Labour asks what ministers ‘have against care workers’ as frontline staff left off new NHS immigration route
Number 10 said immigration was ‘not the sole answer’ to the challenges facing the UK’s care workforce (PA).
Labour has accused the Government of “insulting” the country’s care workers as frontline staff were excluded from a major new post-Brexit immigration route for those in the health sector.
Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds asked what ministers “have against care workers” as it was confirmed that those on low pay are not among staff who will benefit from an easing of visa restrictions under the plans.
But Boris Johnson said the new system represented a “humane and sensible” approach to migration from around the world — as Number 10 called on providers to do more to invest in local staff.
The row came as the Government fleshed out its plans for a new points-based post-Brexit immigration set-up.
Under the proposals, EU nationals will be treated in the same way as those from outside the bloc, overhauling a system that has been governed by EU freedom of movement rules for decades.
The new arrangement — set to come into force from January 1 next year — will see Britain’s borders closed to ‘non-skilled’ workers and many required to have a job offer with a minimum salary of £25,600 to apply.
Under a new ‘health and care visa’ detailed by the Government on Monday, individuals deemed to be “skilled” health and care professionals will see fast-tracked entry, reduced application fees and extra support for their families to come to the UK.
They will also be exempt from paying the Government’s ‘Immigration Health Surcharge’, which sees migrants asked to pay hundreds of pounds towards the running costs of the NHS.
But those on the health and care route will still have the meet the Home Office’s new salary threshold — and the list of occupations eligible for the scheme, unveiled on Monday, does not include social care workers.
Labour branded those proposals “yet another insult from this Tory party to those who have been at the frontline of this crisis”.
Challenging the Home Office over the decision in a Commons clash on Monday, Mr Thomas-Symonds, the Shadow Home Secretary said: “I was disappointed, if unfortunately not shocked, to see evidence yet again that this government does not consider carers to be skilled workers, as they have been excluded from the qualifying list for the health and care visa.
And he asked: “After the Prime Minister accused care workers of not following the guidance on COVID-19, and now this, can the Home Secretary please answer a simple question: what does the government have against care workers?”
But Immigration minister Kevin Foster hit back, saying the Government had shown “every support for our care workers”, and pointed out that senior staff will still qualify under the new points-based system.
And he told the Labour frontbencher: “People will look at what's happened over the last few months and think that surely the vision for the social care sector is not to carry on looking abroad to recruit at, or near the minimum wage, when we need to prioritise jobs here in this country.”
But the plans have drawn criticism from some organisations in the social care sector.
Suzie Bailey, Director of Leadership and Organisational Development at The King’s Fund think tank, said overseas staff — who make up one-in-six of the adult social care workforce — played a “crucial part” in keeping the sector going.
“With today’s announcement, the government has firmly closed the door to frontline social care workers from overseas,” she said.
And she added: “By shutting out overseas staff, the government has increased the pressure on itself to urgently develop and fund reforms that make the care sector a better-paid and more attractive place to develop a career. This will require an unprecedented pace and scale of investment, and even then workforce shortages are likely to get worse before they get better as new immigration rules will come into force before reforms can realistically be implemented.”
Christina McAnea, assistant general secretary of the union UNISON, which represents frontline staff, said the move to exclude social care staff from a new visa was “a disastrous mistake that will make existing problems spiral”.
“The sector is desperately short of staff and heavily reliant on the skills of overseas workers,” she said. “Recruitment will now become even harder.”
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown more than ever the vital contribution social care workers make to our society, so while the Government’s new health and care visa will be welcome, it will exclude an essential part of the workforce.
“We are facing the risk of a staffing blackhole in social care, with one-in-five health and care workers having said they are likely to leave their roles after the pandemic. A solution is urgently needed.”
Defending the move on Monday, however, the Prime Minster’s spokesperson said: “We want employers to invest more in training and development for care workers in this country."
And they added: “On care workers specifically, our independent migration advisers have said that immigration is not the sole answer, which is why we have provided councils with an additional £1.5bn funding for social care in 2021-22 as well as launching a new recruitment campaign.
“It’s also worth stressing that the EU workers who are contributing so much to our care sector can apply to stay in the UK through our settlement and a very large number have done so. Those people will remain in the UK providing really important care to the elderly and the vulnerable.”
Asked whether that meant care providers should be boosting staff wages, the Number 10 spokesperson said immigration is not "the sole answer" for the sector.
"And what we’ve done is provide councils with an additional £1.5bn for social care as well as launching a new recruitment campaign," they added.
Boris Johnson meanwhile told reporters that the new points-based immigration system would not represent a “slamming the gates” to those who want to live and work here.
The Prime Minister said: “Although, of course, we are going to be taking back control [and] we are controlling our immigration system, we're not going to be just simply slamming the gates and stopping anybody, anywhere from coming into this country.
“Where people can contribute to this country, where people want to make their lives and do great things for this country, of course we're going to have a humane and sensible system.”
Unveiling the proposals, Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “Our new system sends a message to the whole world that Britain is open for business, but on our terms.”