Immigration set to be thorny issue in referendum debate

IT SEEMS that for at least the last couple of decades, Scotland has become mildly obsessed with its dwindling population and the prospect of our own demise.

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Scotland's ­population has been falling for the last couple of decades

As birth rates fell in the early 1980s, we began to see a pattern of death rates outstripping birth rates, meaning our population was decreasing year upon year.

By 2002, our birth rates had fallen to their lowest ever at 51,270.

Two years later, Scotland had 4000 more deaths than births, a dying breed perhaps, in the truest sense.

This is, of course, fertile ground for politicians of all parties.

Our First Minister has articulated that Scotland's economic strategy as an Independent nation would do more to encourage young people to build their lives and careers within Scotland, and that it would also seek to attract people to live in Scotland.

Indeed, Scotland is viewed as the only part of the UK which favours increased migration.

Perhaps our views reflect a cultural heritage, as a legacy of our own waves of migration over the centuries, beginning with the Highland clearances.

There is little doubt among those responsible for population projections that Scotland is likely to experience significant skills shortages going forward.

There are also cultural differences between Scotland and other parts of the UK, giving us a more benign approach to the prospect of increased migration.

That may alter however, when Scotland's immigrant population, currently 6%, reaches the current UK level of 12%.

In cosmopolitan terms, we remain relatively untested compared with the rest of the UK and it will be for future generations to decide if such policies prove successful.

Tensions, as always, will bubble close to the surface in a future, increasingly multicultural, Scotland.

However, despite the predictions of the last decade, the 2011 Census revealed that Scotland's population stood at record levels. The 5,295,000 people now living here, is the highest number ever.

So, what's the problem?

The problem is, that while immigration has increased slightly, so too birth rates, the real reason our population is increasing, is because death rates are down, we are living longer and our nation is getting older.

Indeed, we are getting older at a record pace, quicker than any other part of the UK.

One in eight of us are now at pensionable age and that figure will rise in future years.

And so the dilemma, who is going to do all the work and pay all the tax to pay all of the pensions?

The SNP asserts that Scotland's new economic strategy will deliver the stimulus necessary to create and fill the jobs needed to pay for our ageing population.

The Better Together campaign says that, as part of the UK, the burden will be met by the UK Taxpayer, as long as we don't vote Yes to Independence.

As a policy, Immigration has never really been a live issue in Scotland. It will now become one.

While the economy of the rest of the UK may not need increased levels of immigration in future years, an Independent Scotland certainly will.

And so, how will Scotland's immigration policy work if we vote for Independence?

It would seem we favour a form of points system, one which encourages people to settle in more remote parts of the country, where population decline may need them most.

Canada and Australia operate such systems and have Visa regimes that tie entry to location, usually for three years.

After that time, the restrictions fall away, however most will have put down strong roots and are unlikely to be as attracted to the bright lights, as they may originally have been on entry.

Such a system sounds very appealing to a nation such as Scotland with

its large and sparsely populated rural geography.

However, there is a problem, a major problem.

The European Union operates a policy of free movement and settlement within its Borders via The Schengen Agreement.

This would prevent Scotland pursuing policies similar to Canada or Australia. Our First Minister has said that Scotland will not sign up to the EU's Schengen Rules.

Again, this sounds appealing.

However, when and if an Independent Scotland applies to join the EU, it is unlikely that other European States would allow Scotland to opt out of such a policy, when they remain bound by it.

Immigration will therefore become a point of contention between both sides in the referendum debate. It will prove a testing and sensitive issue.

As the son of an immigrant, I look forward to hearing people's views and to a healthy and informed debate.

SOME seven or eight months ago,

I first discussed the possibility of writing a weekly column.

Those discussions bore fruit and

I published my first column in May this year.

I have always enjoyed writing and I have enjoyed covering dozens upon dozens of topics across the last seven months.

I have equally enjoyed all the letters, comments and e-mails, the compliments and the criticisms.

Most of all though, I have enjoyed the freedom to express my own opinion.

I have done so without any favour or prejudice and I trust that my thoughts and views have found you, as they have left me.

It has been a great pleasure working with the staff at the Evening Times and getting such terrific feedback from its readers.

I have no plans to pull any punches next year, however, in the meantime I want to thank you all for you're support throughout the year, and to wish

both you, and you're families, all the compliments of the season and a very Merry Christmas.

Local government

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