Government plans to prevent overseas care staff from bringing family members with them to the UK risks worsening the sector’s already significant staff shortages.
That was the message from sector bodies yesterday after home secretary James Cleverly announced a raft of policies designed to cut annual net migration from a high of 745,000 in 2022.
This included a bar on care workers who take up jobs using the health and care visa bringing dependants with them, as they are currently permitted to do.
It will also prevent providers who are not Care Quality Commission-registered from sponsoring workers, in response to significant concerns about workers being exploited by recruiters running fake care agencies. The changes will come into force next spring.
The government said that, in the year to September 2023, it issued visas to 101,000 care workers and senior care workers, and to 120,000 dependants accompanying them, about a quarter of whom were in work.
Overseas care staff instrumental in cutting vacancy levels
Overseas staff were instrumental in a slight reduction in adult social care vacancies – from 164,000 to 152,000 – and increase in filled posts, from 1.615m to 1.635m, between March 2022 and March 2023.
During that time, 70,000 overseas staff were recruited into direct care roles by independent providers in England through the health and care visa, many more than the 20,000 year-on-year increase in filled posts across the sector as a whole.
Cleverly told the House of Commons yesterday that he did not envisage that the measures would have a negative impact on the social care workforce.
International recruitment ‘displacing British care staff’
He claimed overseas staff were displacing British workers, as the number of people coming in on visas was less than the overall increase in the workforce last year.
He also said the government suspected that there was “significant surplus demand” from overseas staff to work in the UK care sector.
This would mean that anyone dissuaded by the restrictions on bringing in dependants would likely be replaced by someone without family commitments, he added.
“So, we don’t envisage there being a significant reduction in demand because of the changes that we’ve made, but it will mean that we have the care workers that we need but not the estimated 120,000 other people who have, in the most recent year, come in,” said Cleverly.
However, his confidence was not shared by sector bodies.
Government ‘severing lifeline’ for sector
The Care Provider Alliance (CPA), a coalition of 11 representative bodies across all provider sectors, said the government was “severing the lifeline of international recruitment”.
“This is currently the only option we have to maintain and increase workforce numbers, as recruitment in the UK remains challenging,” said CPA chair Jane Townson.
“If care workforce numbers fall and providers cease to operate, unmet need will escalate. Not only will this lead to individual and family suffering, but it will increase pressure on council and NHS services and further extend waiting lists.”
The Care and Support Alliance (CSA), which represents over 60 charities for older people, disabled people and carers, issued a similar message.
‘Action needed to make care roles attractive to UK staff’
“Too many people in need struggle to access good care as it is, and the risk is that today’s announcement will make the situation worse,” said CSA co-chair Caroline Abrahams, who is also charity director of Age UK.
“It is facile for any policymaker to suggest that there are ample numbers of people already based here to fill the gaps in the social care workforce, without also agreeing to the action needed to make these roles more attractive domestically in terms of pay and conditions.”
In his autumn statement last month, chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced a 9.8% rise in the national living wage, from £10.42 to £11.44 an hour, next April, a move which will benefit many thousands of care staff.
However, Townson warned that, without extra funding, councils and NHS commissioners would not be able to pay providers sufficiently to cover the rise.
Latest call for more investment into sector
Both the CPA and CSA urged the government to significantly increase adult social care funding to reduce the sector’s reliance on migration.
The government’s response to the many such calls it has heard over recent months is to point to £8.1bn it has made available to councils to invest in social care from 2023-25.
However, £1.6bn of this is reliant on authorities raising council tax by the maximum permitted amount and about £1.3bn is expected to be spent on children’s services.
Social care was spared further restrictions on immigration that will apply to other sectors. People with a health and care visa will be exempt from a sharp increase in the minimum salary required of skilled migrants from next spring, from £26,200 to £38,700.
Currently, care workers and senior care workers are allowed to come in on a reduced salary – £20,960 – on the grounds that they are on the government’s shortage occupation list (SOL).
As part of his announcement yesterday, Cleverly announced a review of the SOL to reduce the number of occupations it covered.