Immigration is not a “fix-all” and politicians should also focus on retaining and improving the skills of the existing population when developing immigration policy, according to a new report.
Former government adviser Heather McCauley examined the experiences of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the US to find what Scotland can learn on immigration.
The report, produced by think tank Reform Scotland in partnership with Scottish Policy Foundation, states if current migration levels are maintained Scotland’s working-age population is expected to stay relatively stable for the next 25 years, but if migration stops it would fall by 12%.
Ms McCauley, a former government adviser in New Zealand and ex-senior civil servant for the Scottish Government, found immigration programmes in the above countries have on balance been beneficial, but the size of these benefits is often small.
She also addressed the Scottish Government’s Scottish visa proposal – rejected by the UK Government – which would differ from the UK-wide system by not including a employer sponsorship requirement or a salary threshold.
She said this could be “risky” for Scotland unless it can confidently identify other criteria which predict successful settlement, as the “international experience is clear about the importance of employment for successful outcomes”.
Ms McCauley said regionally differentiated policies are “feasible” but the arguments are strongest for peripheral areas that would otherwise struggle, with the arguments for regional differentiation across an entire devolved nation such as Scotland “less strong”.
The report states: “Clearly, there are particular sectors, occupations and salary levels where requirements and conditions are different to those in the UK as a whole (or the South East in particular).
“This, however, argues for occupational or sector-specific policies rather than a lower bar for entry across the board.”
It adds: “Any differential policy for Scotland that provided on-going settlement rights would have implications for the wider UK, particularly if it involved a lower bar for entry.
“Concern about ‘back door’ entry, particularly against a backdrop of UK Governments wanting to demonstrate that they have ‘control’ of immigration numbers, is likely to be a significant impediment to differentiation.”
Ms McCauley said: “Irrespective of Scotland’s constitutional future, its demographics mean that it needs to enter a serious debate about how it responds to projected population decline.
“Growing the population as a goal in itself, or as a means to economic prosperity, is problematic, even if it were to be feasible.
“Maintaining population size, and particularly boosting the size and strength of the working-age population, can be supported by immigration, but only in the short term. Other policies to support adjustment to a different age distribution will be much more important.
“It is easy, in this debate, to look at immigration as a fix-all, but the experience of other small migrant-receiving countries shows that while immigration can be beneficial overall, it is important for policy makers to be realistic about how much it can contribute to improved outcomes.
“In considering their strategy and policy, the Scottish Government and the opposition parties should consider the full range of costs and benefits for the people of Scotland as well as potential migrants themselves, and should focus primarily on retaining and upskilling their existing population as well as addressing the root causes of challenges such as depopulation in remote and rural areas.”
Chris Deerin, Reform Scotland director, said: “Reform Scotland believes in immigration for economic, demographic and cultural reasons – as has been said, ‘Scotland is not full up’.
“A healthy level of immigration can improve our nation in welcome and diverse ways. Heather McCauley’s report gives a fascinating insight into what has worked and what hasn’t in other countries, and it’s important that the Scottish Government absorbs her findings when setting future policy.”