Plans from the three main parties to tighten immigration controls could restrict recruitment to adult social care and damage the quality of services, according to sector heads.
The Conservative manifesto backs capping numbers of immigrants from outside Europe, while the Liberal Democrats favour a system in which non-European migrants are only allowed to work in geographical areas where their skills are needed.
Labour plans to tighten the points system for migrants from outside Europe including removing care workers from the list of shortage occupations by 2014.
This would end employers’ right to recruit suitably qualified senior care workers from outside Europe without advertising vacancies locally first. There are no restrictions on migrants from the European Union and other European countries such as Norway and Switzerland.
Mandy Thorn, vice-chair of the National Care Association, says of the parties’ positions: “In the medium term it’s short-sighted because as a sector we have relied on immigrants to meet the workforce needs.”
The proportion of migrant workers in the older people’s care workforce doubled to 18% from 1998-2008, mainly because of employers’ inability to attract UK-born staff at current pay rates, research last year by Oxford University’s Centre for Migration Policy and Society (Compas) found. The increase has corresponded with the A8 group of east European countries joining the EU in 2004.
Compas also found that employers reported migrant workers exceeded UK-born counterparts in areas such as willingness to work all shift types, respectful attitudes to older people, good work ethics and willingness to learn.
Thorn adds that the recession means that more British-born staff were looking for social care jobs but she warns that the labour supply could fall again when the economy recovers.
Compas found that most foreign-born care staff were recruited after entering the UK – including as students, working holidaymakers or refugees – rather than on working permits.
However, last month the government introduced changes to reduce the number of hours people on student visas can work from 20 to 10 hours a week. Thorn says this will restrict the supply of people able to work antisocial hours in the care sector.
This is on top of previous reforms requiring foreign students to have savings equivalent to £600 a month (or £800 for those in inner London) to support themselves during study, which Compas said would reduce the supply of workers.
A Conservative government would tighten the system further by ensuring that people studying at new or unregistered institutions pay a bond to study in the UK and that foreign students prove they have the financial means to support themselves.
Compas concluded that the number of migrants working in adult social care would have to increase to deal with demographic pressures, unless the government significantly increased pay to attract UK-born staff into the care sector. With the latter not on the cards, it seems the next government may face a choice between its desire to tighten immigration and the need to ensure adult care is adequately staffed.