Moves to prevent staff from outside Europe working as senior care workers in the UK have angered independent providers and unions.
The National Care Association raised the alarm earlier this month, saying many homes had had work permit extensions for existing carers and applications for recruits turned down by immigration officials over the past three months.
Fellow care home representatives the English Community Care Association and the Registered Nursing Home Association, the United Kingdom Home Care Association and Unison have raised similar concerns at the government shift.
They claim the Work Permits Healthcare Advisory Panel – which includes health and social care employers and unions – was not consulted and significant workforce gaps could result.
Residential and domiciliary senior care workers do tasks including line management, supervision, care planning and assessments. There are no figures for the number from outside the European Economic Area – who need a permit to work in the UK. But ECCA chief executive Martin Green says it is “not insignificant”, while UKHCA vice-president Bill McClimont estimates the percentage in home care is “in the high teens”.
The employer bodies claim the labour pool available from the UK and EEA is insufficient to provide quality senior care staff – and enough of them. Too few Britons are prepared to work in these roles given their low pay and status. And, they say, many EEA applicants lack the care and language skills which those from Commonwealth states and countries such as the Philippines possess.
However, Home Office guidance published last week, which provided a belated rationale for the change in immigration practice, said most senior care worker posts were unlikely to meet the minimum skills requirement for a work permit.
The criteria state that employers can recruit outside the EEA for roles that need three years performing S/NVQ level 3 duties only if they have tried and failed to fill vacancies locally. These duties include line management, supervision and developing and revising care plans.
These criteria have been in place since 2000 and have been used to recruit senior care workers since. But the Home Office claimed extensive research had found “no examples which can justify the [skills] requirement”.
McClimont contests this, saying that, in home care, senior care workers perform highly responsible front-line management and assessment functions that meet the criteria.
While the Home Office barred entry to new overseas recruits, it said that it would waive the skills criteria for permit extensions to ensure continuity of care while the sector adapted its recruitment practices.
Skills for Care chief executive Andrea Rowe (pictured) says this compromise was a result of lobbying by it and the Department of Health about the impact on the sector of barring permits altogether.
But for Mandy Thorn, NCA representative on the work permits healthcare advisory panel, the compromise does not help as the Home Office has stated that all work permit extensions must be for jobs paying at least £7.02 an hour.
Thorn, managing director of Marches Care, a Shrewsbury-based nursing home provider, says that, although employers in London and the South East may be able to afford this rate, the rest of the country cannot.
McClimont says the same applies to home care. The Home Office has claimed “there is little regional variation in salaries”.
But if this is right, then figures from the National Minimum Dataset for Social Care suggest few providers will be able to extend permits for current staff.
Data from care providers employing more than 3,450 senior care staff found a median wage of £6.15 an hour – just 28p above the average care worker rate.
The argument on pay lays bare the darker side of the role overseas workers play in the social care workforce – filling low-paid posts that are unappealing to UK workers.
McClimont says: “We should be ensuring that the rewards for this very skilled work are appropriate in the UK, not recruiting people who will work for peanuts.”
Rowe says the Home Office believes recruiting senior carers from abroad “is a way to get around the pay issue”, but says current rates deter adequately skilled UK workers. And she says pay differentials between care workers and senior care workers in the independent sector mean it is not worth staff taking an NVQ level 3 to gain promotion.
She calls on councils to ensure adequate salaries in the independent sector through contract fees, pointing to the higher pay rates and better differentials enjoyed by care workers directly employed by authorities.
But, as McClimont and Thorn admit, poor rates for providers reflect government underfunding of councils for social care.
It seems the sector will have to find a solution to its recruitment problems that involves EEA staff alone, given immigration reforms next year designed to ensure only the highest skilled non-European migrants can work and settle in the UK.
Work permits will be replaced by a points-based immigration system, and latest proposals (see Points win visas) would make it impossible for any senior care workers to be recruited. The skills criteria exemption for existing permit holders would also end, so they would have to return to their countries of origin unless they have been in the UK for five years, after which they can settle.
For providers and unions this amounts to an astonishing lack of joined-up government: the Home Office cracking down on immigration levels in part caused by inadequate salary levels in the sector resulting from a lack of funding for councils.
Points win visas
From 2008, existing routes of entry for work or residence in the UK will be merged into a points-based immigration system, divided up into five tiers.
The current work permits system will be replaced by Tier 2 next autumn, which is targeted at skilled migrants with a job offer.
Under the latest proposal, a senior care worker with an NVQ3 equivalent qualification would need to have been offered a job worth £19,500 a year to be allowed in those with a degree would have to earn over £18,000. Neither is realistic.
For lower-skilled migrants (Tier 3), employers will not be able to recruit outside the EEA unless the government has identified shortages in their sector then a quota of migrants will be allowed in, each for a maximum of 12 months. Given the Home Office’s current attitude, the prospects of social care being identified as a shortage area look bleak.
This article appeared in the 23 August issue under the headline “Work permits shift maroons providers”