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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 16 December 2020

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Burntisland Fabrications, Supporting EU, EEA and Swiss Citizens to Stay in Scotland, Scottish Parliamentary Standards (Sexual Harassment and Complaints Process) Bill: Stage 1, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Interlinked Fire and Smoke Alarm Systems


Contents


Supporting EU, EEA and Swiss Citizens to Stay in Scotland

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Lewis Macdonald)

The next item of business is a statement by Ben Macpherson on supporting European Union, European Economic Area and Swiss citizens to stay in Scotland. The minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

15:28  

The Minister for Public Finance and Migration (Ben Macpherson)

Friday is international migrants day, which is a day on which we all have the opportunity to reflect on the circumstances and contributions of those who have chosen to migrate to and from different places around the globe and a day for us to recognise and respect the rights of all migrants.

For the whole world, migration has, of course, always been a central aspect of human history. Indeed, in decades past, many people left Scotland to go and make their future elsewhere. The Scottish story is one of migration. In recent decades, that story has been enriched significantly by the inward migration of individuals and families who have chosen to come to Scotland and make their home here—people who have paid this country the compliment of moving here to develop our economy, contribute to our public services, and enhance our communities.

As we mark international migrants day and look ahead to 2021, and as the transition period comes to an end on 31 December, I ask MSP colleagues and all of Scotland to focus anew on doing all that we can to recognise, value and support EU, EEA and Swiss citizens who have chosen to live and work in Scotland, and to commit together to uphold their rights. I know that we all want EU citizens to continue to feel welcome in Scotland and to retain their rights to stay. That is why I am calling on colleagues, people and organisations across Scotland to do all that we can in the next six months to support EU, EEA and Swiss citizens in our communities, workplaces and constituencies to successfully apply for the United Kingdom Government’s EU settlement scheme before it closes at the end of June 2021.

In the interests of expediency, for the remainder of my statement I will refer to those who need to apply as EU citizens, although EEA and Swiss citizens also need to apply to the scheme, as do non-UK citizen family members of EU, EEA and Swiss citizens. It should be noted that Irish citizens do not need to apply, although they can if they wish to.

The Scottish Government has always been clear that it is wrong that any such citizens are being asked to apply to retain the rights that they already enjoy. We still believe that the EU settlement scheme should be a declaratory system, that the five-year residence requirement for full settled status should be removed and that the UK Government should provide the option of physical proof of settled and pre-settled status to mitigate the risk of discrimination.

However, we are also realistic that the current UK Government is ideological and obstinate when it comes to immigration issues. Although we cannot expect it to do the right thing, the rest of us can. We can collectively mobilise all that is in our powers and responsibilities to help EU citizens in Scotland to stay, which means supporting those new Scots—our friends, loved ones, colleagues and neighbours—to successfully apply to the scheme before the end of June 2021.

So far, more than 225,000 applications have been made by people who are living in Scotland. Although that is welcome, it is important that we understand that that figure relates to the number of applications, not the number of individuals who have secured their status. Unfortunately, we do not know how many individuals have applied to the scheme, because the UK Government will not release that information.

Many of the EU citizens I speak to tell me they are worried about the future. Unfortunately, the potential risk of discrimination, particularly from next year, is one of the key issues that they raise. Once the transition period ends on 31 December, there will be three distinct groups of EU citizens living in Scotland: first, people with settled and pre-settled status; secondly, people whose rights are protected by the withdrawal agreement but who have not yet secured their settled or pre-settled status and are entitled to it; and thirdly, EU citizens who arrived in Scotland for the first time after 1 January 2021.

In theory, people who are in the first of those two groups should not see any significant changes to their lives. However, there are concerns about discrimination. A hostile environment is based on requiring employers and service providers, under threat of sanction, to check an individual’s immigration status. However, without physical proof of status—or even any proof at all for those who have not yet secured their status—it will be difficult for many EU citizens to prove their eligibility. Will a landlord or an employer know the difference between the three categories of citizen? Will they even understand what pre-settled and settled status means? Will an employer be tempted to offer a job to a less-qualified candidate, rather than risk a penalty? What will happen after 30 June? The Home Office has said that it will accept late applications when there are reasonable grounds to do so, but what constitutes reasonable grounds? As yet, we do not know.

From 1 July 2021, those who do not apply will, in the eyes of the UK Government, be here illegally. At best, they will face a hostile environment and, at worst, they will face enforced removal. We know that because the Windrush scandal showed how callous and devastating the UK Government’s immigration policies can be. In good faith, I genuinely hope that the UK Government has learned from those mistakes and will listen to the worries of EU citizens. Given the risks, we must all do what we can to help and support EU citizens. We must ensure that every EU citizen understands that they need to submit an application.

In the Scottish Government, we are doing everything that we can to get that message out, and we will continue to do so. I ask every member of Parliament to continue to help in that process—to help every EU citizen to secure their legal rights and to help everyone in Scotland to know what EU citizens’ rights are.

To assist with that, the Scottish Government’s stay in Scotland campaign provides information and support. As colleagues will be aware, working with third sectors partners, we are funding an EU citizens support service with a telephone helpline that is free to use and staffed by qualified advisers; I remind everyone that the number is 0800 916 9847. In addition, we part-fund a network of advisers in citizens advice bureaux throughout Scotland, and we are funding a specialist caseworker to work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and take referrals from any Scottish local authority. That will ensure that the most vulnerable, including looked-after children and care leavers, get the support that they need. We are also providing funding for two solicitors to provide legal advice and representation for people with more complex cases. Again, I urge MSPs and others to share the information about those services.

We are doing all of that because, although some people will find the application process straightforward, others will have complex immigration histories or have difficulty in gathering the necessary evidence. Applying can be a bureaucratic and challenging process, particularly for those who are vulnerable. That is why we all need to work to support EU citizens across Scotland.

We also need to make sure that people know what EU citizens are entitled to. Accurate information about the rights of EU citizens is crucial, not just for EU citizens but for service providers, employers, landlords, banks and elected representatives. That is why I have commissioned the human rights charity JustRight Scotland to produce a series of accessible guidance notes on EU citizens’ rights. Available in a range of languages, the notes help people better understand their rights to live, work, study and access healthcare, benefits and housing in Scotland. I encourage colleagues and others to share those materials widely.

Presiding Officer and colleagues, my ask today is clear: let us send an unequivocal message to EU citizens across Scotland that they are valued, appreciated and an integral part of modern Scotland. Let us commit collectively to work across Parliament to support EU citizens and to help them to secure their right to stay in this country—their country. Let us do all that we can in the year ahead to safeguard their rights and protect them from direct, indirect and accidental discrimination. Let us work together to do all that by signposting EU citizens to the advice and the support that they need and by raising awareness across the board of the rights of EU citizens.

We must stand together with EU citizens in Scotland—our friends, loved ones, colleagues and neighbours—and support them through this challenging period. Together, we are 21st century Scotland and we are collectively enriched by our diversity.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The minister will take questions on the issues that have been raised in his statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business. It will be helpful if members who wish to ask a question press their request-to-speak button now.

Dean Lockhart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I thank the minister for early sight of his statement. I start by saying that the Scottish Conservatives whole-heartedly agree that citizens of the EU and the European Economic Area and Swiss citizens have played and continue to play a welcome and vital role in Scotland’s economy, community and public life.

The latest EU settlement figures show a very positive trend in that a higher than expected number of those citizens have applied for settled status. Almost 4.5 million applications were received across the UK and 4.3 million applications have been concluded. As the minister said, 225,000 applications were made in Scotland, which demonstrates that people who have made Scotland their home want to stay.

However, there are many whose settled status remains to be confirmed. Many are in that position because of the disruption that has been caused by the Covid pandemic and the fact that they have stopped working because of the furlough scheme. To address those issues, the UK Government has confirmed that anyone who has left the UK temporarily because of Covid can continue to apply online and that that should not affect their eligibility. I am sure that the minister will welcome that.

In order to ensure maximum take-up of settled status by those who are eligible, what specific steps is the Government taking to promote the scheme, especially in our university communities, the agricultural sector, tourism and other areas in which there are high numbers of EU and other eligible workers?

Can the minister also confirm that the Scottish Government has spent all of the £200 million of Barnett consequentials from the UK Government on Brexit preparedness in Scotland, including on the settled status scheme?

Ben Macpherson

First, I welcome Dean Lockhart to his post. I also welcome his constructive engagement since taking up his post.

Dean Lockhart is right to emphasise the number of applications that we have received. However, as I said, we need collectively to engage in considering an issue around that, which is that the number of applications does not necessarily marry up with the number of people who have applied. I will illustrate that with an example. There have been more than 14,000 applications from Romanian citizens in Scotland, but it is estimated that there are only 13,000 Romanians in Scotland. We welcome the figure of more than 225,000 applications, but the latest figures show that there are more than 234,000 EU citizens in Scotland, so there is still some way to go. We need to work collectively to encourage people to go through the scheme, and that is what today’s statement is about.

On what we are doing to engage, since 2019, when we launched our stay in Scotland campaign, which was funded with investment of more than £1 million, we have engaged with third sector partners such as Citizens Advice Scotland and the Citizens Rights Project, in particular, along with JustRight Scotland, to provide materials and support. The phone line support that I mentioned is only available in Scotland and it goes over and above what is being done in the rest of the UK to provide advice as well as information.

We continue to engage with a range of stakeholders. On Friday, the Scottish Government will seek to cascade that welcoming message and information for people so that they sign up to the scheme. We hope that stakeholders and all political parties will use international migrants day to get that message out.

We continue to engage with the Consular Corps, faith groups, rural communities, the National Farmers Union Scotland, the Scottish Tourism Alliance, the business community, the health sector, the Scottish Retail Consortium and supermarkets. We are using a whole range of different ways to get the message out that people should apply and that support is available. If any members, including Mr Lockhart, have further suggestions, they should please let me know because we can only do this effectively if we do it collectively.

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I thank the minister for advance sight of his statement.

EU, EEA and Swiss citizens make a vital contribution to Scotland. They are our families, our neighbours and our colleagues, and we want them to choose to stay. I join the calls for the UK Government to introduce a declaratory system to protect people’s rights and demonstrate how much we value their contribution.

I share the concerns that we risk facing another Windrush generation. There are reports that older or vulnerable residents who have been in the UK for some time might not yet be aware of the scheme. How is the Scottish Government raising awareness among those groups in particular, encouraging harder to reach residents to apply to the scheme and making sure that the support is tailored to their needs?

I sought assurances from the UK Government’s immigration minister last week at the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee about the ability of citizens who have, understandably, returned to their home country during the Covid-19 pandemic to apply for settled and pre-settled status remotely. What support can Scottish Government give to encourage those people to apply remotely and return to Scotland? Many of them have lost their jobs and accommodation because of the pandemic. How can we make sure that they have access to the information and support that is available to residents who are still here?

Ben Macpherson

I thank Claire Baker for those questions—I will try to get through them all.

First, I agree with Claire Baker’s points about a declaratory system. One of the main arguments in favour of such a system over an application-based system is that it avoids those who are particularly vulnerable, those who are elderly or those who are remote from Scotland inadvertently not applying for settled status. That has been one our concerns from the beginning. A declaratory system, with people’s rights enshrined in law, would remove the need for an application and remove that risk. That is why we continue to call for such a system.

However, given the reality that we face in terms of vulnerable or older citizens, who may have been here for decades, we have engaged in a marketing campaign for well over a year, in order to raise awareness of the scheme among EU citizens because we want people to apply to stay.

We have provided funding of more than £1 million, working with Citizens Advice Scotland in its bureaux across Scotland and through its networks, and we continue to fund the Citizens Advice project, which has undertaken a number of events—I am engaging in one event next week. We also continue to reach out through the CAS networks and to engage with other third sector partners, such as the Fife Migrants Forum, with which I know Claire Baker has significant engagement.

We continue to engage in that effort and to use all mechanisms in order to reach out. Recently, we wrote to the Italian diaspora—the Scots-Italian community. The Italian consulate in Scotland helped us to reach a number of potentially vulnerable people, and we will continue to undertake such initiatives.

On those who are remote from Scotland, one of our big concerns is about people who have a place at university in Scotland but who have not been able to attend because of Covid. Because they have not been in the UK before 31 December, they will not be able to apply to the EU settlement scheme under the current rules. I have written urgently to UK ministers to urge them to change the rules so that those who would have been entitled to the settlement scheme will be able to apply.

We continue to engage on those challenging issues, but, unfortunately, because of the way in which the scheme is designed, I envisage that significant anomalies such as the example that I just gave will come up over the months ahead.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The first two questions have taken eight minutes. I encourage succinct questions and answers, please.

Annabelle Ewing (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

Does the minister agree that the UK Government should urgently review its settled status programme to ensure that issues such as not providing physical proof of status can be resolved? Surely, no reasonable person could oppose the provision of physical proof of status. Indeed, one would have thought that the UK Tory Government would wish to do the necessary to avoid another Windrush scandal.

Ben Macpherson

I agree. It is extraordinary that proposals—for example, in the House of Lords—to bring in the option of physical proof were rejected, particularly as the people who were affected by the Windrush scandal are now, rightly, able to obtain physical proof of their status. No other group in the UK is denied physical proof of their immigration status apart from EU citizens.

That differential treatment is wrong in principle and in practice, it raises a real risk of discrimination, and it particularly affects vulnerable groups, as I have mentioned. We do not want digital proof to be scrapped—moving to digital status has its advantages; we want the additional option and safeguard of physical proof. The UK Government should make those changes as soon as possible.

Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

My colleague Dean Lockhart asked two questions, the second of which the minister declined to, or did not, answer. I will repeat it. Has the Scottish Government spent all of the £200 million of Barnett consequential funding from the UK Government on Brexit preparations, including on the settled status scheme? I ask the minister to answer that question now.

Ben Macpherson

The consequentials that we have received in preparation for Brexit are, of course, under consideration and have been utilised by my colleague Mr Russell, the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs, and others.

As far as I am aware, no consequentials have been received for the EU settled status scheme. Indeed, the investment that the Scottish Government has made in providing our helpline, for example, has been over and above anything that the Home Office is doing. It has been widely welcomed by campaign groups and others who are supporting EU citizens, so I would say that the Scottish Government is, if anything, going above and beyond in supporting EU citizens here.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

Does the minister share the concerns of organisations such as the NFU Scotland regarding the end of freedom of movement and the new immigration rules? Those concerns relate to Scotland’s agricultural sector, which relies heavily on seasonal workers, and our dairy sector, which relies all year round on European workers, many of whom do not meet the minimum salary threshold of £25,600 and are ineligible for the seasonal agricultural workers scheme.

Ben Macpherson

Indeed. We are concerned that the current number—10,000 people—that the UK Government is allowing in under the seasonal agricultural workers scheme is inadequate. We have consistently encouraged the UK Government to raise the figure in order to support the agricultural sector as we move into the coming period.

With regard to others who play key roles in the sector but are not part of, or eligible for, the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, I recognise that the salary threshold in the UK Government’s proposed immigration system will be prohibitive and will cause problems. In addition, I note that we should encourage everyone in the agricultural sector who can apply for settled status to do so.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

I join the minister in thanking EU citizens, EEA citizens and Swiss citizens for their contributions to Scotland. I am sorry if any of them have felt hurt by any of the rhetoric around Brexit that we have heard over the past four or five years. This is their home: we want them here and we welcome them here, and they are as Scottish—and, if they are from my city, as Glaswegian—as anybody else.

It is very welcome that, as the minister noted in his statement, the Scottish Government has introduced a helpline, and that there will be one case worker with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and access to two solicitors for advice and representation. However, if there is higher demand than can be met by the two solicitors and the case worker, will the resources be made available to citizens?

Ben Macpherson

We consistently monitor use of the helpline and whether more resource is required. That is an on-going consideration as we go into the next period, in which we face the situation with the three groups of EU citizens that I mentioned. We continue to keep the matter under review. In the past few months, we have seen an increase in use of the helpline and the services, but there is still capacity. We want people to use the services, so I ask colleagues to share their knowledge of the resources in order that people can get the help that they need.

Dr Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

Given the major uncertainties around the future immigration system, and the United Kingdom Government’s complete refusal to engage with the Scottish Government about it, does the minister agree that it is now imperative that the Scottish Parliament gets powers to tailor migration policies to meet Scotland’s specific needs? I speak as the MSP for a constituency that will, it is projected, lose nearly 5 per cent of its population by 2026 and for which inward migration is essential.

Ben Macpherson

Today’s debate focuses on the people who are already here, but we need and want to attract more people to Scotland, because of our demographic challenges, including our low birth rate, and because we want people to be here in order that we can realise our growth potential and capacity.

We are deeply concerned about the system that the UK Government proposes to implement from 1 January; it will have significant impacts in the short, medium and long terms. The UK Government’s policy making in that regard underlines the need for a differentiated approach to immigration for Scotland.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

For how long will the helpline for EU citizens be available? Why did the Scottish Government decide that it was unable itself to issue physical tokens of settled status, given that it has access to the relevant data?

Ben Macpherson

The helpline will be in place until at least the end of the current financial year, but given that the closing date is June 2021, we would look to extend it beyond that point if it becomes clear that it is still required, as I anticipate it will be.

With regard to physical proof, Mr Greer asks an important question. Given that immigration policy and law are reserved, the Scottish Government would not be able to issue anything that would demonstrate a successful application to the settled status scheme that would be legally valid. In fact, if we were to issue physical proof, that might well merely create another layer of discrimination and could become highly problematic.

I appreciate the suggestion that has been made. I have looked at it robustly, but I am afraid that it would come with significant risks and challenges.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Liberal Democrats opposed the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill at Westminster last month and sought to amend its digital-only proof provisions. My colleague Christine Jardine is gathering support for a private member’s bill that will automatically guarantee the rights of EU citizens and give them that physical proof. Will the minister lend his support to that effort?

Ben Macpherson

I thank Mr Rennie for what his party has done thus far, and I would be very interested in engaging with Christine Jardine on what seems to be a very worthwhile private member’s bill.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

Immigration is clearly reserved, yet it is hugely important for Scotland. Has the minister found his opposite number at UK level to be willing to engage with and talk to him?

Ben Macpherson

Unfortunately, I have not. I have not had a meeting with an immigration minister of the UK Government since July 2019. There have been three immigration ministers in the Boris Johnson Government, but I have not been offered the courtesy of a meeting with any of them. That is wrong.

Immigration cuts across a range of devolved areas, so the approach that has been taken demonstrates very inefficient government. I noted that the Minister for Public Borders and Immigration told a committee of this Parliament last week that he would meet my colleagues, but not our designated migration minister. That would be really inefficient use of ministerial time; it makes no sense at all, and it just shows the disrespect agenda of the UK Government.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes questions on the statement. I apologise to Stuart McMillan, but we need to move on to the next item of business.

I remind members to observe the social distancing arrangements that are in place as they enter and exit the chamber.