I was fortunate to be able to attend a conference held by the organisation Migration Policy Scotland this past week. Migration Policy Scotland is a relatively new organisation, founded by Dr Sarah Kyambi and it seeks to
‘work to improve immigration systems and enhance migration experiences through research, policy influence and inclusive engagement… [and] aim to offer principled and effective solutions to the challenges that migration may pose, while actively championing the benefits it brings.’
I was the last speaker at the event which was focussing on the experience of the changes to the immigration system over the last eighteen months or so. Being last allowed me to have the opportunity to listen to other contributors share what was happening in their sectors. It was a less than positive story with farming facing the reality of lower supply of fruit and vegetables because migrant workers were simply not opting to come or return and so there was simply no point in putting things in the ground to grow and not be picked; with hospitality and tourism taking a massive impact running at around 40,000 vacancies in Scotland meaning 60% of hotels were understaffed; with hearing that whisky is being blended in France, that salmon is being cured in Spain and so on. There seem to be critical shortages across so many sectors in the Scottish economy.
With regard to social care the Christmas Eve 2021 announcement from the Home Office which offered visa options and reduced salary thresholds amongst other measures certainly led to a period of increased activity as organisations started to begin the process of international recruitment. The thorough and fair report of the Migration Advisory Council on social care is to be commended for the progress it sought to make. But the whole process of recruiting internationally is fraught with cost, bureaucracy and burden and for small often family run SMEs working in the care sector it is well-nigh to impossible to initiate never mind to consistently implement.
By the end of the event, I was left more convinced than ever before that what we need for Scotland and with a degree of urgency is a radical redesign of immigration policy which takes account of our unique and distinctive demography. As I stated at the event what we have now is an immigration system which is demographically delusional rather than demographically realistic.
Scotland is an ageing society and has a declining population. Sadly, as we age and live longer we are not doing so healthily and that brings a personal and societal cost to it. In addition, our population which is still active and working is older and inevitably less productive as a result of health, fitness and energy. We have also seen as a result of Covid19 an increase in the number of those described as ‘inactive’ in the labour market – that is those of working age who have either retired early or chosen not to work. As someone else has said people are thinking of the ‘life-work’ balance not the ‘work-life balance’ and deciding that doing less work is the way to achieve that.
Therefore, by simple arithmetical calculation we bluntly do not have enough people to do the jobs we need filled in order to function as a modern society.
It would appear that all that Brexit has done is to stop ‘free movement’ from Europe leading to a loss of thousands who went home never to return, and our new immigration system has broadly flipped the coin so that we are now attracting 10s of 1000s of more people coming to the UK to work from non-EU countries, primarily India. Nothing wrong with that though I suspect not what many pro-Brexiteers anticipated! We have not seen in other words anything other than a marginal difference in overall immigration numbers. More worrying still is that a huge percentage of those who do manage to get to the UK are caught in the metropolitan bubble which is London and there is a real lack of folks coming north to Scotland and elsewhere.
All of this and especially the urgent need to plug employment gaps means we need a mature migration policy not one reactive to some very xenophobic motivations. Scotland has always welcomed and cherished new Scots, and as a small nation we desperately need that influx of youth and imagination to ensure we not only sustain ourselves as a society but that we positively thrive and flourish. If we do not do something about this and relatively soon, we simply will not have enough people to care for our population as we age and that for me is not the sign of a civilised society. And just in case you are sitting there thinking we will get robots and computers to ensure longevity and care. Undeniably technology will aid us in the months and years to come as it already is, but care in essence will always remain a human task and exchange and I for one do not want a robot wiping away my tear or soothing my fear as I spend my last days and moments in life.
I am fully aware that many societies are facing the workforce crisis in care and health that we are experiencing in Scotland. I am equally aware that in the long-term migration cannot be the only response to these issues. Increasing the valuing of the role of care, recognising the centrality of its societal contribution by proper reward and remuneration, addressing gender segregation which perceives care as ‘a woman’s role’ – all these and more are critical responses but so too is a mature migration system fit for the demographic reality Scotland is experiencing.
Sadly, all the talk this last week about immigration has been dominated by an ethically empty policy using planes to remove our obligations to another place. Whilst only 7% of migrants in Scotland are refugees or asylum seekers, and a couple of days before UN World Refugee Day, I cannot help but think that the toxic negativity to those who come to our shores has helped to consolidate the failure of the UK Government to take the necessary steps to make real change happen. Social care across Scotland, like so many other sectors, urgently needs an innovative re-design of migration policy that starts from a base of human dignity and ends in a place of appropriate welcome and acceptance and with a system which is manageable, accessible and affordable for all.