Social Citizenship and Refugee Rights – Divergence between Westminster and Holyrood?

By Gareth Mulvey

Social citizenship matters for everyone, but is perhaps even more important for those denied full citizenship rights, such as refugees. Diverging views of welfare and social citizenship between Holyrood and Westminster have been apparent in a number of areas of policy. Much of this divergence is Westminster moving away from a post 1945 welfare consensus (Beland and Lecours 2008, Keating 2009) towards more means testing and stratified rights, with Holyrood maintaining a form of constrained universalism. What is more, these government perspectives largely extend to various migrant populations, and are also evident in asylum and refugee policy. Within the UK/Scottish context, immigration policy – who is allowed into the country – is reserved to the UK Government, but immigrant or integration policy – what happens once they arrive – is largely devolved to the Scottish Government. Thus, integration in the UK covers a multitude of both reserved and devolved policy areas such as immigration policy, employment and welfare, national security, citizenship and naturalisation and foreign affairs (all reserved); housing, education, health, community planning, neighbourhood policy, policing, and social work (all devolved); and justice which in terms of the asylum system in Britain is both. At the UK level Government has largely withdrawn from refugee integration, leaving integration to individual to traverse, but in the Scottish context an integration strategy is in the process of being renewed.

The role of Social Policy

Social policy therefore matters for integration, and in this case intersects with constitutional developments. Many areas of social policy and many factors that are important for social citizenship are devolved. Housing for asylum seekers in Scotland, for example, is provided by the UK Government under contract to agencies, but must also meet minimum housing standards set by the Scottish Government. On being recognised as a refugee responsibility for housing effectively becomes fully devolved and moves to the Scottish Government where, for example, different rules on the need for a ‘local connection’ to access social housing impacts upon access to accommodation and to broader mobility. That is, those not choosing their location do not have to show a local connection to access social housing. This covers populations such as those leaving prison, and in the Scottish case also includes refugees.

The asylum process is reserved, and with it decisions on the right to work. However, the opening up of limited educational opportunities and some investment in the recognition of skills and qualifications, as well as some re-skilling, suggests that the experiences of asylum seekers in that process also have elements of devolved policy. That said, there is nothing in the devolved settlement that prevents the Scottish Government from increasing access to education. Thus it is a constrained form of universalism that is evident.

The UK and Scottish Government Views

The UK and Scottish governments see the purpose of migration differently, with the UK Government seeing migration as a means of filling short-term labour market gaps and/or as a potential threat and the Scottish Government looking for population and economic growth (Kyambi 2009). One suggests temporary or circular migration and the other settlement, leading to quite different approaches. That said, the competitive nationalism of the SNP that Law and Mooney (2012) refer to is also evident, whereby migrants in Scotland are viewed as units of labour and social policy operates within strict neoliberal parameters.

Nevertheless, a different approach with regard to refugee matters is evident in Scotland and when allied to UK Government withdrawal from refugee integration, left a vacuum that the Scottish Government stepped into. Together with further devolution, and with Scottish independence back on the agenda as a result of Brexit, the political incentive for both governments’ would appear to point to further divergence.  That is, it seems unlikely that differences in the framing of migration or in terms of the philosophies of welfare between the two governments will coalesce. In terms of migration the outcome of the Brexit vote and government responses to it suggest a likely widening of differences. Alongside a ‘competitive nationalism’ with regard to viewing migration in relation to economic growth is a more humanitarian approach to refugees, evident in the Scottish Government’s narrative around the Syrian refugee ‘crisis’ and the existence and recent renewal of a refugee integration strategy.

Concluding thoughts

If immigrants can make claims to a sense of the right to belong in Scotland, then the implication is that they can also make claims in terms of the right to access social goods. Or to view it the other way around, having the right, and importantly being seen to have the right to social rights can aid any claims to belonging. This nascent situation in Scotland diverges from the Westminster case where immigrant access to social goods is increasingly stratified.

While this case is about the nature of devolution in the UK, it also links to work elsewhere. There are examples of regional governments having different and diverging integration policies (see Hepburn and Zapata-Barrero 2014). Some of these divergences are based on pragmatism, some on differing views of social citizenship and some on vacuums created by the lack of central policy. Arguably the Scottish case exhibits elements of each.

For these differences in approach to happen, however, requires political will on the part of the sub-state authority and some level of willingness on the part of the central state to allow, or at least not actively prevent such developments. There are some examples of this is the Scottish case which is to be welcomed. However, they are constrained by both a social policy conservatism that does not want to make too much fundamental change outside of constitutional issues.


Beland, Daniel and Lecours, Andre (2008) Nationalism and Social Policy: The Politics of Territorial Solidarity Oxford: Oxford University Press, UK.

Hepburn, Eve and Zapata-Barrero, Ricard (eds) (2014) The politics of immigration in multi-level states; governance and political parties. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Keating, M. (2009). ‘Social Citizenship, Solidarity and Welfare in Regionalized and Plurinational States’. Citizenship Studies 13:5 501-513.

Kyambi, Sarah (2009) ‘Room for manoeuvre? The options for addressing immigration-policy divergence between Holyrood and Westminster’ Equality and Human Rights Commission Glasgow.

Law, Alex and Mooney, Gerry (2012) ‘Competitive Nationalism: State, Class, and the Forms of Capital in Devolved Scotland’. Environment and Planning C 30:1  62-77.

A longer articulation of this will be published in an upcoming article in the Journal of Social Policy, looking at Holyrood and Westminster’s views of social citizenship and refugee rights.

About Gareth: 

Gareth Mulvey is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow. His research concerns the relationship between policy and its effects, with a particular focus on migration policy. This includes the impacts of specific areas of policy but also larger issues of intergovernmental relationships. Before working at the University of Glasgow Gareth spent five-years as the researcher at Scottish Refugee Council where he worked on a study of refugee integration in Scotland, work on refugee poverty and refugee attitudes to citizenship.