Ministers in Scotland are challenging the UK government’s new immigration policy by pressing the home secretary to offer potential newcomers a home in their country if they fail criteria for entering England.
The Guardian has learned that the first minister, Jack McConnell, has held talks with Charles Clarke in an attempt to modify a proposed entry system so that prospective immigrants, who run the risk of being excluded by tough UK entry rules, will be given extra points for moving to Scotland.
In an interview with today’s Society Guardian, Mr McConnell reveals that the home secretary is “open to the suggestion” of what amounts to a twin-track immigration system for the UK.
“He’s very clear we can look at this option,” the first minister says. “I kind of understand there is a different perspective on this south of the border . . . Scotland is different on this . . . we are prepared to take a lead, and the political argument, and promote Scotland on that basis . . . there have been some initial discussions and there’ll be more after the election.”
Extolling the virtues of being given extra points for entering Scotland, under a new system which will grade applications according to the skills they can offer, the first minister adds: “We don’t need to break up the UK immigration system and run it ourselves in order to benefit from an improved policy . . .
“My job as first minister is to argue for that . . . with colleagues in Whitehall and make it successful, but also to make the argument in Scotland that although people are nervous about immigration [they] need to realise it’s in their economic and social interest for this to happen.”
Although the home secretary recently announced plans to curb economic immigration by low-skilled workers outside the EU, the Scottish executive fears the proposed measures will undermine an initiative designed to bring 8,000 immigrants to Scotland annually.
The initiative, known as Fresh Talent, is seen by ministers in Scotland’s Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition as a way of reversing a sharp population decline—on some estimates the most rapid in Europe.
In five years’ time, population is projected to fall below the symbolic 5 million level. Mr McConnell says reversing this represents the “single biggest challenge facing Scotland”.
Already the Scottish executive has established a relocation advisory service in Glasgow, which is helping to promote visa permits in Scotland. And this summer a new system will kick in, allowing overseas graduates in Scottish universities two extra years to stay in Scotland as a prelude to a longer work permit.
Mr McConnell says this represents his executive’s “first big initiative” on the immigration front.
Only 2% of Scotland’s population—around 100,000—are from ethnic minorities. This compared with 9% in England and 29% in London.