In a speech to the SCER-Europa Institute this evening, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie MSP has warned that the reduction in immigration promised with Brexit will do irreversible damage to the economy.
Mr Rennie said:
“EU citizens from Poland, Bulgaria and Romania are going home and many will just not come back next year. The berry fields of Tayside and Fife were short of the seasonal pickers they needed, the vegetable growers are struggling to get the staff they need, the hotels and cafes are feeling the pinch.
“Companies have tried to recruit from Scotland but without success. Anyone who tells you we can simply replace seasonal pickers from eastern Europe with workers from east Fife has been eating too much broccoli. Even if the pound recovers, even if the weather improves, even if Scotland gets geographically closer to Bulgaria it will still take years to recover from the impression that Britain doesn’t want any foreigners in our country.
“In 10 years the food and drink sector has grown 44% to £14billion. The Scottish Food and Drink strategy aims to double that by 2030 to £30billion. That will be impossible without the workforce to drive that growth in the fruit and vegetable sector.
“That is one of the challenges of Brexit: squaring the circle on immigration and the economy. Many people who backed Brexit will insist on a reduction in immigration. Yet that reduction in immigration will hit the economy.
“A hit to the economy, a hit to tax income from the businesses and workers, a hit to our world class reputation in research and our world class universities, a hit to locally grown quality produce in our shops and a hit to our reputation in food and drink.
“This is the fix that the Conservative Government have got themselves into. There is an expectation that with Brexit immigration will be cut. Without a cut to immigration there will be further disenchantment with the political system. Cries of betrayal and broken promises will be heard.
“Yet that cut to immigration poses a direct threat to two major sectors of our economy. The Conservatives face a choice: damage the economy or betray the voters who backed lower immigration.
“This is a clash of conflicting priorities and the Government are making no attempt to explain to the British people that they cannot choose both. The Conservatives should not skulk, they must explain, as the voters will find them out sooner or later.”