TONIGHT, I will call – once again – for immigration to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament in a debate at Holyrood.

Don’t get me wrong, only independence will ensure all powers and responsibilities are in the hands of the people of Scotland. Independence is long overdue. Every day, our people, our economy and our public services suffer because we are not independent.

However, a day after another outrageous speech by a Tory minister denigrating immigration, I firmly believe that time is of the essence. The only solution, in the short term, is to devolve immigration powers and ensure that Scotland can devise a bespoke immigration policy that is fit for purpose.

We have embedded humanity, dignity and compassion in devolved welfare powers, and we would do the same with immigration powers.

The Scottish Government has already done the legwork, modelling a proposal for a visa pilot on the successful Canadian Atlantic Immigration Program. This visa pilot would be specifically for rural areas, and it would be community-led (as every policy should be). The proposal would establish a Scottish Rural Community Immigration Pilot (SRCIP).

It has been developed in a very collaborative way – cutting across traditional party, constitutional or sector lines. Local authorities, the Scottish Government, employers and other organisations in remote areas all worked together to pull these proposals together.

Despite the collective support for this proposal, it will come as no surprise to National readers that the UK Government didn’t even do the scheme the courtesy of considering it. They continue to block – even though everybody with even an ounce of understanding of the challenges we face can see the value of the scheme.

It would allow rural communities to identify the distinct needs of their local area – perhaps for a teacher, a carer or a fruit picker. Then, employers in that area (called a Community Pilot Area) could advertise vacancies using bespoke entry criteria as agreed by the local community.

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Once applications had been received, from across the world, employers and communities could work together to assess prospective candidates. Once applications had been agreed, they would recommend the chosen candidates to the Home Office for the various security checks that are required. The candidate would then be free to travel to and work in Scotland.

The best part of the proposal is the support for the inward migrants once they arrive in communities. There would be a package of support from local organisations – employers, third sector and public sector services and community groups – welcoming the individual or family and helping them to integrate and feel at home.

Of course, the employer, working with the Scottish and UK governments, would then be responsible for ensuring that the terms and conditions of the scheme continue to be met.

It’s a bespoke solution which would directly support Scotland’s aspirations for a growing economy, thriving public services and flourishing society. Meanwhile, the Tories pursue an increasingly damaging, ruthless and despicable immigration policy that pulls up the drawbridge and sends a signal to the world that the UK is unwelcoming.

The Tories are in the business of self-preservation, prioritising re-election over basic humanity. Even if they can’t be persuaded on the basis of care and compassion, can’t they see the damage to jobs, businesses and public services?

Their immigration policy is irrational at best and catastrophic at worst.

Meanwhile, we need to heed the increasingly stark warnings about our population. Bluntly, if it’s not too rude to say so, our population is getting older and getting smaller.

Last week’s early findings from the census confirmed what research from the Scottish Fiscal Commission and National Records of Scotland had already demonstrated: that rural Scotland is facing a sustained risk of substantial depopulation.

The Western Isles, Argyll and Bute, Dumfries and Galloway, Shetland Islands, Angus, Moray, Orkney Islands, the Highlands – all of them will see population declines of up to 16% between mid-2018 and mid-2043. There is undoubtedly a population crisis, particularly acute in our rural areas.

Population decline isn’t just a question of numbers, it will directly increase poverty, shrink the economy and hamstring public services. Take our economy. Our businesses are aspirational and ambitious. They have incredible goods and services. They want to grow, and employ more people and offer better wages. Yet, they are battling a Tory-made inflation crisis, a stagnating economy and difficulties in trading. The last thing organisations need is a staffing shortage, and yet that’s what they are grappling with.

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The magnitude of the impact is difficult to quantify, but just this week, the National Farmers Union of Scotland said that in 2022, as much as £60 million of food was wasted on farms because of labour shortages, especially affecting fruit and vegetable produce. That is because of a lack of pickers within the UK.

All of that impacts on poverty, because it means less money to invest in our public services, shrinks our economy and reduces employment opportunities in the long term. If the rural population decreases and gets older, as forecasts suggest, there will be fewer workers – staffing our NHS, our care homes and our grocery stores.

There will be fewer children in our schools, enriching our communities. Our older people will struggle to get care because of a lack of carers. That is the future we face if we don’t combat the depopulation crisis.

The only solution is to attract more people to live and work in our communities. That starts with allowing them to come in the first place – the unwelcoming, onerous, complicated immigration system devised by the Tories does the opposite. Scotland is a country of emigrants – with a long history of people leaving our shores.

We understand, perhaps more than most, the push and pull of migration. For decades, and indeed centuries, Scotland has haemorrhaged people who sought new opportunities across the world.

Those people were, in turn, welcomed by other societies and economies, which allowed them to flourish and prosper. Many then reinvested in our country, and some even returned to settle.

With that memory in our national DNA, we of all people should have compassion for people who want to make Scotland their home – and recognise the unique economic and social opportunities if we attract people to settle here.

As a small nation, Scotland doesn’t just welcome immigrants, we need them.

The prosperity and opportunity of the next few decades will rely on how successful we are at attracting people. The success of any scheme depends on it being bespoke and community-led.

It needs to focus on integration and support for newcomers. And it needs to be unashamed in celebrating the contribution that immigrants make to our economy, our culture and our society.