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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 February, 2004, 15:46 GMT
Visa move to beat population drop
Jack McConnell
Jack McConnell warned of the threat from population decline
Scotland's first minister has unveiled plans to tackle population decline, which he labelled "the greatest threat to the country's future prosperity".

Jack McConnell told the Scottish Parliament that he plans to set up a Relocation Advisory Service.

Scotland will be promoted within the work permit system and foreign students will be given visas to stay and work for two years after they graduate.

The moves are aimed at attracting 8,000 new people to Scotland each year.

That is the target Mr McConnell set to prevent the country's population falling below five million by 2009.

Mr McConnell said the first priority was to nurture and retain home-grown talent.

Fresh talent

But he warned that the hopes and aspirations of the Scottish people "will not be met if our devolved government does not act to counter what I believe to be the greatest threat to Scotland's future prosperity".

He said he wanted to encourage ex-Scots back home and attract fresh talent to the country.

"Today we send a very clear message to all those students who come to Scotland," said Mr McConnell.

"We would like to encourage you to stay after you graduate and would encourage you to consider making Scotland your permanent home.

It is the first time that there has been this kind of flexibility within the UK immigration system
Jack McConnell
First Minister
"We want you to help us grow the Scottish economy."

The measures contained in the Fresh Talent initiative included visa extensions for overseas students wishing to stay in Scotland after graduation.

Under the current rules students can only stay until October of the year they graduate.

Mr McConnell said Home Secretary David Blunkett had agreed to a request which would allow them to stay in the country for an additional two years.

"They will be allowed to stay in Scotland and seek any type of work during this time," he said.

"And after that, they can switch into other legal migration routes to which they qualify."

Immigration system

The first minister said that this sent out "an immensely important signal".

"It is the first time that there has been this kind of flexibility within the UK immigration system," he said.

The government will also help universities coordinate the recruitment of overseas students and fund a scholarship scheme to allow them to combine post-graduate study with work experience.

A senior Scottish figure will be appointed to lead a task force which will look at ways to improve visitors' first impression of Scotland.

Immigration centre - generic
Mr McConnell aims to increase migration to Scotland
A relocation service will be set up later this year to advise people about coming to live and work in Scotland.

"I believe this is too important an issue to be party political. We cannot allow new people to be welcomed by some and not by others," said Mr McConnell.

"We will not be able to attract fresh talent to Scotland if our country speaks with different voices".

UK Home Secretary David Blunkett said employers were lending their support to the imitative and setting out the economic case for migration.

"Through Work Permits UK we will work closely with these employers to encourage them to make full use of the work permits system to boost their labour force," he said.

Speaking to BBC Radio Scotland earlier, Mr McConnell said he hoped that a national consensus would emerge among politicians, businesses and the Scottish population.

Public services

"I think it is a policy that will provoke amongst some individuals in Scotland a reaction, and I do not underestimate that," he said.

"But I also think it is important as first minister to show leadership on this and say what is right rather than necessarily what will be popular in every individual household in Scotland."

He said people had to think about the impact of population decline.

He said the proposals were not about people coming to the country and taking jobs or houses away from Scots.

"The problem here is that these jobs and houses and the public services we enjoy could go because of population decline.

The first minister has accepted for the very first time the need for a different approach to immigration
John Swinney
SNP leader

"If we do not act now for Scotland's long-term interests then we will lose out on an opportunity and we will lose out in the long-term."

Scottish National Party leader John Swinney said he "unreservedly" backed Mr McConnell's proposals.

He said:"The first minister has accepted for the very first time the need for a different approach to immigration north and south of the border."

However, Mr Swinney said locking up the children of asylum seekers at Dungavel detention centre in Lanarkshire sent out the wrong message to people from abroad who may want to live here.

He said: "We will not attract fresh talent if the first impression of Scotland is of a country that is prepared to tolerate the imprisonment of innocent children in Dungavel."

'Tinkering' with policy

Scottish Tory leader David McLetchie said the executive should concentrate on improving the economy to make Scotland more attractive to those from overseas.

He also accused the First Minister of playing into the hands of the SNP by "tinkering" with UK immigration policy.

Mr McLetchie said: "Mr McConnell might be better to stick to his own job and not to David Blunkett's.

"Putting our own house in order is the key to acknowledging population growth and attracting skilled workers.

"Will the first minister accept the evidence from overseas that the countries which offer the best economic opportunities are the most successful in attracting people to their countries?"

BBC Scotland's Glenn Campbell
"The executive's drawn up plans to increase migration into Scotland"

First Minister Jack McConnell
"We need a policy that's specific to Scotland"

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