Should we be really looking to get rid of overseas social care workers? - Jayne Dowle

You might expect two MPs representing very down-to-earth constituencies - one here in South Yorkshire, the other in Nottinghamshire - to hold pragmatic attitudes towards social care, and filling job vacancies.

But no. Miriam Cates, Conservative MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, and Tory deputy chairman Lee Anderson, who represents the former coal-mining stronghold of Ashfield, are both leading lights in the so-called ‘New Conservatives’, a group of right-wingers who have come up with an eye-watering 12-point blueprint for cutting net migration from 606,000 in 2022 to below 226,000 by the next election.

Along with kicking out overseas graduate students as soon as the ink is dry on their degree certificates – these highly-educated, potential high earners/taxpayers are currently allowed to remain in the UK for up to two years - perhaps the most bonkers suggestion is to end the temporary visa scheme that allows overseas health and social care workers into the country, to work, obviously.

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Arguing that this Health and Care Worker visa was only a temporary arrangement brought in during the Covid pandemic, Cates, co-chair of the group, told the BBC that closing the scheme would reduce the number of care workers coming to Britain by “about 100,000”.

Miriam Cates MP speaks during the Northern Research Group conference at Doncaster Racecourse. PIC: Danny Lawson/PA WireMiriam Cates MP speaks during the Northern Research Group conference at Doncaster Racecourse. PIC: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
Miriam Cates MP speaks during the Northern Research Group conference at Doncaster Racecourse. PIC: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

This, she continued, would magically transform the appeal of care into “an attractive career for British people”, who presumably, would rush to fill the jobs.

She might like to know that for many ‘British’ people care is already an attractive career; fulfilling, rewarding but heart-breaking sometimes, and often badly-paid and at the mercy of private care companies offering zero hours contracts to their employees and large dividends to their shareholders.

More than one in 10 care sector vacancies in England are unfilled, according to the Kings Fund, the highest rate since records began more than a decade ago. The vacancy rate is actually lowest in Yorkshire and the Humber and the North East, 8.7 per cent, and highest in London, 13.2 per cent.

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As the Kings Fund, an independent charity working to improve health and care in England points out, the issue is simple economics; supermarket jobs pay more than care home or home caring roles.

I am wondering when was the last time Ms Cates and her New Conservative colleagues spoke to anyone whose relative is reliant on care? If they dug just a little deeper than making spurious headline-making promises, they would find that wherever you look in the ailing social care system, you will find it is propped up by workers from overseas.

So much for the sweeping reforms promised by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his 2019.

Care experts warned at the time that his funding bonanza, finally announced two years later, in 2021 - £36bn to be raised in three years from new taxes, shared between the NHS and social care - would fall far short of what was needed for long-term sustainability.

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In typical broad-brush Johnson fashion, what his reforms failed to do were to address the endemic shortage of care staff – not to mention thousands of unfilled vacancies in the NHS – or come up with any viable, long-term plan for tackling this.

What Johnson’s hand-out also blithely ignored was one of the major issues health and social care policy specialists believe needs addressing; the lack of cohesion between the NHS and care, which leads to patients, typically elderly, bed-blocking on general hospital wards because there is nowhere suitable for them to move onto.

It is right then, that politicians are attempting to come up with solutions that rectify the damaging and often distressing situation social care finds itself in. However, ideas must be viable and working from a solid evidence base. Making this base the vexed issue of immigration in an attempt to appeal to a certain kind of Conservative voter is not the way to go about it.

Downing Street has brushed off the New Conservatives’ suggestions. A spokesman for PM Rishi Sunak responded by saying that removing care workers from the government’s Skilled Worker occupations shortage list was “not being considered”, citing the “significant demand in the care sector for staff”.

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If the New Conservatives want to wrestle with the knotty problems of employment, education, immigration and improving the economic prospects of the United Kingdom, perhaps their time would be better spent analysing this astonishing list of unfilled vacancies and asking themselves why it even exists.