Post-Study Work Visa Debate [08/12/2016]

Ronnie Cowan MP

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I am grateful for the Scottish Affairs Committee’s work on this most important subject.

In Scotland we usually associate depopulation with rural areas that struggle to create jobs and retain young people in their communities. Areas such as the highlands and islands and Argyll and Bute do indeed contend with depopulation and have done so for hundreds of years. However, what is less recognised is that my constituency of Inverclyde, just 40 minutes from Scotland’s largest city, has some of the highest rates of depopulation in Scotland.

A report from Inverclyde Council concluded that Inverclyde’s rate of depopulation was proportionally higher than that of any local authority in the UK between 1981 and 2009. Over the same period, the number of young people in Inverclyde aged under 24 has fallen by 42%—almost double the rate of decline we have seen across Scotland as a whole. Since 1951, Inverclyde’s population has shrunk by more than 57,000 people and is projected to decline for at least 20 more years. There are no easy or simple solutions to that problem, but if we are to see Scotland and Inverclyde reach their full economic potential, we need people. To help to get those people, we need a favourable immigration policy that addresses our specific circumstances.

The UK Government told us that they are

“delivering an immigration system which works in the national interest and is fair to British citizens.”

Unfortunately, that is simply not a realistic appraisal of the effects of UK immigration policy. Whether it is spousal, work or post-study work visas, our immigration system does not work in the interests of Scotland or my constituency. The UK Government have also said:

“Uncontrolled, mass immigration also makes it difficult to maintain social cohesion, puts pressure on public services and can drive down wages for people on low incomes.”

I assure the Minister that I am more concerned about uncontrolled emigration and its effects on social cohesion and our ability to maintain social services, as well as the way in which it stifles investment and employment opportunities. In fact, over the years, the immigrants who have chosen to live in Inverclyde have contributed far more to our community than they have taken out of it.

The UK Government’s lack of understanding of our situation derives from their interpretation of the “national interest” to mean the interests of the south-east of England. The UK’s nations have a range of needs, and my constituency is not well served by an immigration policy tailored to population pressures in the south-east of England. It is therefore disappointing that the UK Government refuse to budge on post-study work visas, especially as there is overwhelming support for them to be reintroduced in Scotland. Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, says that

“it simply beggars belief that the UK Government is closing the door on an opportunity for talented international people to contribute to our economy.”

Pete Wishart MP (Intervention)

I want to draw my hon. Friend’s attention to our Committee’s very fine report on Scotland’s population and demography, which shows that Inverclyde is the second to last when it comes to immigration, with a projected -12% population change compared with the Scottish average. He is on to a very important point; there are regional variations in Scotland, but Scotland is way behind England when it comes to these things. I support him in saying we need to ensure we have these people coming to areas such as his.

Ronnie Cowan MP

I thank my hon. Friend for his timely intervention and for highlighting my point.

The inevitable result of the UK Government’s irrational commitment to reducing non-EEA migration is a Scotland that is less attractive to international students. The millions of pounds that those students contribute to our higher education sector will be under threat, and we will see a reduction in the influence and soft power we currently exert throughout the world. The frustrating aspect of this self-destructive policy is that it is entirely unnecessary and avoidable. We need only look to Canada, where regionally tailored visas are resulting in a more even distribution of migrants. If Canada and other countries can introduce regional variations in immigration policy, there is no reason the UK cannot do likewise.

The UK Government say the introduction of such a scheme would overcomplicate our immigration system. As the Minister is aware, Scotland previously introduced the Fresh Talent initiative, which allowed the Scottish Parliament, in partnership with the Home Office, to create a tailored policy to combat depopulation. The Fresh Talent initiative was not perfect, nor did it solve all of Scotland’s problems, but the fact that it existed at all is proof of the UK Government’s ability to introduce regional variations in our immigration policy if there is a political will to do so. I do not agree that there are insurmountable practical barriers to implementing such a policy.

If the UK Government will not listen to Scotland’s elected representatives, perhaps they will listen to the experts in Scotland’s higher education sector. Universities Scotland said that the UK has

“one of the least competitive policies on post-study work in the English-speaking world.”

The University of Edinburgh warned that the removal of the post-study work visa was a “damaging” change that would lead to a

“‘brain drain’ of highly skilled global talent from Scotland.”

The principals of Glasgow University, Aberdeen University and Robert Gordon University have also voiced their concerns and called for the reintroduction of the post-study work visa in Scotland. If the UK Government are intent on maintaining their current policy, they cannot claim that it truly represents all of the UK’s nations. The Scottish higher education sector and Scotland’s elected representatives have made it very clear: Scotland wants the post-study work visa to be reinstated. It is not too late for the Government to make this positive change.