The government will “live to regret” its decision to exclude migrant social care workers from its fast-track visa system for health and care staff, members of the House of Lords have warned.
Speaking during yesterday’s second reading of the EU Withdrawal Bill, which will end free movement on December 31, Lords from across the political divide pleaded with the government to rethink the legislation or, “at the very least”, introduce a transition scheme as the UK awaits its long-awaited strategy for social care reform.
Crossbencher Baroness Greengross said that if the government will not create a visa route to allow social care workers into the country, prior to the new points-based system being introduced in January, “they must develop a strategy for social care” that will ensure an “adequate supply” of labour to the sector.
“Nearly 8% of roles in adult social care are currently vacant, equivalent to 122,000 vacancies at any one time. We know that the NHS is a direct competitor for staff in some roles and can offer enhanced pay levels and a national career structure,” she added.
“Parity of recognition for social care staff is acknowledged as important. It is more than important; it is essential. I hope the government will recognise this and act accordingly.”
Baroness Masham of Ilton, president of the Spinal Injuries Association, warned that restricting numbers of overseas nationals who can work in the care sector will “put lives at risk”.
“Carers are not used just in hospitals and care homes. Many disabled people live in their own homes and have live-in carers or carers who visit them every day. These carers include many overseas nationals, and they are absolutely essential in managing disabled people’s health needs and enabling them to lead active, productive and fulfilled lives,” she told the House.
“We need people with a work ethos who want to help and look after people and enjoy and take satisfaction in doing this.”
The Home Office has previously said that the government wants employers to invest more in training and development for care workers in this country, a point the Minister of State for the Home Office, Baroness Williams of Trafford, reiterated during the reading.
“The government are working closely with the sector to go further to recognise the contributions of social care workers. This includes a widespread focus on training, increasing the prestige of our domestic workforce, and introducing a proper career structure to provide opportunities for those in the sector while making it an attractive profession for prospective carers,” she said.
But Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Liberal Democrats) said it would be “unwise” to believe that domestic recruitment will solve all social care’s immediate problems.
“With adequate funding, domestic recruitment may well offer a long-term solution, but it is irresponsible to pretend it can do so from next year,” she said.
“I plead with the government to think again and, as other noble Lords have pressed, at the very least provide for a transition period during which the promised, much-delayed new care strategy can make provision for rewarding carers adequately in recognition of their essential contribution during the pandemic, which the Minister herself lauded.”
Lord Dubs (Labour) agreed that there will be “no time” to train a domestic workforce before December 31.
“We will be near the end of the year and it takes time to train people; it is wishful thinking. The danger is that we will have a larger gap in social care provision as a result of this legislation. It is a retrograde step and we shall live to regret it,” he warned.
Baroness Altmann (Conservatives) said: “What will happen if the domestic workforce cannot be trained? We cannot ask these frail, vulnerable individuals to just wait until the training programme works out. As the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, powerfully explained, this is not about care homes alone; it is about those who live in their own homes and who rely on some immigrants to help look after them.”
She explained that a domestic workforce is “unlikely to respond quickly or positively” to work in a care sector that is “underfunded”.
“Unless we have the government’s long-term plan for social care, for which we are still waiting a year after it was supposed to be oven-ready, we cannot seriously expect the social care workforce to be filled domestically,” Baroness Altmann added.
“I urge [the Minister of State for the Home Office] to introduce a transitional scheme that will help encourage immigration for social care.”
Members of the House of Lords pointed out that in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, where a points system like that proposed by the UK operates, governments have included an alternative immigration route for social care workers.
Baroness Greengross said: “In April 2017, the New Zealand Government increased care and support workers’ pay by 21% to improve recruitment and retention in the sector. That also resulted in greater parity between social care and health workers and meant that migrants in the sector were more likely to meet the income threshold under New Zealand’s points-based immigration system.
“In Canada, like in the UK, social care workers are in demand across the country. There they are listed in the target occupations list, which means that migrants with experience or relevant qualifications can gain a Canadian permanent resident visa.”