Social care staff shortages set to worsen with immigration cap

A government crackdown on immigration is forcing overseas care workers out of the country, leaving the sector struggling with staff shortages. Mary-Louise Clews reports

A government crackdown on immigration is forcing overseas care workers out of the country, leaving the sector struggling with staff shortages. Mary-Louise Clews reports

(pictured: Mariel Antolin, above, is a 26-year-old healthcare assistant from the Philippines. She has worked at 1st Choice Homes’ Acacia House in Tenterden, Kent since September 2008. Antolin has been in the UK on a student visa but is nearing the end of her course and will need a full work permit as a senior healthcare assistant to stay on at the home and remain in Britain) (pic by Tom Parkes)

Seven senior care workers who were looking after older people in Kent have recently been forced to return to the Philippines. It was not their choice; nor was it that of their employer, 1st Choice Homes. The provider’s operations manager, Clare Swan, says the seven had to leave after the Home Office invoked the government’s temporary cap on immigration and removed the licence held by three care homes to sponsor staff from outside the EU.

Other homes in the 1st Choice group have been restricted to one licence each, resulting in a company-wide 75% reduction in staff since July.

Swan believes the move was arbitrary. “We have overseas nurses and senior care staff that we’ve spent about £17,000 training having to return home because we are not being allowed to get working visas for them once they finish their courses,” says Swan.

The English Community Care Association (ECCA) says every application for sponsorship to the Home Office to bring in skilled care workers from outside the EU has been rejected, leaving homes unable to provide services,

Under the cap – a precursor to a tougher points system that will be introduced next April for immigrants – the government has limited the number of skilled workers allowed to enter the UK with a job offer between last July and March 2011 to 18,700, 5% lower than the same period last year.

Many social workers and senior care staff recruited from outside the EU fall into the Tier 2 general group (see box) which has been cut under the temporary provisions Tier 1 covers highly skilled workers.

Shereen Hussein, senior research fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research unit at King’s College, London, says the government has made a political, populist decision with no thought to the impact on immediate provision of services.

“I asked a Home Office official to tell me about the economic analysis they had based the cap on. He looked at me as if I was crazy and said, ‘this is not an economic measure, it is social policy’,” she says. “So they didn’t think this policy through at all.”

Nadra Ahmed, chair of the National Care Association, paints a stark picture of the policy’s impact on social care: “We can’t get the workforce we need to deliver the service in this country. If we could then of course that’s what we would want to do. If you have not got the staff in situ you are breaking the law; you are putting people at risk.”

Kashif Majeed, a solicitor with legal firm Aston Brooke, who has applied to take the government to judicial review over the temporary cap on behalf of ECCA, agrees: “Home secretary Theresa May failed to follow correct parliamentary procedure when the temporary cap was imposed earlier this year, and we can also show how continuity of social care is being affected,” says Ahmed.

Meanwhile, children’s services directors fear the cap will put vulnerable children at risk because there is a shortage of qualified and experienced social workers in some parts of the country, including London.

“If people don’t contribute information about what workforce needs are we’ll be in considerable difficulty,” says Chris Hogan, assistant director of children’s services at Hounslow Council, London.

“There are no queues for the vital jobs these migrants are taking up,” she adds, pointing to the recent coverage of the Baby P death in Haringey as having set back efforts to recruit UK workers in London.

Hogan admits that measures put in place to train people from the UK and EU for roles now filled by migrant workers will help, but it will take least three years to have enough suitably qualified candidates.

Hussein opposes the cap for roles on the shortage list compiled by the independent Immigration Advisory Committee, but says if the government insists on the policy it must implement a phased approach to allow providers to plan for shortfalls.

The Home Office has said that employers that need to recruit staff on the shortage list can make a special application. But Hussein says the parameters are unrealistic and ECCA says this clause is not helping in practice. “The government has changed its definition of the ‘market’ from which employers must prove they can’t recruit from local to national,” Hussein says. “So a London provider must prove they can’t recruit in Scotland, say, before they can bring in a migrant worker. This is completely unrealistic.”

In the evidence it is preparing for its legal challenge of the cap, ECCA says the average rise in funding for care homes for older people for 2010-11 is 0.8% for the UK, and 0.5% for England. Such average low increases are in effect a cut.

It adds: “With severe public expenditure budget cuts in the coming years the situation for many independent care homes will be very difficult. None of this allows homes to effectively consider better financial and other rewards for staff, which in turn might encourage more UK/EEA recruitment.

“Employers only recruit from non-EU countries because they have no choice.”

However, for now at least, the Home Office is unmoved. In a statement, a spokesperson said: “The government has made it clear that employers should look to recruit from the rest of the UK before looking to recruit from the rest of the world and it is committed to reducing the level of net migration back down to the levels of the 1990s – tens of thousands each year, not hundreds of thousands.”


The Foreign Legion

The social care sector relies on non-EU recruits. Information from providers to the National Minimum Data Set for Social Care (NMDS-SC) showed 12.5% of social care workers recruited in the 12 months to the end of 2009 were from outside the EU. This is from a total of 17% identified to be non-British by their employers – just under 5% were from EU countries.

The percentage of non-British care workers is highest in London, where 57% are from abroad. This proportion was lowest in the North East where only 4% were non-British.

Immigration queries answered

What changes are being made to the number of people allowed into the country?

Home secretary Theresa May announced a restriction on the number of people from outside Europe who could live and work in the UK. An interim limit has cut the number of sponsorship certificates an employer is allowed to issue. The 5% reduction in the number of skilled migrants to 18,700 will be in place until a permanent limit comes into force in April.

Why is the government doing this?

According to the Conservatives’ general election manifesto, the cap would limit the number of people entering the country to do jobs “that could be carried out by British citizens”. Access is limited “only to those who will bring the most value to the British economy”.

What impact will this have on social care?

Social care employers have warned that the cap will limit the sector’s capacity to meet the needs of vulnerable people, due to a heavy reliance on non-EU staff in some areas. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services has called for a rethink of the strategy and the English Community Care Association is mounting a legal challenge.

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This article is published in the 11 November issue of Community Care magazine under the heading The cap doesn’t fit

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