Health Secretary says social care sector is ‘broadly relaxed’ about family visa changes

The social care sector is “broadly relaxed” about changes which will see international care workers banned from bringing dependants when they come to the UK, the Health Secretary has said.

Victoria Atkins’ comments were in contrast with warnings from organisations within the sector when the new measures were announced last week.

Care England, which represents providers across the country, said immigration has been “saving the social care sector” and that the changes would make it harder for care providers to recruit workers from abroad.

NHS Providers, which represents health trusts, said it found changes that could deter people from taking up jobs in the NHS and social care “deeply concerning”.

Unison, which counts health workers among its membership, said the changes “spell total disaster for the NHS and social care”, insisting hospitals and care homes “simply couldn’t function without” overseas workers.

But Ms Atkins (pictured), who was making her first appearance before the Health and Social Care Committee in her new role, said the sector understands the need for a change in approach.

She told MPs during a hearing on Wednesday afternoon: “I think actually we have got to a very sensible place and indeed my understanding from Minister Whately’s conversations with the social care sector is that they understand and they are broadly relaxed about this.”

Ms Atkins added that the Government is “confident that we will still be able to maintain the level of interest internationally for care workers”.

Permanent secretary at the Department of Health, Sir Chris Wormald, appeared alongside the Health Secretary and said the assessment made by the Home Office in announcing the changes is that there is a “robust market”.

He said this will be monitored “very carefully” with further analysis expected to be presented to Parliament.

At this point, committee chairman and Conservative MP Steve Brine interjected to say: “But aren’t there 152,000 vacancies in the care sector?”

Sir Chris accepted there remain “a substantial number of vacancies”.

He added: “The international recruitment has helped stabilise and improve the situation. But we still have, as you say, a number of vacancies.”

Sir Chris told the committee there had not been prior consultation with Care England before the changes were announced, but said this is not surprising as that is “not how immigration decisions tend to be made”.

He said a “very formal process” is in place for analysing immigration and making decisions, adding that Ms Whately’s conversations with various organisations “suggest that the care sector understands what we are doing here and understands the rationale for what we are doing and how we are moving forward”.

The committee appearance came on the same day a Government adviser warned immigration is “not the solution” to problems in the social care workforce.

Professor Brian Bell reiterated calls for care worker pay to “rise significantly above the minimum wage to attract resident workers who can often earn more in less demanding jobs”, adding: “It is a deliberate policy decision regarding social care funding not to do so.”

Net migration will “often change as a result of issues outside of those that the Home Office control”, the chairman of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) said, warning: “If pay does not rise substantially for care workers, I have no idea where the workers to fill the vacancies are going to come from, if not from abroad.”

He added that it would “surely be a good idea to address the underlying causes, rather than just the symptoms”, and repeated the committee’s previous recommendation to increase care worker wages by a pound an hour above the national living wage as “a sensible starting point”.

Asked by reporters on Wednesday about the potential effects of changes on dependants, Prof Bell said while there is likely to be “some reduction” in the numbers, “it may not be as big as people might think”.

Elsewhere in its report, the MAC said there had been several cases of potential modern slavery reported, particularly relating to dependants of migrants on the health and care worker visa.

There were 25 cases of so-called bonded labour between May and July this year “where a caseworker found information within an employment contract or other information that indicated that prohibited costs would be deducted from the migrant’s salary”.

Examples included sponsors charging people for the Immigration Skills Charge (ISC) which can range from hundreds of pounds to £1,000 – despite this being in contravention of the sponsorship guidance – and someone paying £8,000 directly to a sponsor for rent upfront, with another paying £21,000 to their sponsor for the visa.

The committee stated that the “only long-term sustainable solution to the workforce problems in the sector is to pay all care workers in the UK properly which would require a significant increase in public funds, and we remain deeply disappointed that the UK Government continue to exhibit no ambition in this area”.

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