William Eichler 19 February 2020

Experts decry ‘lack of consideration’ given to social care in immigration reform

Local authority leaders and health care experts have warned that the Government’s introduction of a points-based immigration system could be detrimental to an already struggling social care system.

Home secretary Priti Patel today launched a new Australian-style points-based immigration system, which is set to take effect from 1 January 2021.

The new system will assign points for specific skills, qualifications, salaries or professions, and visas will only be awarded to those who gain enough points.

Ms Patel argues the move will end freedom of movement, reduce migration to the UK, and prioritise those with the highest skills.

‘We’re ending free movement, taking back control of our borders and delivering on the people’s priorities by introducing a new UK points-based immigration system, which will bring overall migration numbers down,’ she said.

‘We will attract the brightest and the best from around the globe, boosting the economy and our communities, and unleash this country’s full potential.’

Skilled workers will need to meet a number of criteria, including specific skills and the ability to speak English, to be able to work in the UK.

All applicants will be required to have a job offer and, in line with the Migration Advisory Committee’s recommendations, the minimum salary threshold will be set at £25,600.

The Government estimates that 70% of the existing EU workforce would not meet the requirements of the skilled worker route.

The new policy has caused concern over the future of the social care system because care roles fall below the salary threshold and the system already faces acute staffing shortages.

There are currently more than 120,000 vacancies in social care and the health think tank the Nuffield Trust estimates that the UK needs 90,000 more workers to meet demand.

Currently, around one in six staff working in adult social care in England have a non-British nationality. Around 8% come from the EU and 9% are from the rest of the world.

‘Migration has been a crucial safety valve for crisis-stricken social care services, with workers from overseas filling vital roles helping people with basic tasks like washing, dressing and personal hygiene,’ said the Nuffield Trust’s chief economist John Appleby.

‘Stopping migration for social care risks pushing a sector on which many vulnerable people depend over the edge.’

One answer to this problem would be to increase the wages of social care workers, Dr Appleby said, which the health think tank The King’s Fund estimates are below the hourly rate paid in most UK supermarkets.

‘Increasing the wages of social care workers to make social care a more attractive career for domestic workers could be one answer,’ he said.

‘But with the sector on the verge of bankruptcy this is a non-starter unless the Government stumps up extra funding way beyond the extra annual £1bn already pledged for this parliament. And this would need to be on top of money to reform or expand the help people are offered.’

The Home Office’s policy statement outlining the new immigration policy states that, ‘Initiatives are also being brought forward for scientists, graduates, NHS workers and those in the agricultural sector, which will provide businesses with additional flexibility in the shorter term.’

The document does not, however, mention social care.

A report from the Migration Advisory Committee, cited by the Home Office, argues that the root cause of the problems when it comes to recruitment in the social care sector is the failure to offer competitive terms and conditions.

It adds, however, that ‘the proposed changes [to immigration] may have impacts that are hard to anticipate.’

Suzie Bailey, director of leadership and organisational development at The King’s Fund, welcomed the fact that the Government acknowledged the need for overseas workers to work in the NHS.

However, she said that there had been ‘a disappointing lack of consideration given to social care’.

‘The NHS workforce is only half the story; with more than 120,000 vacancies in social care, many people are struggling to access the support they need to live independently and avoid long stays in hospital,’ she said.

‘In the absence of supportive immigration policies, the social care sector would need to significantly improve care worker pay and conditions to attract more home-grown staff.

‘That will require an immediate funding boost, a comprehensive plan for sustainable staffing, and for the prime minster to deliver on his commitment to “fix social care once and for all”.’

Responding to the Government’s announcement, Cllr James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA), said that reforming the immigration system provides an opportunity to tackle the UK’s skills gap and workforce challenges and he urged Whitehall to involve councils in this process.

‘Councils know their local communities and local economies best,’ he said.

‘Involving councils in the development of a new system would mean they can assess demand for skills locally, ensure it takes account of the varied needs of employers and help the Government achieve its ambition to level up all parts of the country.’

However, ‘As a country we face significant skills challenges. The social care system faces one of the most serious challenges and any reforms need to ensure the social care workforce can be maintained.’

A Government spokesperson said: 'The Migration Advisory Committee has been clear that immigration is not the solution to addressing staffing levels in the social care sector. Senior care workers who meet the criteria will still be able to come to the UK through the points-based system.

'We are working alongside employers to ensure the workforce has the right number of people to meet increasing demands and have recently launched a national recruitment campaign.

'We are also providing councils with access to an additional £1.5 billion for adults and children’s social care in 2020-21.'

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