Devolving control over immigration to areas of the UK – including Scotland – is an “idea whose time has come”, the head of the think tank IPPR Scotland said.
Russell Gunson called on the UK Government to “consider fundamental reform of our immigration system” as Britain prepares to exit the European Union (EU).
A report from the independent IPPR complained that the UK’s current immigration system “lacks a strategic mission”, with policy developed as a result of “ad hoc reactions to political and operational crises”.
It called for a new immigration policy to be developed which would ” reject a simplistic focus on overall numbers” and would instead link policy in the area with economic and social priorities.
The report, produced by the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice, said: “As the Government reviews its policy over the coming twelve months in preparation for Brexit, there is a unique opportunity to put this strategy into practice and deliver an immigration system that meets, rather than hinders, our economic needs.
“A key tenet of the UK’s future immigration strategy should be to develop greater geographical flexibility within the system, in order to help address the sustained and growing economic imbalances across the UK’s nations and regions.”
The think tank accepted this would be “a major shift in immigration policy”.
Mr Gunson said: “Scotland has specific challenges that the current UK-wide immigration system is failing to address.
“With an ageing population and the need to boost our economy through innovation and productivity improvements, a devolved immigration system across the UK is an idea whose time has come.
“Scotland has some of the lowest levels of opposition to immigration in the UK.
“Devolving immigration could allow areas in the UK to be much more responsive to their local economic needs and public opinion, improving integration, trust and ensuring consent for immigration.
“As the Brexit negotiations continue, the UK Government should consider fundamental reform of our immigration system, devolving immigration to Scotland and other parts of the UK.”
A revamped immigration strategy for post-Brexit Britain could “address some of our country’s core economic weaknesses”, including geographical imbalances in the economy – which the current system “does little to address”, the IPPR said.
The report stated: ” Skilled immigrants are disproportionately likely to settle in London and the fixed rules on skill levels and salary thresholds make it easier for employers to recruit from abroad in the capital, where average wages are considerably higher.
“Parts of the UK which face population decline (such as the North East of England and Scotland) lack the means to address it.
“Geographical variations in migration policy could help to stimulate local economies outside London by giving them new powers to attract skilled workers from overseas. ”
It added: “A devolved system would give nations and regions more control over their own immigration rules.
“This would help cater for the different perspectives on immigration expressed throughout the country and give local people more of a say in how to manage migration.”
Power over immigration could be handed down from Westminster to the devolved administrations while in the English regions new immigration committees – made up of representatives from local councils, employers and wider civic society – could take charge.
The IPPR accepted such a set-up would present ” logistical challenges for the Home Office” but added: “In our assessment these challenges are surmountable and a system with geographical flexibility could be both administratively manageable and enforceable.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: ” We welcome this report from the IPPR, which argues that Scotland should be able to set its own labour immigration rules to meet our unique economic and demographic needs
“It is clear that the one-size-fits-all approach to immigration policy in the UK is not right for Scotland.
“This report adds to the growing consensus about the need for a tailored approach to immigration to meet the needs of different parts of the UK.
“Inward migration brings huge benefits.
“Businesses big and small, the agriculture sector, financial services companies and our NHS rely on migrant workers who perform vital roles in our economy, ensuring an available pool of labour to meet employers’ needs, across all sectors and skill levels.”
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “After we leave the EU, we will put in place an immigration system which works in the best interests of the whole of the UK.
“As part of our work to develop this system, we have asked the independent Migration Advisory Committee to assess the economic and social impact of EU citizens in all parts of the UK.
“We are carefully considering the options for the future immigration system and will set out our plans later this year.”