NEW immigration laws to be brought in following the Brexit vote could permit different regulations for different sectors of the UK economy, a Conservative Cabinet Secretary has said.
But David Mundell made clear that the Westminster Government is “not minded” to hand control over immigration policy north of the border to Scotland.
Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP Government called for that in a paper setting out what Holyrood ministers describe as “compromise proposals” aimed at keeping Scotland in the European single market.
The UK Government has still to formally respond to that paper, which was published in December 2016.
Mr Mundell, the Scottish Secretary, said today that the UK Government would do this “as soon as practicable”.
He told MSPs on Holyrood’s Europe Committee: “The Scottish Government are entitled to a response, so the UK Government will respond formally to the proposals contained in the document.”
While he described the paper from the Scottish Government as a “serious contribution to the debate” on the UK’s future post-Brexit, Mr Mundell made clear that the UK Government did not support the devolution of immigration powers.
He also said he had “not seen evidence that suggests that there is the possibility of membership of the single market without effectively European Union membership and the various things that go with that”
On immigration, the Scottish Secretary said the UK Government would bring forward legislation, which would run alongside its proposed Great Repeal Bill.
“What is happening will be to bring back control of immigration in relation to people coming from the EU to the United Kingdom to the UK,” he told the committee.
“It doesn’t mean immigration is being switched off.”
He said there would “still clearly need to be significant numbers of people coming (to the UK) to do a whole range of things, from specialist work to seasonal work”.
Mr Mundell told MSPs: “It is clear that there will require to be sectoral considerations, we will require to have some form of equivalent to the previous seasonal workers scheme.
“Clearly we need to address issues around depopulation and the provision of services in those areas.
“I’m not minded to a view that immigration should be devolved, the Scottish Government have made that case. But going forward, we want to have an immigration system that allows for those jobs that are necessary in our economy to be filled.”
The issue is one of the areas being considered by officials from the Scottish and UK governments, Mr Mundell said, adding that there had been six meetings over the space of two weeks.
“There’s a lot of serious work going on between officials,” the Scottish Secretary said.
He added he was “confident” that “Scotland’s distinct needs will be addressed”, in relation to the requirement for seasonal workers in some industries and to boost the population in areas where the number of people are declining.
Mr Mundell also made clear that at the end of the Brexit process “Scotland will be outside the EU”, even though 62% of voters north of the border backed Remain.
And he said if Scotland were to vote to leave the UK as a consequence of the UK quitting the EU, it would have to apply for membership under its own terms.
Mr Mundell spoke out as speculation persisted that Ms Sturgeon could seek to hold a fresh independence referendum.
The Tory MP said: “It’s important to be clear, because there has been a lot of debate on this point, that Scotland will not be in the EU at the end of this process.
“There is no set of circumstances in which Scotland could remain a member of the EU after the rest of the UK has left.
“If Scotland’s constitutional position were ever to change it would have to apply to be a member of the EU afresh, and we should not make easy assumptions about the length of time this would take, the process Scotland would have to follow, or the terms of membership that might be on offer.”
Earlier, International Trade Minister Greg Hands said the UK Government’s ambition was for Britain to have the greatest possible tariff- and barrier-free trade with Europe after leaving the EU, giving the fullest possible access to the European single market.
“Our objective is to come to good terms of departure and to have a full and comprehensive free trade agreement with the European Union which will come in right away,” he said.
Asked about the Scottish Government’s role in the Brexit process, he added: “The involvement of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament in this process is a very important part of where we go from here.”
Mr Hands said there had been “very strong and meaningful interactions” with the Scottish Government so far.
“I think Scotland is going to be a key and fundamental part of this negotiation from across the UK,” he said.
On new trade arrangements with the EU, Mr Hands said: “It is very important that the UK maintains its standards.
“We’ve given a very strong commitment in areas such as workers’ rights, in terms of food standards… So I think it would be wrong to say there would be a decline in standards as a result of Brexit on imported goods.
“Actually, what this allows us to do is come to free trade agreements for the UK with third party markets that will be to the benefit of UK producers and UK consumers.”
Meanwhile the UK’s former ambassador to the EU expressed doubts about an independent Scotland remaining in the single market as the rest of the UK pulls out, because countries like Spain, which contains both Basque and Catalan secessionists, would be reluctant to set a precedent.
Sir Ivan Rogers, who quit the role in January, told the Commons Brexit Select Committee, that the Scottish Government proposal “seems to me legally creative, shall we say”.
He stated: “I would think that the usual suspects in some of the usual member states would be extremely worried about the precedent – so you start then with Spain, but you probably have Belgium and Italy as well who will be worried about the implications for their jurisdictions and the unity of their jurisdictions if you ever get into differentiation.”