We must make clear New Scots are welcome here

ONE of the main issues at play in the Brexit vote was immigration, and it is important to be open and honest when we are discussing it. It is an important issue, some people are concerned about it and those concerns must be addressed, not dismissed.

I applauded to the rafters the decision of the Blair government to open the doors of the UK to full freedom of movement from the first opportunity in 2004, where a number of other EU states had opted instead to have more restrictive phasing in of the rights over a number of years.

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First published in The National, 23 January 2019

This was great for Scotland and great for the UK too, with millions of other EU nationals (remember, we’re EU nationals too) coming to make Scotland and the UK their home. In Scotland’s case this reversed years of population decline, breathing life back into some of our most fragile communities and made the place a younger, more interesting and more diverse place to be.

EU freedom of movement has been great for Scotland. Folk from elsewhere in the EU tend to be younger, better educated, make less use of public services and pay their taxes. EU nationals contributed, net, £55 per second to the UK exchequer – there’s no downside.

And yet the impression of a downside was allowed to build up. Whipped up by day after day of anti-immigrant headlines and pandered to by politicians who should have known better, there is an impression in some quarters that “we need to control our borders”, which omits the fact we already do. Remember how you had to show your passport that last time you arrived home from overseas – that’s the control right there.

I say politicians who should know better. It was Gordon Brown who dismissed the concerns of one woman, notably calling her a bigot, and it was the self-same Gordon Brown who used the infamous slogan “British jobs for British workers” in the dying days of his unlamented premiership. If that is the kind of signal political leaders give off then it is hardly unsurprising that people take their lead.

So I am proud that in Scotland we have a better debate, and that we have real leadership across the parties that immigration has been good for us. And it is one of the most objectionable elements of Brexit that so many of our New Scots, and indeed Scots settled the length and breadth of the EU, have had to live for the past two years with a background noise of uncertainty, feeling increasingly anxious and indeed unwelcome.

The UK has an appalling immigration policy. Of course, we need to have a policy and there will be limits to any country’s rules, but the UK policy is designed to make people feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, with people from outside the EU having to pay exorbitant fees and meet almost impossible burdens of paperwork for the privilege of enriching our country. It is this hostile environment, overseen by the same people who brought us the Windrush scandal and plenty others, that EU nationals are to be tipped; little wonder they are feeling anxious.

So the announcement this week that the £65 fee to apply for settled status is to be binned is welcome.

It should never have existed in the first place so let us not praise the Tories for stopping it, but it is a welcome move nonetheless. But the scheme is still a shambles, with millions of people having to go through a process that they did not sign up for which underlines in a subtle and very deliberate way that they’re not in fact one of us, that they’re not from round here, don’t get too comfortable. Not in Scotland’s name.

But we need to do more, and as we enter into an even tougher phase of the Brexit process we need to think creatively to help people. So last week I wrote a letter which 24 MEP colleagues signed calling on the EU and UK to ring-fence the citizens’ rights into a stand-alone agreement, so that even in the event of no-deal then the millions of people on both sides of the North Sea will have their rights protected.

It is sad indeed that we have reached this day where we now cannot wait any longer, but for all those people living and working across the continent, they have already spent far too long living in uncertainty about what Brexit will mean for them, and we need to get Plan B warmed up.

I think there is scope for the provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement to be salvaged.

They’re far from perfect but compared to the alternatives indeed there is a pressing need to do so. It would be unconscionable to allow so many folk to lose their rights if such monumental political failure as might be on the cards comes to pass.

We all have a right to be anxious and angry at how Scotland is being treated by a high-handed and arrogant UK Government that is still too busy arguing with itself to engage with anyone else, but there are folk in our communities feeling it particularly keenly. We must unite around them, and leave them in no doubt that if they’re in Scotland, they’re one of us.