Care leaders ‘blindsided’ by visa change which ‘could drive workers from sector’

Social care leaders felt “blindsided” by recently-announced changes to visa rules banning care workers from bringing their families to the UK and have “grave concerns” it could drive people from the sector, MPs have heard.

The head of Care England, which represents social care providers across the country, criticised a lack of consultation with the sector, saying it left them “particularly concerned, annoyed and irritated”.

Professor Martin Green (pictured), its chief executive, told the health and social care committee the system is currently already “creaking at the edges” due to a lack of funding, and spoke of the “chronic workforce shortage” it faces.

Health Secretary Victoria Atkins told the same committee last week that the social care sector was “broadly relaxed” about the changes on dependants.

That session heard from the health department’s permanent secretary, Sir Chris Wormald, that there had not been prior consultation with Care England before the changes 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, but said care minister Helen Whately had had conversations with various organisations about the changes.

On Tuesday, Prof Green told MPs it “would have been much better if they (the Government) had been more collaborative” with the sector in trying to understand what the implications of the changes could be before announcing them.

He added: “Unfortunately they did not do that, so we were all a bit blindsided by it.”

He said there is a “great deal of uncertainty for people who are already here who thought they might be able to bring their dependents in”.

He also warned workers might move from social care to the NHS and other sectors, due to a difference in the policy on bringing dependants.

He compared differences in how the NHS and social care sectors have been treated previously, referring to vaccinations in the pandemic.

He said: “What we see is endless discussion about integration, but we never see that translated into policy.

“And we saw during Covid, the rule that meant that all care home staff had to be vaccinated but the NHS didn’t have to do that. The impact was people left social care and went into the NHS and other sectors.

“And we have grave concerns that that’s going to happen as a result of this policy. People are going to move away because they can’t bring in their dependants and go into other sectors where they can.”

Skills for Care chief executive Oonagh Smyth told the committee that “international recruits have significantly contributed to workforce capacity” in the year to April 2023.

She said the strategic workforce development and planning body for adult social care in England does not take a view on whether international recruitment is the right policy choice but said if it is cut, more must be done on building a domestic workforce.

She said: “If we do reduce international recruitment, then it’s really clear that we’re going to need to do more to recruit – and really, really importantly, retain – our domestic workforce, because demand is only going to grow over the next few years as our populations grow and and we’re living longer but not necessarily healthier.”

A report from Skills for Care in July noted that the vacancy rate in social care was at about 9.9% – around 152,000 vacancies on any given day.

Announcing the changes earlier this month, Home Secretary James Cleverly said they are an attempt at “curbing abuses to the health care visa”.

Home Office figures published last month showed 143,990 health and care worker visas were granted in the year ending September 2023, more than double the 61,274 for the year to September 2022.

The 143,990 figure was just for main visa applicants and does not include dependants.

Meanwhile, in its latest migration release, also published last month, the Office for National Statistics said health and care visas were the most common type of work visa on which dependants came to the UK, adding that this was driving the increase in immigration of those on work dependant visas.

The committee heard that while exploitation in the sector is not believed to be widespread or endemic, it is becoming more common.

All three on the panel expressed their concern about issues raised in a BBC Panorama programme aired this week reporting that care home staff from overseas had said they feel exploited and trapped, believing their contracts prevented them from leaving.

The programme sent an undercover reporter to take up a job as a care assistant at Addison Court, part of Prestwick Care, in the north-east of England, and the provider has since said issues raised within it will be “thoroughly investigated and action taken if and where appropriate”.

Prof Green said he believed it was “an isolated incident, but I don’t want to underplay it”.

James Bullion from health watchdog the Care Quality Commission (CQC), said their own figures for modern slavery referrals were likely to hit around 50 for this year, up from 37 last year and four the previous year.

He said because workers are dependent on a visa and therefore on an employer, the possibility for exploitation “increases significantly”.

Mr Bullion added: “I don’t think it’s widespread or endemic. But I do think it’s becoming more common.”

Ms Smyth said there are examples of “bad actors”, but added that “we don’t have a sense that this (exploitation) is systemic, although that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be doing everything that we can to both prevent and detect”.

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2023, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Care England.