Scottish and UK immigration Policy after Brexit

Evaluating Options for a Differentiated Approach

Christina Boswell, Sarah Kyambi and Saskia Smellie, 20 June 2017 
Picture Credit: Chris Fleming, CC-BY-SA-2.0

As Brexit talks start, the UK government must turn its attention to the immense challenges Brexit poses – despite the ongoing uncertainty over the stability of the minority government post-election. One of the most pressing issues is that of immigration: not so much the preoccupation with how to limit inflows, which featured so prominently in the election campaigns of many of the parties; but rather, the challenge of sustaining much-needed flows of EU nationals to fill jobs in sectors such as agriculture, services and construction.

The Scottish government has been vocal in expressing its aim of sustaining EU immigration, both to address demographic challenges, and to fill labour and skills shortages. Scotland has seen net immigration averaging at around 15,000 in recent years, and the government fears that a reduction in EU immigration would leave it unable to achieve its demographic, economic and social-cultural goals. EU nationals make up 43% of Scotland’s foreign-born population, and 3% of the overall population. Over the past 12 years, inflows of EU nationals have helped offset labour shortages and contributed to population growth. Indeed, 90% of projected population growth in Scotland is predicated on sustaining current levels of net migration.

Scotland is clearly in a bind: under the current devolution settlement, it has limited powers over decisions on the selection and admission of labour migrants. Scotland enjoyed some autonomy over immigration policy through the Fresh Talent – Working in Scotland scheme, which was in place from 2005 – 2008. Under current UK immigration policy, there is a separate shortage occupation list for Scotland, which identifies the occupations for which Scottish employers can recruit foreign workers without demonstrating that UK residents are unavailable for the job. However, the mechanism is cumbersome and its use has been very limited. And despite some noises from Conservative politicians about the need to sustain certain types of EU immigration, the UK government has reiterated its pledge to radically reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. So is there any leeway for Scotland to meet its immigration goals?