Guest blog – The UK Migration Advisory Committee’s response to regional variation in the immigration system

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This blog examines the response of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) – which the Home Office tasked with examining the impacts of EEA migration and designing a new migration system for the UK post-Brexit – to the Scottish Government’s calls for variation. This analysis is part of a series of blogs on immigration and Brexit. You can read more about the MAC’s proposals on freedom of movement and post-Brexit EEA migration here.

As with all guest blogs, what follows are the views of the author, not those of SPICe or indeed the Scottish Parliament.

The UK and Scottish Governments have expressed very different positions on immigration.  While the UK has adopted increasingly restrictive immigration policies to reduce net migration, the Scottish Government seeks to moderately increase levels of immigration to Scotland to raise the demographic growth rate to the EU average. This is part of the Scottish Government’s perception that attracting and retaining migrants is a key driver of population and economic growth in Scotland.

Currently, in legal terms, immigration and asylum – which covers selection and admission – are reserved to the UK Government under the Scotland Act (schedule 5). As such, decisions about the levels and composition of migration are managed by the Home Office.

The Scottish Government has expressed support for the creation of a differentiated system of immigration for Scotland, which it considers pressing in light of the UK’s departure from the European Union. Whereas the UK Government has committed itself to leaving the single market – and thereby releasing the UK from the ‘freedom of movement’ rights of EU nationals – the Scottish Government has argued to maintain both single market membership and freedom of movement. However, the UK Government has rejected calls to maintain freedom of movement or to devolve immigration powers to Scotland.

Scottish Government submission to MAC

The Scottish Government submitted a report to the MAC in response to its call for evidence on the impact of EEA nationals (EU member states plus Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein) in the UK. The Scottish Government provided evidence arguing that any decrease in net EEA migration would negatively impact population growth, especially in rural and remote communities. Scotland has a lower fertility rate and a more rapidly aging population than the rest of the UK, and EEA migration since 2004 has helped to boost Scotland’s population. The Scottish Government also provided estimates of the positive fiscal and economic impacts of EEA migrants in Scotland, focusing on sectors in which EEA migrants have made some of the biggest contributions, such as social care, healthcare, hospitality, and food manufacturing.

The MAC, in its Interim Report, responded by arguing that the sectors most dependent on EEA migrants do not vary greatly across regions and nations in the UK. The number one sector across all regions is ‘manufacturing of food and beverages’ while ‘accommodation and hospitality’ ranks highly across regions. The MAC also acknowledges “Scotland’s greater reliance on international migration for future population growth”. However, the MAC also states that this is not greatly different to other parts of the UK.

Alternatives to migration for driving economic growth?

In response to the Scottish Government’s argument that population growth is the single biggest driver of economic output and growth, the MAC stated that:

“Migration is much less effective at dealing with a rising old age dependency ratio than increases in the pension age and immigration may not be an effective strategy for sustaining remote communities unless the reasons for locals leaving are addressed”.

In summary, the MAC acknowledges that:

“Scotland, with little or no contribution to population growth from natural change is particularly reliant on migration flows to avoid a return to a declining population. However, other regions and nations of the UK are not too dissimilar. Both the North East of England and Wales have, and are expected to continue to see, relatively low levels of natural change and small positive or negative net flows to the rest of the UK. As such, they are also reliant on international migration”.

Scotland is not ‘sufficiently different’

In the final report, the MAC states that “we were not of the view that Scotland’s economic situation is sufficiently different from that of the rest of the UK to justify a very different migration policy”, and any decision on whether to introduce different immigration rules in different parts of the UK would be political, rather than economic.

Responding to the report, the Scottish Government’s Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development, Ben MacPherson MSP, said that migration was:

“absolutely critical to Scotland’s future prosperity […] However the Mac report does little to consider Scotland’s needs and instead suggests that increasing the pension age would be a preferential approach to managing demographic change – a completely unsustainable position and one which we and many across Scotland would reject.”

Scottish Government’s response to the MAC report

The Scottish Government also responded to the MAC report in its report Scotland’s Place in Europe: Our Way Forward. The report welcomes the MAC’s presentation of evidence that EU citizens have a positive impact on the UK’s economy, public services and economy. However, it also states, “given this clear evidence, the Scottish Government cannot accept the recommendations from the MAC to route future EU migration through the current UK system”. In this report, the Scottish Government re-stated its commitment for the UK to retain freedom of movement and European single market membership.

Elsewhere, the Scottish Government has also called for the devolution of migration powers to Scotland. In its discussion paper on ‘Scotland’s Population Needs and Migration Policy’ (February 2018), the Scottish Government identifies specific differences in the migration needs of Scotland and the UK – including the value of inward migration to rural Scotland and the importance of migration to help grow the working age population – to justify Scotland having the power ‘to tailor its own migration policy’. Specifically, the paper recommends creating new migration routes to Scotland that promote long-term settlement rather than short-term work visas, to help support demographic sustainability.

What’s Next?

It’s likely that we’ll continue to see tensions between the Scottish and UK Governments on what the best immigration system is for the UK in a post-Brexit landscape. The Scottish Government’s repeated calls for differentiation for Scotland – ranging from devolving immigration powers to having a Scottish seat on the Migration Advisory Committee – have so far been unsuccessful. Home Secretary Sajid Javid has indicated that a White Paper on Immigration will be published before the end of 2018, and we can expect this to be a flashpoint in Scottish Government demands to introduce flexibility into the proposed system.


Dr Eve Hepburn