Ending free movement after Brexit poses ‘stark’ risks to social care unless ministers urgently increase funding to raise pay, the government’s migration advisers have warned.
In a report this week, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) said ministers should make it easier for employers to recruit senior care workers and registered managers from abroad under the new points-based immigration system due to come into force in January 2021, by placing the roles on the shortage occupation list.
However, this would still leave migrants ineligible to take up most frontline roles in the sector, and the MAC urged ministers to “make jobs more attractive to UK workers by increasing salaries rather than relying on migrants” to tackle social care’s chronically high turnover rates and significant vacancy numbers.
“The risks of this not happening in a timely manner are stark,” the report said. “If that does not occur, or occurs with substantial delay, we would expect the end of freedom of movement to increase the pressure on the social care sector, something that would be particularly difficult to understand at a time when so many care occupations are central to the Covid-19 pandemic frontline response.”
The MAC’s warning comes two-and-a-half months after the government confirmed plans to replace free movement from the European Economic Area (EEA) – the European Union plus some neighbouring countries – with a points-based system that excluded all care workers – and most senior care workers – from entering, to near-universal condemnation from the sector.
How the new immigration system works
The new immigration policy will replace free movement for citizens of the EEA and the existing tier 2 visa system for skilled migrants from outside Europe with a points-based system for skilled workers entering the UK.
All such workers must have a job offer to do a role of at least the minimum skill level – RQF3, equivalent to A-level – and must speak English to an acceptable standard, earning them 50 points. The skill level alone excludes care workers, but not senior care workers.
To qualify for entry, people must also earn a further 20 points through having a minimum salary of £25,600 a year (pro-rated for part-time workers), or the going rate for their job if this higher, or through being in a shortage occupation, as defined by the MAC. In this case they need only earn £20,480.
This is just above the median salary for senior care workers, so if the government accepts the MAC’s advice to add the role to the shortage list, migrant staff would be eligible to apply for around half of such roles.
By adding registered managers of services to the list of shortage occupations, over 90% of those roles would qualify.
Social workers do qualify under the system, as the profession is already a shortage occupation and, in most cases, practitioners would satisfy the salary requirement.
Covid-19 exacerbating staff shortages
The MAC’s report follows calls from a government-commissioned advisory group on the impact of Covid-19 for an urgent review to raise pay in the sector before the end of 2020-21.
Contributors to the MAC report were also “keen to express how Covid-19 has exacerbated the existing challenges faced by the sector”, it said.
The Welsh government said evidence suggested that potential new recruits were less likely to join the sector now due to their concerns about the risks of contracting Covid-19 and there was concern that existing care workers could leave the sector for jobs with less responsibility and risk.
The report also quoted a UK-wide health and social care representative body as saying: “[Research by think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research] suggests that following the Covid-19 pandemic there will be a substantial increase in staff leaving the sector. Reduced access to overseas recruitment could impede the delivery of safe care to residents owing to reduced staff numbers.”
‘An economic not a migration issue’
Association of Directors of Adult Social Serivces president James Bullion said the MAC was right to sound the alarm about staff shortages in social care, adding: “It is also right to underline that this is an economic rather than a migration issue. At the start of the pandemic, care staff were recognised and applauded by the public for the essential work that they do; it is now vital that they are also rewarded properly for the difference they make to millions of our lives.”
He said that was why the association was calling for a national care wage, to raise the wage floor for the sector above current levels, which he said should be delivered through the forthcoming government spending review.
Sally Warren, director of policy at The King’s Fund, said the think-tank welcomed the MAC’s recommendation that senior care workers be added to the shortage occupation list, but added: “No one should pretend that these limited changes will resolve the long-standing issues with recruitment in social care.
“As the committee recognises, poor pay remains a major issue in the sector. We need a well-funded social care system that recognises the value of care workers with fair pay and conditions.”
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom Home Care Association (UKHCA) said it was “encouraged by the remarks the MAC made about the need for additional funding for social care”.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We would like to thank the Migration Advisory Committee for its report, which we will consider carefully before making final decisions. It is vitally important we have the skills we need to drive the whole of our United Kingdom forward.”