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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Immediate Brexit priorities should be the economy and public services

Oh to be a fly on the wall at yesterday's UK cabinet away day on post- Brexit planning. Given that most of the ministers around the table were in favour of Brexit - they will no doubt be outlining how they will spend the extra £350m a week they promised!

In practice they will be considering more prosaic options than the Brexit fantasies. As the Guardian reports, some officials at the Foreign Office are pushing for as much Europe as possiblewhile others in the Home Office are reluctant to consider full EEA membership or single market access because their priority is an immigration clampdown.

And there lies the kernel of the problem. The most advantageous trade deal requires the UK to sign up to most of the EU rules, including the free movement of labour. The very thing the Brexiteers around the cabinet table used to stir up the Brexit vote.

Then there is Scotland's lone man around the cabinet table - David Mundell. He will report that the natives are restless, having voted decisively to remain in the EU, and considering options that don't even appear in the hastily cobbled together Whitehall scenario planning.

I can offer him some assistance with the UNISON Scotland submission to the Scottish Parliament European Committee inquiry on this subject. In that submission we suggest that Governments should take immediate actions to support the economy and address the concerns of EU citizens living in Scotland. After that, we believe that the Scottish Government should use all its powers to protect public services and human rights, including employment rights. This also means considering all the constitutional options to minimise the impact Brexit could have on Scotland.

You can see from this that our immediate concern is for UNISON members who are EU nationals. The obvious first question for me was how many public service workers in Scotland are EU nationals. I trawled around the usual statistical sources and discovered that no one appears to collect this data. For example, in NHS Scotland there is a voluntary staff survey, which given the number of staff who declined to answer, is unreliable.

Jonathan Portes at NIESR has been doing some research into this and has published some very interesting initial findings this week. He has discovered that HMRC’s estimate that in 2013-14 there were 2,540,000 individuals who had a tax record” in the UK and were EEA nationals. In contrast, the Labour Force Survey (LFS) in 2013-14 reported the number of EU nationals in employment fluctuated between 1.45 and 1.62 million. The Annual Population Survey reported 2.15 million, although this includes non-economically active persons. While Jonathan suggests some possible reasons for the difference, it still adds up to a significant discrepancy. More importantly it suggests that we may be more reliant on EU nationals than we think.

In our submission, I set out in some detail the reasons why migration is so important to Scotland's economy and public services and therefore why Theresa May’s priorities are wrong for Scotland. Public opinion polls in Scotland and the UK show strong support for letting EU migrants stay. We do not believe that our colleagues from EU countries should be used as some form of bargaining counter in Brexit negotiations.

The Scottish Government should also be calculating the costs to public services and the wider economy of the different post-Brexit immigration options, being considered at Chequers. For example, if the UK government decides that free movement is too great a political price to pay for EEA membership, then there would be significant additional employment costs. The current rules for non-EEA nationals include sponsorship and immigration skills charges. If the supply of labour was restricted there will also be workforce planning issues, particularly in health and care, and associated training costs. Scotland will need around 65,000 extra health and care workers by 2020.

We don't ignore the various constitutional options and set those out in our submission. However, an early priority should be the very human consequences for EU nationals living in Scotland and Scots living in EU states. This matters for them personally, but it also matters for the Scottish economy and the public services they help deliver.

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