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Jeremy Wright: I follow the Minister's argument, but there is more advantage in the proposals than simply the ability to manage a system of economic migration. They also constitute an opportunity to establish clearly from the outset that people who come to this country can make a contribution, but that there are also expectations of them. The system's ability to admit those who can make a contribution benefits not only the economy but many other aspects of life. I understand the Minister's points, but the debate could be allowed to go a little wider, and that is what I have tried to do in my contribution.

However, with the reservations that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) expressed about whether the detail of the system will work as it should, I want to make it clear that I support what lies behind the scheme, not only because it is a way of managing economic migration but because it is a factor in a more wide-ranging system, which we can use to ensure that immigration works for the benefit of those who already live here and those who, quite properly, wish to do so.

9.23 pm

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): It will not surprise hon. Members if I approach the matter from a slightly different perspective—from the north. In Scotland we have chronic demographic problems. As I said to the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), we have the fastest falling population in Europe. For the first time in a century our
 
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population will drop below the symbolic 5 million mark by 2017, and is expected to fall below 4.5 million by 2041. We are the only constituent part of the United Kingdom with population decline on such a scale. For example, in the same period—up to 2041—we expect a population increase of some 7 million, which is a rise of 12 per cent., in England.

In the past decade we have attracted only 4.7 per cent. of migrants, although our total population is 8.5 per cent. of the United Kingdom population. Our demographic problems have been described as the single biggest challenge that faces Scotland in the medium to long term. Those are not my words but those of Labour First Minister Jack McConnell. He does not get many things right, but that assertion was absolutely correct.

It is clear from those headline figures that something is not working. If any constituent part of the United Kingdom needs creative and imaginative solutions to address this decline, it is Scotland. It is also clear that Scotland's problems are so different from the basic challenges faced by the rest of the United Kingdom that they must have Scottish-based solutions.

The simple fact is that we need people to come to Scotland. For our population merely to stand still, we shall need between 8,000 and 10,000 people to come each year for the next decade. If we do not achieve that, there will be massive consequences for every sector of our community. There will be a huge impact on our general economy, and deterioration in our community infrastructure and public services. Scotland will simply lose its competitiveness compared with other small nations in Europe.

To see how other small nations deal with such pressures, we need only to look across the Irish sea to the Republic of Ireland, a country in charge of its own immigration policy. It faced massive problems in the first half of the last century, with high levels of emigration from its shores, but it is now attracting migrants on a large scale. In fact, it has had nearly five times as many migrants as Scotland over the past few years. It is now introducing a green card system that will allow it to tackle its population problems much more impressively than we can in Scotland.

I detect in the general UK-wide immigration policy an underlying attempt to keep people out and to discourage them from coming here—I am sure that the Minister will say that that is not the case, and I respect the fact that the points-based system is an attempt to address the problems—but that is entirely the opposite of what Scotland needs. We need people to come in, and we need policies to attract them.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Why does the hon. Gentleman think that Scotland is having so many problems attracting people to live north of the border?

Pete Wishart: We are having those difficulties because we do not have control of our immigration policies. We have an Executive who have made sure that Scottish economic performance is way below that of the rest of the United Kingdom and of similar-sized countries in the rest of Europe. That is why we are having difficulty in acquiring the skilled migrants that we need. We need our own distinct policies to attract people if we are to deal with these problems.
 
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Will the new points-based system help Scotland to address those challenges? Scotland's particular difficulties are acknowledged by the fact that someone would have to have lived in Scotland for only two years before residency was granted. That is half the length of time required in the rest of the United Kingdom. There is a further concession, in that a skills shortage list will be drawn up to target the skills shortages there, especially in the oil and gas industries. That is all very well, and all very welcome, but is it enough to address the chronic underlying problems?

To answer that question, we need to understand how the scheme will be administered. We have heard that that will be done through the skills advisory board. A further concession to Scotland has been made in the    proposal for one Scottish representative—from Futureskills Scotland, I believe—to sit on the SAB. However, that will just be one Scottish voice in a chorus of UK-wide voices. Regardless of how forceful and articulate that one Scottish voice might be, it will necessarily be subsumed into the chorus of voices representing UK-wide interests.

I asked the Minister in an intervention about the future of the fresh talent initiative. That was the Scottish Executive's response to our chronic demographic and population problems. Feeble though it was, it was all we had. It was a programme that was able to attract skilled migrant workers into Scotland. However, the Minister's response to my intervention suggested that the fresh talent initiative has now gone, leaving us with no competitive advantage over the rest of the United Kingdom. Scotland's population problems will therefore be further entrenched.

How will the residency system work itself out? We welcome the fact that it will take only two years to get residency in Scotland, but because we have no distinct or separate immigration service, what will happen after those two years? Will people naturally slip down to London or the south-east of England? How will we be able to retain those people in Scotland after that two-year period has been concluded?

Many commentators have mentioned that the new points-based system is similar to the scheme operating in Australia. In many ways it is almost identical, but with one crucial and significant difference: Australia has full devolution of immigration responsibilities to state level. States can manage their own immigration requirements and introduce policies and approaches that will help them address some of their problems. Many states, such as South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania, experience challenges similar to those faced by Scotland, but the Australian system allows those states the flexibility to control their immigration policy.

Australia has recognised the benefits of area-specific migration policy for the past 10 years, and has benefited significantly from being able to control immigration policy, determine priorities and give residency status to migrants way beyond what is required for the normal Australian model. If that can work in Australia with a system of state federal government, why can it not work in the UK with devolved government? Scotland has a Parliament in Edinburgh and distinct and different immigration requirements, so why cannot it have the proper powers to address those?
 
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Of course, the most effective way of tackling our demographic problems would be to have the full powers of a normal small nation. We only need to look at Ireland as an example. With the introduction of its green card, it is building on successive decades of success in attracting migrants. We can only look at that jealously, and reflect on what could be achieved in Scotland were we able to do that.

Since the emergence of the Celtic tiger economy in the 1990s, Ireland has seen a huge turnaround in immigration. My reply to the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) is that Ireland has benefited from being in charge of its economic policy and being able to determine its own agenda in terms of economic policies and prosperity.

Damian Green: The hon. Gentleman is making an extremely interesting point about the contrast between Ireland and Scotland over the past 15 years or so. Will he reflect on the fact that the principal reason for that is that the Irish economy has moved in a steadily deregulated direction, while the Scottish economy, under a Lib-Lab Government, has moved in a steadily over-regulated one?


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