GOOD economic news from Brexit is as scarce as hens’ teeth. But the argument that the post-Brexit migration policy is showing promise has gained traction recently. Writing in the Financial Times, Janan Ganesh argued that post-Brexit patterns of migration show the UK’s “global rather than continental orientation”.

Jonathan Portes, from the UK in a Changing Europe project, argued that the new system “represents a considerable liberalisation for non-EU migrants, with lower salary and skill thresholds, and no overall cap on numbers”.

A more liberal immigration system may not have been what Brexit supporters thought they were voting for, but that is what is now in place.

The switch from EU to non-EU migrants has been dramatic. In the year to March, 80,421 Indian nationals were granted skilled worker visas, while only 3,815 went to French nationals: 13,556 were granted to Nigerians, but only 2,127 to Germans. The number of student visas has also mushroomed with 466,611 being awarded in the year to March.

Again, the switch away from the EU is evident. More were awarded to French nationals than to any other EU country, but France ranked only 13th in the list of student visas by country and was narrowly beaten by Nepal.

The Office for National Statistics estimates there was a net inflow of 239,000 migrants to the UK in the year to June 2021. It is difficult to compare this with past years because the ONS acknowledges previous estimates were seriously flawed. But this latest estimate is broadly in line with the average of the imperfect estimates for the last two decades, so it seems that the Brexiteers who wanted a cut in net migration have been disappointed.

One reliable source of information on migration is the number of non-UK citizens who apply for a National Insurance number. Unlike the overall migration estimates, these are available at a local level. They don’t capture migrant outflows nor migrants who don’t work, but they do give a good picture of the popularity of different labour markets across the UK with foreigners.

These NI statistics suggest that Scotland punches below its weight in attracting foreign migrants: in the year to March 2020, residents in Scotland comprised 8.3% of the UK population but only 6.3% of overseas NI registrations were in Scotland. And the trend over time has been downward.

Scotland’s share of NI registrations peaked in the mid-2000s when the EU expanded to take in much of Eastern Europe. Since then, the share has gradually declined. There have also been big changes in NI registrations within Scotland, mostly pre-dating the new immigration policy. While Edinburgh consistently attracts more than its share of new registrations, Glasgow has recently overtaken the capital to become the most popular Scottish destination for overseas migrants seeking an NI number.

Will Scotland be successful in attracting migrants from the wider pool from which UK migrants are now being drawn? It is up against significant opposition.

A report for the Migration Advisory Committee last year showed that London dominates the recruitment of skilled migrants. Between 2016 and 2020, 44 per cent of skilled work visa holders went to London, although it only makes up around 14 per cent of the UK population.

Outside London, the majority of the skilled worker visas went to the healthcare sector. Valuable though they are, healthcare workers are unlikely to be driving economic growth.

London’s attractiveness to young skilled migrants suggests that the “levelling up” agenda is largely a pipedream. Migrants tend to be better educated and more productive than the native population. The new UK migration policy is very focussed on skills, and it is important that Scotland attracts a wide range of skills to push forward the productivity agenda and avert the demographic challenge.

David Bell is Professor of Economics at the University of Stirling specialising in labour economics and fiscal federalism. He was adviser to the Finance Committee of the Scottish Parliament from 2007 to 2013