Scotland this week voted through a change in its income tax system. New bands will mean that the take-home pay of better-off people living in Scotland will be a bit less than their counterparts on the same salary in England. This creates an intriguing situation for companies I work with that have operations, perhaps one hundred miles apart, on either side of the Scotland-England border.
As the budget was well covered on this website a few weeks ago, I can focus on another Scottish Parliament debate, held yesterday, on migration: specifically, the nation’s need for people from other countries to choose Scotland as a place to settle, to live, to work and to lay down roots.
Scotland’s population growth forecasts are almost entirely based on migration. Some of our biggest industries – tourism being the biggest – rely heavily for their success on thousands of people coming for short seasons or long years to plug skills shortages. Scotland’s universities enjoy income, and cultural enrichment, from 30,000 students from outside the UK.
Migration policy is, however, reserved to Westminster. Scotland’s is only one voice amongst many in the debate, and the Scottish Government’s desire to increase immigration is not shared everywhere in the UK. The Fresh Talent post-study work visa programme, the only notable attempt to do something different in Scotland by allowing foreign students graduating in Scotland to stay on to work for two years, only lasted four years before being taken over by the Home Office and later scrapped.
In the run up to the Scottish independence referendum, the Scottish Government’s independence manifesto, Scotland’s Future, Your Guide to an Independent Scotland talked of a Common Travel Area with the rest of the UK and Ireland. It promised an independent Scotland would have it own “controlled, transparent and efficient immigration system”, and a “points-based approach targeted at particular Scottish requirements”.
The proposal was met with ridicule by the UK Government. How, they asked, could you have two immigration systems divided by a porous, open border? How long would people moving to Scotland wait before catching the night bus south?
But now it appears that some borders are different from others. The same UK Government party that raised the fundamental issue of Scotland’s unpoliceable 97-mile border is looking to achieve ‘frictionless’ crossing of the 310-mile boundary between Northern Ireland and the Republic, soon to be the only land boundary between the EU and the UK. Ulster Unionist politicians are adamant that this must not mean that the true EU-UK border simply moves to the middle of the Irish Sea.
Scottish ministers want an end to the UK’s one-size-fits-all approach to immigration, but Brexit and borders are conspiring against them. With no clarity from the UK Government on migration policy post Brexit, Scottish ministers can only watch and wait. And the only thing they can offer companies wondering how they will staff their Scottish operations in the years ahead, is sympathy.