Scottish businesses ‘would prefer UK-wide immigration system’

Businesses in Scotland have indicated a preference for a single UK-wide immigration system rather than adopting a devolved Scottish one, according to industry advisers.

The Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster on Tuesday discussed the impact the UK Government’s immigration approach post-Brexit would have on companies.

There have been calls for immigration policy to be devolved to Scotland to meet business demands for EU workers.

Concerns have been raised that a proposal to introduce a £30,000-a-year minimum salary threshold on EU workers would make it more difficult for firms to attract and retain staff required for lower-income positions.

Gregor Scotland, CBI Scotland principal policy adviser, indicated the priority for businesses is on having a single system for the UK.

He said: “From my conversations with businesses in Scotland, both since the White Paper was published and beforehand, I would say that the focus of the businesses I’ve spoken to has very much been on the practicalities of this, not about the politics, not about the wider constitutional issues.

“They want a system that is as simple as possible, that is as easy to access as possible and that allows them to access the people and the skills that they need to grow the economy.”

Mr Scotland said that if following a year-long consultation period the current proposals did not work for businesses then it would be important to carry out work to assess the advantages and disadvantages of a differentiated system.

He added discussions had taken place with Ben MacPherson, the Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development, with members agreeing proposals for a differentiated system had merit, although indicating it was not their preferred option.

“Their priority and their ideal outcome is still a single UK-wide system that genuinely works for all parts of the UK, because if you do have two systems it would inevitably be greater demand on HR individuals, there would be a burden of responsibility for enforcement,” Mr Scotland said.

“So there would be questions about how it would operate, which I think is one of the reasons our members still would like us to use this 12-month period to try to ensure that what the final proposals look like are ones that would genuinely work for Scotland and the whole of the UK”.

Barry McCulloch, senior policy adviser for FSB Scotland, said there would be merit in piloting the extent to which differentiation could work in Scotland.

Mr McCulloch said: “I would proceed on the basis that a separate visa system controlled by the Scottish Government is not on the table, it’s not up for grabs and I think just from a practical perspective, our members are telling us to operate within what is possible and in that light, we are looking to work with the UK Government to make the system work for Scottish firms.”

The committees chairman, SNP MP Pete Wishart, said: “My committee heard this morning that the Government’s immigration policy has the capacity to make or break many Scottish businesses, higher education institutions and the care sector.

“Workers and students from across the EU are a vital part of all these sectors, and any future immigration policies must recognise the importance of inward migration for Scotland’s growth.

“It is clear there is no ‘one-size fits all’ answer but equally the Government’s plans are evidently not appropriate for Scotland as they currently stand.

“The Government must consider the impact of proposals such as the £30,000 salary threshold on Scotland’s international competitiveness.

“We heard from the witnesses that if UK-wide solutions to some of these issues are not found, support is likely to grow for differentiated policies for Scotland.”