Why the Government’s immigration plans could be devastating for social care - Mike Padgham

Of all the blows dealt to social care over the last few decades – and there have been plenty – the Government’s latest proposal on visas, which would cut off a vital source of recruitment for care workers, could be the most devastating.

Boris Johnson meets a group of nurses. Photo: Alastair Grant/PA Wire
Boris Johnson meets a group of nurses. Photo: Alastair Grant/PA Wire

So today I call on the Government to have a re-think or make social care a special case so that we are not left short of thousands of care workers we urgently need. I repeat my long-standing invitation to the Prime Minister or a senior minister to visit us here in North Yorkshire, see social care on the frontline and ask whether they still think they have got it right. Furthermore, the Government has to address the ongoing crisis in social care, starting with measures in next month’s Budget.

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The Government is saying that so-called unskilled workers won’t be able to come to this country under its proposed immigration points system. Its argument is that it wants employers to concentrate on recruiting British workers. In my own care business, some 10 per cent of staff are from other EU countries and we couldn’t function without them. The simple fact is, social care has to be better paid and held in higher esteem for the benefit of all workers, whether they are British or from overseas. Let there be no doubt that social care is a highly-skilled job but it is poorly-paid. It is a hugely rewarding job but it can be challenging, stressful and demanding. With the right pay and the recognition it deserves, social care could become more a career of choice. But at the moment for far too many it isn’t and there are other jobs which pay as well or better for less stress.

Mike Padgham is concered the immigration plans would cut off a recruitment source for care workers. Photo: Kirsty O'Connor/PA

There are plenty of vacancies to fill. The sector is already short – there are 120,000 care vacancies on any one day. And with a rapidly ageing population we are going to need many thousands more, not fewer, care workers – some say up to 700,000 more by 2035.

Estimates say ending freedom of movement could rob the sector of up to 115,000 care workers between now and 2026. The sector will be the victim of a vicious circle. Social care is chronically under-funded and has been for a generation. Some £8bn has been cut from local authority social care budgets since 2010. Despite numerous calls for funding reform and the Prime Minister promising to tackle social care, nothing is happening.

That means providers cannot afford to pay their staff the kind of wage that truly reflects the excellent care they offer. There simply isn’t enough money to do so. Because of that, social care workers aren’t paid well enough to be classed as skilled workers under the Government’s proposed visa points system – even though anyone with even the most rudimentary grasp of what carers do can plainly see that it is a very highly-skilled job.

Mike Padgham, who says the Government's immigration plans will hit the social care sector hard.

Unless the proposals change or social care is somehow made exempt, the sector is going to be robbed of a vital source of staff. This would be a devastating blow and on top of the ongoing funding crisis and other increasing pressures – not least the higher than expected increase in the National Living Wage – it might be the final straw for some providers who are already struggling to break even. It would heap further pressure on an already crumbling social care sector which will in turn pile more pressure on NHS healthcare, which will have to pick up the pieces when less and less social care is available. Furthermore, if social care fails, families will have to do the caring instead, even more than many already do. The steady stream of people giving up work to take care of loved ones will become a torrent.

If that number grows massively, as it surely would, the impact on the economy would be significant. The Government knows all of this. Indeed, numerous governments have known this going back a generation, but none has ever done anything about it.

Critics will say that providers should cut their own profits and pay their staff better. Whilst there will always be exceptions, most providers do try to pay their staff as well as they can. At the same time, providers have to make a profit, both to comply with Care Quality Commission stipulations and to invest in their businesses. We wouldn’t be facing the current crisis if social care was properly funded and that is why measures have to come in new Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s first Budget. The recently-promised £1.5bn extra for social care won’t even touch the sides of the current shortfall and will be swallowed up by the increase in the National Living Wage.

Instead we need to see social care properly funded, if needs be by an increase in taxation or National Insurance. I honestly believe people would be willing to pay a little more if they knew there was going to be a proper care system in place to look after them in their later years. If the Government wants good, sustainable social care, it is going to have to pay for it and sort out this mess once and for all.

Mike Padgham is chair of the Independent Care Group based in Scarborough and a national campaigner on social care.