BY NO means the only policy area where Scotland’s interests diverge from the priorities of the UK, but politically a highly charged one, is immigration.
This is nothing new. More than a decade ago, First Minister Jack McConnell recognised Scotland’s different circumstances and our falling population left us needing new ways to attract people to come and live here. The Fresh Talent Initiative was the result, and opportunities were opened up for Scotland to offer a welcome in particular to young people who had completed their studies and wanted to stay. It was a positive step, and had the support of employers who needed to recruit highly specific niche skills, and of universities who needed to make their courses attractive to overseas students.
Sadly that policy didn’t last long. It was brought into the scope of the wider UK immigration system in 2008, and a few years later when the Tory/LibDem coalition abolished the Post-Study Work Visa system, there was nothing that the Scottish Parliament could do to stop them.
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It was deeply frustrating to see a good, workable and well-supported policy being scuppered. But it felt all the worse because we knew that the main reason wasn’t about the policy itself, but rather the growing anti-immigrant rhetoric at UK level. At the same time it’s important to recognise that bad immigration policy causes far more harm to people than that. For many years now it has subjected people to humiliating and stressful treatment, left some of the most vulnerable people open to exploitation, needlessly broken up families, and stoked up resentment and hostility in the wider community toward immigrants. All this, and it has even failed to meet this country’s own needs as the complaints of employers and universities up and down the country shows.
The obsession with immigration seems to be founded more on myth than on reality. The UK does have a positive net migration figure, and has done for a long time. But that net migration figure has been broadly stable for over 10 years now, and is only a shade higher than it was as long ago as the late 1990s. It’s quite clear that many aspects of the UK’s infrastructure, public services and so on are under serious pressure, but this owes far more to privatisation and a lack of investment than is generally recognised. Even looking at population levels alone, the difference between the rate of births and deaths is a bigger factor than net migration. Given that longer average lifespan plays a role there, the case for immigration of working-age people is stronger, not weaker in that context.
Yet the myth has been cultivated that immigration is in some way “out of control”. That kind of defensiveness seems a very odd response to the fact that other people think the country is an attractive one that they’d like to come and live in. Flattery would surely be a more appropriate reaction. Indeed, given the contributions which immigrants have made to our art, our culture, our food, our politics, our economic life and our public services, this should be a cause for celebration rather than panic. In historical terms much of what people in the UK now celebrate in our own cultures, in fact, owes a lot to immigration and the cultural enrichment it has brought.
Now, it appears, the UK Government is setting out on yet another wave of anti-immigration grandstanding. The Prime Minister and Home Secretary spent some time out of the office yesterday morning, tagging along with an immigration raid as part of their PR programme for a new Immigration Bill. Among the proposals is a new criminal offence allowing the wages of illegal migrant workers to be seized, once again failing to recognise that illegal immigrants are overwhelmingly the victims of exploitation. We should be deeply concerned that people are working illegally – not because we want to take their wages off them, but because so many are being paid a fraction of what their labour is worth, and because they are so often left without the most basic health and safety protection that a responsible employer would provide. It’s the criminal employers who exploit them who should be in our sights, not the victims.
If this Bill goes through as planned, we won’t see a solution to the challenges of meeting the needs of a growing population. We’ll just see many of the most vulnerable people being evicted, their wages seized and their bodies tracked by satellite tags, while others still continue to risk drowning in the Mediterranean to reach safety. It has long been difficult, and is becoming impossible, to believe that UK immigration policy is driven by reason rather than by the racism which we should never imagine only exists on the far right fringes of society.