An easing of UK immigration rules for care workers will not solve the sector’s workforce crisis unless the government funds an immediate increase in pay to well above the statutory minimum, a leading advisory group said on Wednesday.
The Migration Advisory Committee, which was tasked with assessing how the end of EU free movement had affected adult social care, said the care sector’s challenges dated from well before Brexit and that the underlying problem “has been and continues to be” its underfunding.
The committee urged ministers in December to add social care staff to the list of occupations that have preferential access to the UK. The move would allow employers to recruit workers with lower salaries and educational qualifications than the mainstream immigration routes allow in order to address acute staffing shortages against a backdrop of a tightening labour market.
The government acted on these recommendations in February. The MAC said the changes should be made permanent and that ministers should scrap the “immigration skills charge” at present paid by employers, since it was illogical to impose it when meeting public sector needs.
It also advised removing or lowering the high settlement fees paid by migrant care workers who apply for indefinite leave to remain in the UK after five years.
However, the committee said further easing visa rules would make little difference. Instead, it called on the government to immediately introduce a fully funded minimum rate of pay of £10.50 an hour for care workers in England, where care was provided through public funds.
It also called for care workers to be paid for all the hours they were “on the job”, including for travel between clients and for overnight “sleepover” shifts.
“The only thing that can fundamentally change the workforce crisis in social care is paying workers more . . . unless that’s addressed, frankly nothing else will do the job,” said Brian Bell, economics professor at King’s College London and the committee’s chair.
An hourly minimum of £10.50 would match that paid to care workers in Scotland, and be significantly above the statutory wage floor of £9.50. The change would increase the sector’s wage bill by £700mn to £2.1bn, depending on how far employers raised wages for workers higher up their pay scales, the MAC calculated.
But the change would still not be enough to make the sector competitive, Bell said, adding: “You can still earn more working at the Amazon warehouse down the road.”
Government plans to improve the quality of England’s social care have been heavily criticised for failing to offer any significant funding to tackle its chronic workforce problems.
Funds raised by the new health and social care levy are unlikely to flow to care in the near future because the priority is to bring down NHS waiting lists. The number of unfilled care posts has more than doubled since early 2019, with vacancy rates higher than in any sector apart from IT and hospitality.
Ministers have usually accepted the MAC’s recommendations on immigration policy in the past but the committee has no remit to advise on the appropriate level or method of funding care.
But Bell argued that immigration would always play a “marginal” role in filling vacancies, since workers who came to the UK to take a job in care would swiftly move on if working conditions were poor.