family who will have to assume responsibility for care, and especially female family members,” the Group finds. It is also likely that proportionally fewer women migrants would be able to meet the salary threshold.
None of this is good news. It’s hard to imagine Ruth Davidson’s Tories supporting these outcomes. As Jackson Carlaw, the temporary leader of the Scottish party, has put it: “The suggestion that migration is at the heart of the stresses in our public life and services is a fantasy, and a malicious and self-deceiving one at that… migration and immigration from wherever are good, necessary and desirable.”
It’s increasingly clear that the UK needs to develop a new system of regional immigration. The pressures facing parts of England do not affect Scotland. The political mood is different, and the debate around immigration is conducted in much more positive terms.
Whether the tier 2 salary threshold is reduced for people wishing to work north of the border, or Scotland is removed from the quotas being set by Whitehall, or the Scottish government is given a greater role in devising those quotas, the system must change.
Whatever her views on immigration, if Theresa May is the Unionist she claims to be, she should act to avoid inflicting unnecessary harm on Scotland’s economy.