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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, June 16, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 16 June 2016

Agenda: Business Motion, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Points of Order, Post-study Work Visas (Rural Communities), Policing and Security, Children, Decision Time


Post-study Work Visas (Rural Communities)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-00247, in the name of Kate Forbes, on rural communities and the post-study work visa. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the case of the Brain family, who migrated from Australia to the Scottish Highlands; understands that the Brain family intended to apply for a post-study work visa in order to remain in Scotland; believes that attracting young families to live in rural areas such as Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch is essential for the economic and social success of rural Scotland, and believes that rural communities would benefit from a new post-study work visa scheme.


Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)

I am a migrant; I have been so individually and as part of a family. My family migrated to India twice—first when I was only a few months old and again when I was in my teens—for a total of eight years. I have also been an economic migrant, as I left the Highlands for several years to work and study.

This is a time when we are battling over the meaning of “migration”, in a battle that is so fraught that I fear that it is shaping our constitutional future—when the word has the dual power to break hearts, as bodies are washed up on Mediterranean beaches, and to harden hearts, as faceless numbers are reported in the press, and when families in my constituency, such as the Brains and the Zielsdorfs, face deportation. At such a time, which is charged with complexity and confusion, I want to be clear and simple in the debate.

I have two points to make. First, in rural communities such as the Highlands, our greatest challenge is emigration. Secondly, among all the United Kingdom Government’s unhelpful changes to visas, the scrapping of the post-study work visa has been hugely detrimental to Scotland.

I will sketch out the challenge that we face in the Highlands, where we have fewer young people and a skills shortage. If the Highlands had the same demographic profile as the rest of Scotland, there would be an additional 18,000 young people there between the ages of 15 and 30. In my constituency of Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, 51 per cent of the working-age population—those between 16 and 64 years old—are aged over 45. That is 10 per cent higher than the figure for Scotland as a whole. Many of our young people leave as economic migrants to pursue training and work opportunities elsewhere.

David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Kate Forbes has made some excellent points. Does she share my view that it is important that the University of the Highlands and Islands can recruit not just young people from Scotland but international students from around the world?

Kate Forbes

I could not agree more. I will come on to that issue.

Employment figures for the Highlands are deceptive, because the unemployment level is lower than that for Scotland as a whole. The employment rate for Scotland as a whole is 73 per cent, whereas the figure for my constituency is 83 per cent, which is impressive. However, that is driven by a much higher dependence on part-time work.

The skills shortage is a challenge across Scotland, and it is acute in the Highlands. According to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, the number of job vacancies in Scotland has risen steeply since 2013—the figure went from 54,000 in 2013 to 74,000 in 2015, and 34 per cent of those vacancies arose from a lack of necessary skills. I do not need to spell out that skills shortages also have an impact on business productivity and growth.

How does the post-study work visa fit in? I will make the case for reintroducing it as a way to meet the skills shortage. The current situation is costing us. I believe that, in Scotland, we are unanimously agreed on the need to reintroduce a post-study work visa. All Scottish political parties, as well as our colleges, universities and businesses and even the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster, have agreed that we need talented international graduates. Universities Scotland conservatively estimates that Scotland has lost about £254 million of revenue since 2012 as a direct result of the closure of the tier 1 post-study work visa for international graduates.

If the skills shortage and population pressures are more acute in the Highlands, so is the need to reintroduce a post-study work visa. Last week, for example, I had dinner with a fine family from India, who have brought a wealth of medical knowledge and experience to NHS Highland and whose son got five As in his highers. We need them. A close friend of mine in the Highlands works as a dentist, at a time when dentists are in short supply, but her husband still needs a visa to join her. We need them.

Many members will have seen the Brain family in the news—they are a family whose skills we need and whose son is in Gaelic-medium primary education. They came to Scotland expecting to be able to stay on after studying, on the post-study work visa. We need them.

The Zielsdorfs run the village store in the small community of Laggan, but the family have been denied leave to stay by the UK Government. We need them. We need all the international students who no longer apply to the University of the Highlands and Islands, because there is no post-study work visa and because it is easier for them to go to our competitors in Canada, the United States and Germany. I just do not get why we are kicking out families when we need them in rural Scotland.

To take up David Stewart’s point about the University of the Highlands and Islands, in 2012-13, there were 26 full-time undergraduates from Nepal at the university, but this year the figure is seven. In 2013-14, there were 61 full-time undergraduate students from India; this year, there are 12. Universities Scotland is clear that the visa changes have impacted on recruitment to the University of the Highlands and Islands. India was previously UHI’s main market and it was once the main international market for Scotland as a whole. However, since 2011-12, the number of students applying from India has fallen by a whopping 57 per cent and, in the same period, the number of students applying from Nigeria has reduced by 24 per cent. That is happening at a time when our competitors in Canada, Germany and the United States, to name but a few, are reporting significant growth in international student numbers.

In conclusion, our current visa arrangements are restrictive and off-putting, and all of us are the poorer for that.


Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I thank Kate Forbes for bringing to the chamber a motion on what is clearly an important issue. Miss Forbes mentioned the background and the Brain family, who live in her constituency and who have had quite a high media profile. As I said, the current lack of post-study visas is an important issue, but I am pleased to note that the Home Office has granted the Brain family a further extension, which was the right thing to do with their application, so they will remain in the United Kingdom. I hope that there can be a satisfactory conclusion for the family.

It is essential that we attract people with skills and talent to Scotland. There is a broad consensus among all the parties in the chamber that a dedicated post-study immigration route is essential; I, too, am very much in favour of that. I pay tribute to what happened in the previous parliamentary session when my colleague Liz Smith argued for a Scottish solution to the problem. She has continually been contacted by colleges and universities that are greatly concerned about the ending of the tier 1 visa, which happened in 2012.

Liz Smith sat on the cross-party post-study work steering group, which considered post-study work visas, and, on behalf of the Conservative and Unionist Party, signed up to the recommendation that the UK and Scottish Governments should work together to find a solution. I still believe that that is an important way for us to go.

The Minister for International Development and Europe (Dr Alasdair Allan)

Notwithstanding what the member has just said, does he share my disappointment that the Secretary of State for Scotland has indicated that he has no intention of taking any further any of the issues that the Scottish Government has raised with him?

Alexander Stewart

I appreciate what the minister says, but lobbying is still taking place and I will be part of that lobbying, along with Liz Smith and others, because we believe that there is an opportunity here. It is important that we give the Secretary of State information and try to move things forward, because there is a case to be made. Liz Smith has been asking Westminster colleagues, including the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland, to reconsider their position. That is what we are doing at this stage.

We must consider the demographics of Scotland, which are markedly different from those of England. The population is projected to grow by 16 per cent in England between 2012 and 2037 but by only 9 per cent in Scotland over the same period. That causes us alarm and concern. Moreover, our working-age population is forecast to fall by 4 per cent during the same period, so there will be gaps that need to be filled—there is no question about that. As Miss Forbes highlights in her motion, such demographic effects are felt particularly strongly in the rural community that she represents.

It is important that we also consider what business and industry are looking for and trying to achieve. Talented individuals from overseas are aware that they have the opportunity to come to Scotland. We must make sure that cultural transformers in business can do the best that they can and take the opportunities that we have in Scotland.

We are looking at all aspects. Our universities lead the way and are at the cutting edge in what they can achieve. Many of their projects are pioneering and we must ensure that they go ahead.

We need to make decisions about the future of post-work study visas. It is important that we look at all the facts. I hope that members across the chamber can work together and that the UK and Scottish Governments can co-operate in seeking a solution that is right for Scotland, for the economy and for our communities.


David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I congratulate my fellow Highlander, Kate Forbes, on her success in securing this afternoon’s debate and on her work to raise the constituency case of the Brain family. I was happy to add my name to the cross-party support for the Brain family to carry on living and working in Scotland.

I will touch on the wider issues that are raised by the post-study work visa before I talk about the specifics of the Brain case. As Universities Scotland said in its helpful briefing for today’s debate, there is significant and respected evidence on the economic, social and cultural benefits that Scotland would gain if the post-study work visa were reintroduced.

Members should not just take my word for it but ask key universities, such as the University of Glasgow, the University of Edinburgh and the new kid on the block, UHI. They should ask the college sector and the student unions.

I have an example. A number of years ago, I visited Taiwan, as part of the cross-party group on Taiwan. I met the British Council and universities, who made it clear that in Taiwan there is a strong tradition of students going to university after school and then studying abroad and staying on to work in their international destinations. Since the change to the visa, the number of Taiwanese students coming to the UK has collapsed, which is worrying. Our loss has meant gains for New Zealand, Canada, Australia and America.

Universities Scotland argues that there is a direct correlation between the change in policy and student numbers falling off a cliff. The number of Indian students is down 60 per cent, Pakistani student numbers are down 46 per cent, and Nigerian student numbers are down 22 per cent. Although demand from China is still relatively strong, the majority of universities in Scotland are not meeting their international recruitment targets.

As the National Union of Students said to the all-party parliamentary group on migration at Westminster, more than half of international students see working in the UK after study as a very attractive option.

What is the problem with the UK’s new tier 2 route? In my view, which I think is shared by other members, it is strict, bureaucratic and unattractive to international graduates. The United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have a much more compelling visa offer for international students who study there. In its 2015 report, the Westminster APPG on migration said:

“the restrictive nature of Tier 2 ... has prohibited some employers from being able to recruit skilled ... graduates under this route.”

In Scotland, we have a great higher education product for international students. We exceed the global benchmark for international student satisfaction, there are strong quality assurance mechanisms in our universities and we have world-class research. That is why I want the Brain family to stay and work in Scotland. As we heard, they came here on a student visa, but the Home Office cancelled the tier 1 scheme in 2012, which forced the family to apply for a tier 2 visa instead. Mr Brain said to The National newspaper:

“We are ready and able to contribute to the economy of the UK ... The restrictions being imposed on us aren’t coming from Brussels, they are coming directly from Westminster.”

For generations, Scots have left the nation of their birth to seek a new life in America, Canada, Australia and beyond. They have enriched universities, industry and the political process. All we ask is that the Brain family be given their chance to enrich their adopted country. I ask the Government to think again on its restrictive and anti-competitive tier 2 policy.


Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

I, too, congratulate Kate Forbes on obtaining time for the debate. I thank my work placement student for the week—Daisy Collins—who has done the research and written the notes that I will use during my speech.

Scotland has been greatly enhanced by the diversity that comes with immigration—people from different nations who have freely chosen to build their lives here. It is hard to imagine any area of human activity that has not benefited from that input—economically, politically, socially and culturally; in our classrooms, surgeries and elsewhere; and in our towns and rural villages. Especially in remote areas, the endeavours of people from different backgrounds are evident to us all and continue to be overwhelmingly positive.

However, the current rules that have been imposed by Westminster, and which we have been discussing, are driven by the needs of another area in these islands: the populous—some might say overpopulous—parts of the south. Certain parts of the Conservative Party have rather cynically taken the opportunity to use immigration to pander to other agendas, which has resulted in backward-looking immigration rules that help no one and which utterly fail to reflect the stark divide between Scotland’s needs—and, almost certainly, those of disadvantaged areas in England—and those of the rest of the UK.

That is to the detriment of our economy, our education system and, in particular, the rural communities that are the focus of the motion. It is for that reason that I support the motion to reinstate the post-study work visa. We need a fair and robust system that is sensitive, intelligent and designed to support the requirements of all the countries of the UK. When, in 2012, the coalition Government decided to scrap the visa, our potential as a nation was fantastically weakened and all our futures were affected by that.

If we continue to support and allow unnecessary barriers, we all suffer—in the short term and the long term. We miss out on the enormous gene pool that comes from international students. In particular, there is a direct and very personal effect on the Brain family and other families. It is a bankrupt policy whose time for abolition has come. We are losing a well of talent. We want to accept in Scotland people who will train with us and develop our society. Otherwise, we get a Brain drain.

We have heard from a number of members about the effect on the number of international students coming to Scotland, especially given the counter-attractions of other nations. The impact of that decline is economic as well as practical and moral, and it is very much to be regretted.

Historically, there has been emigration from our rural communities, which does not help. My family, like other Scottish families, is represented in countries including Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and Denmark, and even the odd place like Lebanon. If we prevent people from coming here, the odds are that our people will find it more difficult to travel, which helps no one.

We have to strengthen and enhance our economy and our cultural diversity. The current policy does not help us, and the long-term effects are obvious and depressing. It is time that we used a post-study work visa scheme as a lever to tackle depopulation in our rural communities. We need a sensible post-study work visa system because the current arrangements simply do not work.


The Minister for International Development and Europe (Dr Alasdair Allan)

I apologise, Presiding Officer, as I am still struggling through a cold and my voice may run out halfway through my speech.

I thank Kate Forbes for lodging the motion and for her fine speech today. I am pleased to be called to represent the Scottish Government in closing the debate. The debate has not been about only one very compelling case—that of the Brain family, who are desperate, as we have heard, to secure a future in the Scottish Highlands—but the broader and equally compelling case for a fair and managed immigration system that meets Scotland’s specific social, economic and cultural needs.

I am pleased again to see broad cross-party support in the chamber for the principle of the reintroduction of a post-study work visa. Such support has been expressed many times before, and I assure Ms Forbes that the Scottish Government is committed to continuing to push the UK Government to deliver that policy.

I welcome—as other members have welcomed—the Home Office’s decision to allow the Brain family to stay until August. I hope that the family are able to take the opportunity to find a UK visa route that meets their needs and allows them to remain in the community that they clearly call home.

However, such compassion—uncharacteristic, I must say—from the Home Office in that case does not help others who find themselves in the same situation as the Brain family. We should make no mistake about it: the Brain family’s case is not the only compelling immigration case. As members have mentioned, there will be many other families in equally difficult circumstances throughout Scotland.

The fact is that if there was a reasonable post-study work option for international graduates, for which the Scottish Government has been pushing since the UK Government announced the closure of the previous route in 2011—in effect, if we had been listened to—we would not be in the chamber debating the matter today.

The Brain family—Kathryn, Gregg and Lachlan—would be happily carrying on with the life that they have built for themselves in Dingwall. Kathryn would have had two years after she graduated in which to develop further her skills in the workplace, gain experience and move into graduate-level employment, which—with luck—might have met the UK Government’s UK-wide income requirements.

As it is, under current UK immigration rules, international graduates do not have two years in which to find graduate-level employment. They have a maximum of four months from graduation to find a job that pays, at the very minimum, £20,800. Depending on the job and the sector in which they hope to work, the amount could be much higher.

It is clear that four months is not an adequate period to enable international graduates to make the transition between education and skilled employment. That is not a new issue, and it is not the first time that I have stood in the chamber and called on the UK Government to listen to Scotland’s specific needs and introduce an effective post-study work visa scheme. The Scottish Government has evidenced and argued, and evidenced again, the case for a post-study work route to allow international graduates to remain and work in Scotland, and for Scotland-specific immigration flexibilities.

I stood here last year as Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages and argued the case for a post-study work visa. I welcomed the cross-party support for post-study work, offered the evidence that had been gathered by leaders across our education and business sectors and called on the UK Government to honour the commitment in the Smith report to discuss the potential for the reintroduction of a post-study work route for Scotland. In that debate, Liz Smith said that it would be to Scotland’s detriment if we did not sort out this issue, and that the Smith commission provided us with an opportunity to do so. I appreciate the sentiments that have been expressed here today by Conservative and other members, but I am, with respect, sorry to say to Liz Smith that we are still waiting on the UK Government, which has so far failed to honour that commitment.

Following that debate, my predecessor, Humza Yousaf, set up a cross-party steering group on post-study work, which included representatives of all the major political parties in Scotland as well as representatives of education, student and business interests.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I apologise for being a little late for the debate due to another commitment. I say to the minister that the situation is as follows: the Secretary of State for Scotland has until 23 July to reply to the Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee report, so there is still a window of possibility for getting a Scottish solution. I can give the minister a guarantee that we will continue our discussions with the Secretary of State for Scotland to press the issue.

Dr Allan

I very much appreciate the tone of that intervention and I hope that the window is being pushed vigorously. Certainly, as far as I am concerned, the statements to date from the Secretary of State for Scotland have been very far from encouraging. However, as I said, I welcome Liz Smith’s comment that she intends to change minds at Westminster on the matter.

As I said, following the previous debate on the subject, my predecessor was involved with a steering group, which published its findings on 3 March this year. Again, that report concluded that a flexible post-study work route would benefit Scotland. The report was sent to the UK Minister for Immigration, James Brokenshire, who advises me that he is still considering its contents.

Again, the Brain family are clearly not the only family to be unfairly caught out by the UK Government’s increasingly restrictive immigration rules, and the removal of the post-study work route is not the only issue that I have with the UK Government’s immigration system. I offer my sympathy to all those who wish to live in Scotland and contribute to our economy, culture and society but who have been stymied by the UK Government’s increasingly restrictive rules. I call again on the UK Government to honour the recommendation in the Smith report to discuss with the Scottish Government the possibility of a post-study work route. I have already written to Mr Brokenshire asking for a meeting to discuss the issue and I await his response.

Again, I thank Ms Forbes for securing this debate and I hope that we are here again next year—but discussing the success of the new post-study work route that we have won for Scotland. I also wish the Brain family every success with their visa application.

13:08 Meeting suspended.  14:30 On resuming—