“Blocked” by Westminster: Scottish Rural Visa Scheme

Last year the Scottish Government developed a scheme which would support local businesses, especially in rural and island communities, by easing the migration process for those wishing to work in these locations in Scotland. But what has happened to the Scottish Rural Visa Scheme?

The Proposal for a Scottish Rural Visa Scheme is modelled on the successful Canadian Atlantic Immigration Program but as this area is a power retained by London it requires approval from the UK Government.

At the setting out of its aims and objectives in September 2023 Councillor Emma MacDonald Political Leader of Shetland Council said:

“Shetland has incredible economic opportunities arising over the next few years, with developments in space, energy and decommissioning emerging alongside the continued high performance of our more established sectors such as fishing, aquaculture, construction and agriculture.

“However, an ageing demographic and shortage of key skills means that we are experiencing real struggles in growing our industries and maintaining key services, threatening economic prosperity and the potential for growth.

“The proposed rural visa pilot will recognise the pressing need for bespoke measures to address these challenges in rural areas.”

On Census Day, 20 March 2022, the population of Scotland was estimated to be 5,436,600. This is the largest population ever recorded by Scotland’s Census. This may seem like good news, however, over the last ten years the rate of population growth in Scotland has slowed down.

Migration is important to Scotland because we have an ageing population and we need young men, women and families to come and live in our country.

Scotland’s Census 2022

The population is also not evenly distributed throughout Scotland with areas like the Highlands and Islands struggling with a decreasing population. Within the Highlands and Islands it differs too with Orkney seeing a 3% increase since 2011 but decreases in Shetland of 1.2% and Na h-Eileanan Siar 5.5%.

There are also decreases in Argyll & Bute, North & East Ayrshire and Dumfries & Galloway. If you look closer, some of those areas , including Orkney where the population has increased, show an ageing demographic – people over 65.

So what has happened to the Scottish Rural Visa Scheme, supported by the Scottish Parliament, our Local Authorities and communities ?

A year on and Kate Forbes SNP MSP brought forward to the Scottish Parliament a debate on what has happened – or more accurately what has not happened and why it is needed.

In her opening remarks Kate Forbes said:

profile image of Kate Forbes

“The visa would allow for bespoke immigration that would meet the needs of particular sectors and geographies and enrich our communities and our society. It is modelled on the successful Canadian Atlantic immigration programme, which proves that it could work even in a devolved context and be transformational for local economies.

“However, despite widespread support, the obvious benefits for rural Scotland and the comprehensive work that has gone into developing the proposal, it has not progressed for one reason: the UK Government has blocked it.”

When the UK left the world’s largest free trade area, the European Union, it also lost the free movement of people that came with membership. The lack of workers has hit in particular, the Care sector, Hospitality, and Deliveries. There are , of course, many more areas affected but in these three the impact has been felt the most. Not only did people who once felt welcome here to work leave, but others did not come. The UK’s decision to leave the EU has long lasting effects.

This is not a position Scotland wished to be in when the whole of the nation voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU – but here we are and with a UK Government that is very much anti migration. It is also a UK Government which ignores the devolved governments and doesn’t even bother to consult them when making major changes to policy – like rolling back on its Climate Change pledges.

So basically that’s why you have heard nothing more about the excellent idea supported by our Parliament to have a Visa Scheme tailored to the needs of individual rural and island communities. A scheme that would work within a devolved set up (as shown by the example from Canada) but which is met with deafening silence from London.

You can watch the debate here:

Fiona Grahame

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