A Scottish immigration system: Is it feasible?

, by Cameron Boyle

A Scottish immigration system: Is it feasible?
Panoramic view of Edinburgh Credit: Deeann Arant, Pixy

On 28 January 2020, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) released a report entitled ‘A Points-Based System and Salary Thresholds for Immigration’, essentially fleshing out how best to structure the UK’s post-Brexit approach to immigration.

In spite of the considerable demographic and economic differences that exist between Scotland and the rest of the UK, the report advocates against providing Holyrood with a greater level of control. Curiously, it cites ‘earning differences within regions and devolved administrations’ being ‘larger than those between them’, or in other words, the disparity between Scottish regions is greater than the disparity between Scotland and the rest of the UK, and therefore a one-size-fits-all system makes sense.

With this in mind, it is important to assess the feasibility of a Scottish immigration system. Could it be used to remedy the intra-regional divides that the MAC mentions, and if so, how could it be structured? The MAC gives the divides between Scottish regions as a reason not to devolve control over immigration but says nothing about how to overcome said divides. England having similar regional divides to Scotland should not be a reason why Scotland is prevented from acting in its own best interests.

Regional Divides in Scotland

The report’s acknowledgment of the stark regional divides in Scotland has a strong factual basis. Although the extract quoted above pertains to earnings differences, demographic divides are equally pronounced, with many areas outside the major cities experiencing serious depopulation. Drawing upon ONS data from 2015, a 2017 Migration Observatory report acknowledges that Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen have growing populations, while local authorities such as Inverclyde, Dumfries and Galloway, and North Ayrshire have declining populations. This adds substance to the MAC’s focus on divides within regions- such as Scotland- rather than between regions- such as Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Scotland’s regional divides necessitate an approach to immigration that gives all parts of the country- not just the population centres- access to the people they need. Depopulation can trigger a number of socio-economic problems, such as understaffed and underfunded public services and the closure of local businesses, and should be addressed in order to safeguard the future of communities. The issue is particularly pronounced in Scotland’s most remote regions, such as the Highlands and Islands, where many localities are experiencing a decline so marked that communities are on the brink of extinction.

Over the last ten years, almost twice as many islands have lost populations as have gained. Future population projections suggest that islands are at further risk of depopulation, with Orkney and Shetland each projected to lose 2.2% of their population by 2041 and Eileanan Siar 14.0%. The issue in these communities is not an abundance of elderly people, but a shortage of young people and children - the relatively small cohorts in the child-bearing age group seem likely to lead to a spiral of decline unless counterbalanced by substantial net in-migration.

The key question is finding an appropriate blueprint for a system that can deliver this net in-migration. This process is aided by looking at international examples of successful regional immigration systems.

The Canadian Approach

Regional immigration systems tend to operate via one of two methods: routes that allow individual provinces and territories to nominate their own applicants from the ‘Expression of Interest’ (EOI) pool, and awarding additional points to applicants who apply outside of the major cities.

Canada’s Provincial Nominee Programme (PNP) provides an apt example of the first of the two. Introduced in 1996, it provides individual states and provinces with the ability to nominate their own applicants from the EOI pool, with successful nominees given an invitation to apply for permanent residence.

Because the eligibility requirements for each programme are set by the province itself, candidates must display characteristics deemed desirable by the provincial government in order to be selected, such as a job offer in an industry with a shortage. Thus, the system ensures that provinces have access to the people they need in order to thrive.

In terms of how this approach could be adapted by Scotland, individual local authorities could be given the ability to select candidates that are most suited to their demographic and economic objectives. This would help places such as Orkney and Shetland to mitigate the depopulation and economic stagnation that is becoming an increasingly pressing concern.

Having said this, the implementation of such an approach would prove difficult. Canada’s federal structure provides its provinces with the political institutions and administrative capability needed to manage policy in this area. The same cannot be said for Scotland, as the local authorities have little to no experience of decision-making within immigration.

The New Zealand Approach

New Zealand’s approach to regional variation falls in line with the second of the two main methods. Rather than giving provinces the ability to select applicants from the EOI pool, applicants are awarded an additional 30 points for having a job offer based outside the Auckland region, a region that accounts for almost a third of the national population.

The extra 30 points mean that 80 points are scored on the employment section of the process alone, taking the applicant halfway towards the automatic selection threshold of 160 points. The transformative effect that the points can have incentivises applicants to base themselves outside of the Auckland region, and in doing so, helps to spread population growth more evenly across the country.

With regard to finding an appropriate blueprint for Scotland, the New Zealand model is a stronger candidate for two main reasons. Firstly, the size, population and population spread of the two countries is relatively similar- the majority of Scotland’s population is concentrated in the central belt just as New Zealand’s is in the Auckland region. These parallels will make it easier to adapt the model for Scottish purposes.

Secondly, the approach is more straightforward than Canada’s and requires less of a break from the UK approach. Awarding candidates additional points for having a job offer outside of the central belt would form substantially less of a political and administrative burden than introducing bespoke immigration routes for specific local authorities.

Reflecting on these ideas, there is immense scope for taking the discussion of a Scottish immigration system to the next level. Depopulation poses a deeply serious threat to the sustainability of many rural communities, and therefore, a system built around addressing this issue is conducive to the prosperity of the nation.

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