Immigration reform: radical or irresponsible?

Ieva Asnina

On 19 February, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, announced the Government’s ‘radical’ plans to shake up the immigration system once the Brexit transition period is over.

Effective January 1st 2021, freedom of movement will be replaced with a points-based system which will allocate points to ‘hopefuls’ based on skills, salary and English language proficiency, with 70 points the key to unlocking entry to post-Brexit Britain.

Potential immigrants will be able to ‘trade’ certain criteria to gain entry if, for example, they will be working in a staff shortage occupation, as identified by the Migration Advisory Committee, which has a low salary.

While this announcement will have appeased many Brexiteers, sector leaders across hospitality, construction, care and retail have heavily criticised the Government’s ‘irresponsible’ plans.

 

‘What about us?’

Take, for example, social care. A 1.6 million strong workforce, currently facing a 122,000 shortage of workers. A shortage that is expected to rise to 580,000 in the next 15 years as this decade will see a 25% increase in the number of people aged over 65. Despite these stark warnings, care workers did not make the MAC’s shortage occupations list.

Some have described this as a ‘slap in the face’ when those hoping to work in the NHS will receive a special fast-track visa for entry. As a further insult, social care work – despite sharing much with the role of some hospital workers – is described as ‘low-skilled’. This is despite many trained care workers administering medicine or PEG feeding residents in care homes, much like nurses in hospitals.

But make no mistake: low paid does not mean low skilled, despite the Government’s language over the past week suggesting the contrary.

The social care workforce supports society’s most vulnerable: those with dementia, disabilities and other increasingly complex care needs. The work associated with this, not to mention the long hours and hard work which often leads to burnout, is not a career that should be tarnished with the ‘low-skilled’ brush.

Indeed, while the Government has referenced its own national social care recruitment campaign in a number of statements in reaction to the criticism, it is juxtaposed by social care being described as ‘low-skilled’ by Ministers across prime time television, with the adverts of a ‘rewarding career in care’ on Instagram screaming irony. It’s also worth noting that, since that recruitment campaign launched in February 2019, the latest figures (October 2019) suggest the vacancy rate in social care has actually worsened to 122,000, or 7.8% of the English and Welsh workforce.

 

Adapt and adjust

With an average care worker salary of £16,000 – a massive leap from the Government’s £25,500 threshold and even the lower threshold of £20,480 for shortage occupations – care providers who rely on oversees workers will be faced with an additional problem: how to tackle the recruitment crisis without relief from immigration.

Indeed, in Scotland, social care is the fourth largest economic contributor yet 8% to 10% of the workforce is from the European Economic Area.

In England, meanwhile, 17% of people working in adult social care are non-British nationals – and in London the amount is closer to 40%.

With unemployment at a 45-year low, Britons are in short supply. While Patel called for employers to make the most of the 8 million ‘economically inactive’, many have pointed out that this figure includes the retired, full-time carers, students and those otherwise incapable of having a full-time job.

The Government’s advice? Businesses will have to ‘adapt and adjust’.

 

Automation ≠ compassion

As the Government seeks to entice the ‘best and brightest’ to the UK, it has called on businesses to make the necessary arrangements to train and invest in British people or to introduce automation.

While automation may be possible if you send parcels or gut fish, in a sector that primarily provides compassion, patience and empathy, there is no comparison.

A career in care is person-centred. People cannot be replaced by robots and be expected to provide the same level of care, particularly when working with people who may not have family or friends visit often. For many, a robot would be more ‘foreign’ to them than someone from oversees.

Whilst it is true technology can automate or reduce the time commitment of some tasks – rota planning, medicines management, and completing necessary care records – it is highly questionable whether the amount of time saved will meaningfully reduce the workforce shortage.

Further, to tell care providers to adapt in a short space of time without any solution to address the long-standing funding issues is not doing the sector any favours.

 

Home truths

The Home Office has issued some blunt advice to the country: immigration was never intended to be a solution to the problems of social care, which echoes the findings in the MAC report.

Indeed, there are underlying issues in the sector that go beyond immigration that need to be addressed – and fast. This includes paying staff what they are owed for completing skilled work.

However, as pointed out by critics, immigration is not the reason why the social care workforce is underpaid. It is underpaid because the skills required to do the job are not understood nor appreciated by society or the biggest purchaser of social care, Government.

Immigrants have long been used as scapegoats by media and governments, despite numerous studies highlighting that immigrants contribute more to the economy and wider society than take they take.

It is perhaps true that of the sectors that have most vocally criticised the plans – including hospitality, retail and construction – some employers have become ‘addicted’ to a plentiful supply of European workers resulting in a lack of investment in salaries and training. Take construction, where some house builders achieve a reported 30% operating margin on every property. Arguably, they have the financing needed to pay their staff more and invest in the training needs of the industry.

But in social care, Government is indirectly the biggest employer of care workers, and it is its own lack of funding for social care that means wages have not increased.

Critics have urged the Government to ‘take some responsibility’ for the consequences of its inaction and to start funding social care appropriately. Let’s remember, funding in most parts of the country is around £4 per resident per hour.

 

What next?

Cutting immigration is said to be a key driver in the 2016 referendum – and the ‘People’s Government’ hasn’t shied away from serving radical changes with this announcement. But at what expense?

While the sector has needed to adapt, adjust and fend for itself over recent years, everyone has their breaking point.

Next month’s Budget will give a clear indication of exactly where social care fits in the Prime Minister’s agenda. If this announcement is anything to go by, however, the newly appointed Chancellor Rishi Sunak is unlikely to give the sector the lifeline it truly needs to do more than just say afloat.

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