Would an independent Scotland have a radically different immigration policy?

With the planned independence referendum in Scotland now a political football between First Minister Alex Salmond and Prime Minister Cameron, there has been surprisingly little discussion of the implications for immigration policy.

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by John Perry

John Perry researches and writes on housing, migration and refugee issues. John was Director of Policy at the CIH for twelve years until 2003, before moving to Nicaragua, where he co-ordinates projects with low income families. He regularly writes for MRN’s Migration Pulse as a guest contributor.*

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Indeed, a recent reader survey by the Daily Record found that Scots were mainly concerned about other issues, while south of the border it’s hardly warranted a mention.  Yet in the white paper Your Scotland, Your Voice, the Scottish Government said:

‘An independent Scotland would have responsibility for its own migration policy and its borders. Scotland faces different issues from the other parts of the United Kingdom, and migration policy could be tailored to address the economic challenges of demographic change.’

It’s a little known fact that Scotland has already pursued separate policies where it can, albeit that these are tinkering at the edges while immigration policy remains firmly in Whitehall control.  There is a separate Scottish list of shortage occupations for the points-based system, for example, and students from abroad are encouraged to stay in Scotland to work.

Although only one Scottish city became an asylum dispersal centre in 2000, arguably after a shaky start Glasgow has proved very welcoming to asylum seekers, with local people being particularly active in campaigns to thwart deportation attempts by UKBA, and the Scottish Government attempting (unsuccessfully) to get more devolved responsibility for dealing with asylum seekers.  Glasgow Housing Association (which now owns Glasgow’s former council housing) has been very positive in its approach towards migrants, having sponsored the Scottish housing rights website for migrants and developed, with other Glasgow associations, their own guide to migrant housing issues.

The white paper itself had a statement on asylum that is refreshingly liberal when viewed from England, saying an independent Scotland would

‘provide greater security to asylum seekers awaiting the outcome of their application and ensure a fairer and more humane asylum system’.

Some aspects of the housing system also favour migrants in Scotland – for example, homeless refugees are not bound by the ‘local connection’ rule to first seek accommodation in their asylum dispersal city, as would be the case in England.

There are hard reasons for these differences, looked at in the latest UK Housing Review, published this month.  Whereas the concern in England may be that migration accounts for two-fifths of projected growth in numbers of households – and hence in housing demand – in Scotland these effects are welcomed.  Scotland’s population is near static and is projected to decline, and migration could give a significant boost both to the working-age population and to the economy. One estimate is that, if net migration to Scotland fell to zero, by 2031 employment would shrink by 6.9 per cent, competitiveness by 2.8 per cent and GDP per head by 5.3 per cent.

As the chart shows, one important effect of migration is to reduce what is known as the old-age dependency ratio, which is the number of people of state pension age compared with those of working age. The beneficial effect of migration is quite marked for the UK overall, and less so for Scotland only because the ratio there is already high (projected at one person of pensionable age for every two persons of working age by 2056).

The white paper recognises this, saying that an independent migration policy could be tailored to address the economic challenges of demographic change. Working-age immigration could also help address skills shortages in Scotland.

In a sense, the more extreme demographic circumstances in Scotland have made more widely apparent what has already been recognised in many cities in central and northern England and in Wales, where asylum dispersal has brought benefits and local authorities have tried to ensure that refugees remain and don’t drift to London.

It’s a message that rarely gets across, and of course is anathema to pressure groups like Migration Watch and has never been championed by senior politicians in Whitehall.  Perhaps those of us with an interest in changing migration policy in the UK should campaign for an independent Scotland, and look forward to the benefits of a more modern policy becoming evident in a few years time, north of the border?

*This blog was first published on MRN’s Migration Pulse.