Social care staff should be classified as skilled workers to avoid a staffing crisis after Brexit, a care providers group has warned.
The Independent Care Group fears that free movement from European Union countries, currently a key source of labour for the care sector, will end after Brexit.
“We have a shortage of care staff in this country and we have to resolve that”
It is worried that possible changes to the immigration system will cut off the supply of “unskilled” staff, which the care sector relies on.
The government has yet to set out its immigration policy after Brexit. But the Migration Advisory Committee, which advises ministers, recommended this week that no preference should be given to EU workers over staff arriving from the rest of the world.
Instead, the system should be changed to favour skilled workers over unskilled workers, it said in its final report published on Tuesday.
While doctors and nurses from outside the EU are considered “skilled workers” under existing visa rules, care workers are deemed “unskilled”.
An increase in skilled workers such as nurses coming to the UK would be welcomed by care homes, the ICG said.
However, it would be more than offset by a shortage of “unskilled” workers from the abroad, the ICG said. It is a confused system that needs to change says Mike Padgham, the ICG’s chair.
“We have a shortage of care staff in this country and we have to resolve that,” he said. “The sector relies upon overseas workers, especially those coming to work from other EU countries.”
“This is easy to resolve: start to recognise social care workers as skilled”
About 230,000 social care staff in England – 17% of the total – are from overseas, particularly from EU countries.
The ICG cited studies showing that Brexit could leave the UK short of 380,000 care workers within the next eight years if freedom of movement was not maintained.
A solution would be to change the way care workers are classified by the visa system, he said.
“This is easy to resolve: start to recognise social care workers as skilled – which they are – and accept that we need to recruit more from overseas,” said Mr Padgham.
“We are just not going to be able to cope,” he said. “As a country we have to decide what we are going to do about it.”
The Tier 2 visa scheme, which includes doctors and nurses but not care staff, is capped at 20,700 workers from outside the EU a year.
It applies only to jobs with salaries of over £30,000. The MAC said the cap in numbers of skilled workers should be removed but that the salary bar should remain.
“The sector’s problems are not primarily migration-related”
Most care workers earn less than £7.50 an hour, according to a National Audit Office report from earlier this year. The NAO also found that 6.6% social care posts are unfilled and there are 8,000 fewer social care nurses than four years ago.
However, the MAC argued that having enough care workers is more to do with pay and conditions than migration policy.
“The sector’s problems are not primarily migration-related,” the report said. “A sustainable funding model, paying competitive wages to UK residents, would alleviate many of the recruitment and retention issues.”
The MAC also recommended lowering the minimum skills threshold for Tier 2 visas from current RQF Level 6 to RQF Level 3, although it is not clear how many care workers would be covered by this change.
Research for the Department of Health and Social Care this week estimated that more than 1.2 million older people will need care by 2040, double the 2015 rate.
“We know there is a huge explosion in the number of people needing care ahead of us and it is hard to see how we would operate if the number of carers from overseas was reduced,” said Mr Padgham.
He said. “The harsh reality facing care providers is not how are we going to manage in 20 years’ time but how we are going to staff our shifts tonight, tomorrow and next week.”
Regarding to MAC recommendations, a Home Office spokesperson said: “We commissioned this report in addition to our engagement with business to better understand the impact of EU citizens on the UK labour market.
The government is clear that EU citizens play an important and positive role in our economy and society and we want that to continue after we leave.”
The spokesperson added: “We will carefully consider the MAC’s recommendations before setting out further detail on the UK’s future immigration system.”