Kate Forbes has said that SNP ministers will push Sir Keir Starmer on Scotland having a separate immigration policy to the rest of the UK.

The Deputy First Minister made the intervention when she was interviewed earlier today following the first meeting between the new Labour Prime Minister and John Swinney in Bute House on Sunday.

Ms Forbes, who also attended the meeting in Edinburgh, pointed to previous UK Governments led by Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to say Scottish ministers know what good inter governmental relations "looks like" and then raised the subject of immigration.

"We've seen what a good relationship looks like, working collaboratively on even things like immigration, which is now such a thorny subject," she said adding that the meeting was "very positive" with the leaders discussing "substantive issues that affect people in Scotland, as well as the need for building any mutual respect to our relationship."

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She was asked on BBC Radio Four's Today programme about whether Scotland a separate immigration policy was something the Scottish Government wanted to pursue with the new Labour administration.

The issue came up during the general election campaign with Jackie Baillie, the Scottish Labour leader, telling the Herald on Sunday, a new Labour government would be open to talks on the subject of a Scottish visa with Scottish ministers as she emphasised the wish for a "partnership" approach between London and Edinburgh.  

(Image: PA) Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer pictured with First Minister John Swinney at Bute House in Edinburgh on Sunday. Photo: PA.

Ms Forbes said: "Well, that's the kind of area we'll certainly be wanting to progress. We know that it works elsewhere in the world. We know it's worked previously in this country, and we know that in Scotland, we have a real need.

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"It's one of the big asks from the business community, and one of the big asks from, for example, the social care sector for a different immigration policy for Scotland, far more positive rhetoric here about immigration. So these are the kind of tangible examples."

She appeared to imply the issue of a separate immigration policy did not come up in the Bute House meeting on Sunday as she said an issue that "did come up" was the future of the Grangemouth oil refinery.

"The Labour Party has a big commitment to GB energy. We want to see a just transition for the oil and gas industry. We need Grangemouth to do that, but we need the UK Government to be interested in working with us, and certainly it was a really positive approach from Keir Starmer and his government to doing just that," she said.

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Ms Forbes was also asked about the SNP election result on Thursday which saw the party reduced to nine seats at Westminster - down from 48 at the 2019 general election.

The Deputy First Minister said "it was a difficult night" for the party and a priority now would "be to listen to the message that the electorate was sending" and to "reflect" on that.

But, amid a weekend of recriminations among figures in the party over who and what was to blame for the rout, she also warned against "navel gazing" and the party turning inwards.

"This was a change election, and that's what we're going to do," she said as she backed Mr Swinney's leadership.

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"You'll know that John Swinney and I were only in the post for - I think I was in the post for about 10 days - before that the election was called, so we had already set out an agenda for that change," she said.

Ms Forbes added: "Competence and integrity must be the hallmark of our leadership, and it's certainly the two words that have been on John Swinney's lips prior to the election, throughout the election and now in the aftermath of the election.

"We do that by being clear that our priorities are the people's priorities. That is tackling poverty, it's delivering economic growth, it's getting to net zero in a way that doesn't leave people behind. 

"And then the way that we govern too, transparent and open. And those are two flags, as it were, that need to be planted on everything that we do. And I believe John Swinney is a leader to do that. And I'm very pleased to be supporting him in his mission to achieve that."

Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon launched a plan for a Scottish visa pilot scheme in 2020 which would have allowed businesses and organisations in remote and rural communities an exemption from UK immigration rules over hiring EU and other foreign nationals.

Ministers in Edinburgh sought approval for the scheme which would have enabled firms to recruit staff from overseas who earned less than the required income threshold set by the Home Office to obtain a visa under the government's regulations.

Sectors which have considerably relied on employees from eastern Europe and other parts of the EU such as the care sector, hospitality and farming have struggled to fill vacancies with the problem particularly acute in the Highlands and Islands.

The pilot proposed that firms would sponsor foreign nationals for four years during which they would be obliged to live in a more remote community.

Afterwards, restrictions would be lifted and the workers would be free to life anywhere in the UK. However, they would be "strongly encouraged" to settle in the area where they arrived.

However, the Conservative Government's Home Office blocked the pilot programme.

Asked about the pilot scheme today Equalities Minister Kaukab Stewart said she hoped the proposal would be backed by the new Labour  government.

“As the First Minister has made clear, we hope to work collaboratively with the new UK Government to make a difference to the lives of people in Scotland and we would hope that our proposal for a rural visa pilot is the sort of project we could take forward together," she said.

“Scotland’s distinct demographic and economic needs require a tailored approach to migration. Scotland needs people to contribute at all levels of the economy, in vital, challenging roles within sectors including tourism, hospitality, logistics, care, construction and food production. 

“For our rural and island communities, which face challenges with population sustainability and with discrete parts of the labour market, our proposals for a Rural Visa Pilot continue to command strong support and were developed in collaboration with local authorities and the business sector.”

Scotland's population is set to fall and become older by 2045 presenting challenges about how to fund public services facing more demand with fewer people working to generate revenue through income tax.

It has been an issue of considerable concern for successive governments in Holyrood with both the SNP and Labour seeking to bring in policies to help address the issue.

Former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell launched the Fresh Talent Initiative in February 2024 saying he was doing to as a way of countering the "biggest challenge facing Scotland" of its falling population.

The scheme allowed overseas students from non EU countries studying in Scotland to remain in the country to work for two years following graduation.

It was succeeded in 2008 by the UK wide post-study work visa allowing non-EU international students to remain in the UK to work after their studies for up to two years.

Applicants could take up any kind of work, and employers were not required to act as sponsors. If they wanted to stay in the UK after two years they could apply for another visa under the points-based system.

The UK Government announced, in March 2011, that it would end the post-study work visa to new applicants, and the route was closed on 5 April 2012.

It said it had been “too generous” and allowed people to stay in the UK whether they found work or not, and irrespective of the skill level of any job they found.