In a recent report the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration called on the Government to reassess its current ‘one size fits all’ approach to immigration policy and to consider designing a devolved or regionally-led immigration system.
The report notes, at page 14, that:
“the UK’s points-based immigration system is generally unresponsive to demographic, economic, and cultural differences between our constituent nations and regions. This has led to friction between the Scottish and UK governments, as the former’s aim of increasing immigration (in order to grow its labour force) has come into conflict with the Home Office’s commitment to cut net immigration.”
The report calls for the creation of an independent commission to explore how a devolved or regionally-led immigration system might work. Divergent approaches to immigration within one country, although unusual, are not unheard of. The report refers to the system in Canada where the different Canadian Provinces have a certain degree of autonomy over immigration control.
Even within the UK differential arrangements have been made in the past to cater for specific needs in Scotland. The Fresh Talent Working in Scotland Scheme, which operated from 2005 to 2008, allowed students in Scotland to remain in the UK for two years after their studies in order to work, without the need to apply for a work permit. The scheme was extended in 2008 to the whole of the UK under the newly introduced Points Based System and was re-branded as the Tier 1 (Post Study Work) visa. This category was subsequently abolished in April 2012. There have recently been calls for it to be re-introduced in Scotland.
There is also a Scotland specific Shortage Occupation List. Inclusion of a job on the list allows employers recruiting Tier 2 migrants for such a job to avoid carrying out a Resident Labour Market test. The Resident Labour Market test requires the job to be advertised to ensure that migrant workers are only recruited where no suitable settled worker can be identified to do the job.
It is therefore clearly possible to cater for Scotland’s specific needs within the UK wide immigration system. Allowing further differential arrangements, leading to the development of a bespoke immigration system which meets Scotland’s specific needs, would be a welcome change to the relentlessly restrictive approach of the UK Government which is based on little more than a desire to reduce net migration by any means.
Although not without difficulties, allowing aspects of immigration control to be devolved may prove to be an attractive solution to the different approaches to migration advocated by the Scottish and UK Governments. In particular, it may alleviate the tensions created by the asymmetrical Brexit vote in which, despite a majority of the electorate in the UK as a whole voting in favour of Brexit, a majority of the electorate in Scotland wished to remain part of the EU.
“A practical solution to the challenge of having continued EU free movement in only Scotland and not the rest of the UK may be more plausible than at first blush. Increasingly immigration control is taking place within the UK, in situ, for example by landlords obliged to confirm residence status before renting property, rather than traditional immigration control at the border, and this may be a means in which a differentiated immigration approach is developed. An example that has been mooted by commentators proposes that the Scottish Parliament become responsible for the issue of National Insurance numbers and thereby develop a system where National Insurance numbers are granted to EU and EEA citizens which are only valid in Scotland.” (Also see here for original source)
Calls for local variations in immigration policy are nothing new (see for instance paragraph 51 of the final report of the Calman Commission published in June 2009). To date, only minor variations have been permitted and, on the whole, immigration law is the same throughout the UK. However, the growing tensions between Holyrood and Westminster, and the threat of a second independence referendum if Scotland’s position in Europe is not afforded sufficient protection during the Brexit negotiations, may provide the political will for designing a bespoke immigration system for Scotland which has been lacking in the past.