Holyrood and Westminster could diverge on immigration

4th June 2015

As reported in today's Herald (4 June 15), Scotland could take a different approach to the rights and roles of migrants than the rest of the UK. Dr Eve Hepburn's evidence to Holyrood's European and External Affairs Committee highlighted the policy areas in which the Scottish Parliament could take a different approach.

The Scottish Parliament's European and External Affairs Committee has heard that while immigration policy remains reserved to Westminster, many of the policy areas that affect the lives of migrants - education, health, political participation and housing - are devolved. Dr Hepburn's evidence also reminded committee members that the recommendations of the Smith Commission will see some relevant aspects of social security devolved to the Scottish Government.

She highlighted that this would allow Scotland to take a very different approach to migration, in terms of what migrants can expect, from that being discussed south of the Border. Her submission speaks of immigration being seen through a "different lens" in Scotland and highlights divergent remarks made by recent and current ministers in London and Edinburgh. Notably she identifies that "The Scottish and UK approaches to immigration and migrant integration have, in many ways, been diametrically opposed. When Cameron set out his proposals ... for restricting the EU principle of ‘Freedom of Movement’ and significantly reducing EU migrant rights, the Scottish Government was advancing a liberal vision of immigration that welcomed newcomers in a multicultural Scotland."

She acknowledges that the Scottish Government has limitations on its room for manoeuvre in this area and that, "these attempts to carve out a distinct Scottish approach to citizenship have not been without their constraints. As immigration is reserved to Westminster, this poses particular limitations on the extent to which Scotland can diverge from the UK model. One obvious example is the Fresh Talent scheme – which was supported by all of the political parties in Scotland and claimed as a success – but which was abolished by the UK Government against the wishes of Scottish political actors."

In the light of this balancing act between two apparently divergent approaches, Dr Hepburn recommended three concerete policy initiatives:

  • "The first recommendation is to create a Scottish Policy Framework on Migrant Inclusion that is based on an extensive evidence-based review and a comparative lesson-drawing analysis. Scotland is currently one of the few sub-state nations in the EU that does not have its own migrant rights policy strategy (for instance, the Belgian Regions, German Länder, Austrian Länder, Italian Regions, Spanish Autonomous Communities, as well as the Canadian provinces and US states all have their own territorially tailored migrant inclusion strategies). Although Scotland does have a policy strategy on refugee integration, New Scots, this does not address the needs, rights and inclusion of migrants as a community as a whole. By designing a Scottish Migrant Inclusion strategy and embedding it in law, this would make it far more difficult to be overturned by legislative actions elsewhere.
  • "The second recommendation is the need to strengthen and formalise IGR machinery on Europe – which has been advocated extensively elsewhere – in order to strengthen the voice and input of devolved administrations in areas of common concern. But as a new category I suggest that migration should also be added as an issue of discussion at JMCs between the central and devolved governments of the UK due to its transversal nature and impact on both devolved and reserved policies.
  • "Finally, there is an issue to consider of whether some of the demands that the UK government is making in its EU renegotiation efforts, are actually incompatible with devolution as Scotland has some control over migrant rights – such as seeking to limit migrant access to social benefits, over which the Scottish Parliament may soon be gaining control. Indeed, these new Scottish powers may mean that Cameron is only able to negotiate restrictions on migrant access to benefits in parts of the UK outside Scotland (rUK), as the UK Government is unable to legislate on Scottish matters."

The submission was made as part of the committee's inquiry into The UK's future relationship with the EU. Professor Michael Keating and Dr Daniel Kenealy also gave evidence. The full papers for the meeting are available on the Scottish Parliament's website

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