Immigrants are key to Scotland’s prosperity. We need many more of them

Lizanne Zietsman is usually to be found serving up hearty lunches to locals and visitors on Arran.

The 37-year-old, who holds a South African passport, has run the Sandwich Station in Lochranza with her husband John since 2017. They first met on the island in 2006, married and spent almost a decade travelling and working throughout Africa before returning and going into business.

Lizanne won’t be lathering butter on freshly baked rolls and chatting with customers today. She was forced to leave her husband and return to South Africa over the weekend on the orders of the Home Office.

She was in the UK legally, having gone through all the proper processes to obtain a spousal visa, but that visa ran out earlier this year. When Lizanne tried to renew, she was rejected: her annual income fell below the threshold.

The couple pointed out that officials were only counting financial year 2017/18, when their business was still being set up, and not the following, more successful, year, but to no avail. When they protested that Lizanne’s deportation would separate a married couple, the Home Office suggested British-born John simply leave the country too.

‘There were a lot of tears and it was really hard saying goodbye to John,’ Lizanne said in an interview with the National. ‘Since we met almost 13 years ago we have lived and worked together… When you have all that time together and suddenly have none of it, it does feel like you have a lost a part of you and you do feel empty.’

If anything symbolises the complete lack of common sense in our immigration laws, it is surely Lizanne’s case. What kicking out a businesswoman whose MP describes her as a ‘valued and respected community member’ has to do with protecting our borders will escape most reasonable people, as it has the nearly 18,000 signatories to a petition against her deportation.

Immigration is a divisive issue. While there are economic and cultural benefits, many worry about the scale and its impact on public services and the labour market. Both views are perfectly valid and the insinuation from some quarters that concerns are motivated by racial prejudice is cheap and tone-deaf. Most people want to feel in control of their borders, a sentiment strengthened by increased EU immigration following the bloc’s 2004 enlargement.

When Theresa May became Home Secretary in 2010, she began tightening the system but nine years on her government’s grip is more like a chokehold. The pendulum has swung too far in the other direction and away from the sensible centre ground, which recognises the necessity of migration to the NHS and the economy.

In Scotland, the situation is even more acute. According to the Federation for Small Business, those born overseas are responsible for 45,000 small and medium-sized enterprises and more than 100,000 jobs in Scotland. One thousand doctors working in Scotland are EU-registered and while NHS Scotland does not publish a breakdown of staff by country of origin, statistics from NHS England show 13 per cent of health service employees are foreign-born.

The immigration debate throws up a lot of figures but the two most important numbers are 1 and 79. By 2041, the working-age population will grow by 1 per cent while over-75s will soar by 79 per cent. This is demography’s double-edged sword: people are living longer, a happy vindication of markets and modern medicine, but they are also having fewer children, reflecting social and economic changes across the developed world.

An ageing population will require more health and social care and more Scots to generate the revenue that will provide them. However, in every year of the next 25, Scotland will record more deaths than births until the former outweigh the latter by 11,000. The only population growth will be entirely down to immigration. Without it, current living standards and public services will be unsustainable.

The steeper the population decline, the more difficult it will become to staff and finance the NHS and to afford policies like free personal care. We would be facing significantly higher taxes and much greater borrowing powers for Holyrood and, at the thicker end of the wedge, even the decline of healthcare free at the point of use.

This is a situation that most Scots would wish to avoid. Whatever reforms are needed in the NHS — and there are more than a few — the underlying social compact is hardwired into Britain’s DNA. People who have worked all their days and raised families have done their part and paid their dues. They are entitled to the best health and care services available. The question is how to grow the population to fund and deliver them.

Native birthrates offer little hope. In 2018, Scotland recorded the fewest fourth-quarter births since 1855, when records began. The only alternative is attracting newcomers, which is the aim of the Scottish Government and even Boris Johnson has talked about attracting more skilled migrants to the UK.

Immigration is reserved to Westminster and the one-size-fits-all approach is at odds with the needs of much of the country, including Scotland. At present, the only leeway Scotland enjoys is its own shortage occupancy list, which makes it easier to recruit specialists like oncologists and radiographers. The UK Government wants to set a minimum earnings threshold for new migrants of £30,000. The median income north of the Border is £24,000.

Unsurprisingly, the Scottish Government wants immigration devolved. The SNP’s migration minister Ben Macpherson wrote to his UK counterpart on Friday urging her to consider regional pilot schemes, as recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee. Macpherson called the MAC’s proposal ‘a welcome acknowledgement of the need for tailored migration policy for different parts of the country’.

He envisions Holyrood running visa applications and deciding the criteria for entry, with Westminster still in charge of the border. This, Holyrood hopes, will prevent an estimated £5bn-a-year hit to the Scottish economy if Brexit provokes a drop-off in EU immigration.

Macpherson is a rising star of the SNP and one who shows signs of pragmatism and willingness to work across partisan divides. But he will be aware that his party is not well-placed to secure even partial devolution of immigration.

The SNP is a single-issue outfit. Not everything it does advances the cause of independence but in everything it does it looks for the opportunity. UK ministers know that Nicola Sturgeon would seize on visa powers to drive a further wedge between Scotland and the rest of the nation. Creating even a soft economic border along the Tweed, not least one over which the SNP had a meaningful say, is a very risky prospect.

There are some Tories who would be amenable to such an arrangement and Boris Johnson, keen to ingratiate himself with Scotland, might be sympathetic to the idea. Unfortunately, the appetite among pro-UK voters for more devolution is less than zero and many would see visa devolution as a long-term threat to the Union.

What needs to change is UK-wide policy on immigration but that seems a distant prospect. A compromise solution might be internal devolution, whereby the Home Office transfers powers to a beefed-up Scotland Office to issue visas and pilot regional immigration zones to attract new talent. Scottish ministers’ scope for influencing such schemes could be as broad as their willingness to work in good faith with the Secretary of State.

What matters is what works. By any criteria, a migration regime that worked would recognise the value of Lizanne Zietsman. She would still be in her sandwich shop today instead of 7,000 miles away trying to get back home.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at Feature image: G75Media via Pixabay.

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