When the government announced its plans for a new points-based immigration system in February 2020, it was met with varying levels of concern and dismay from experts and employers across industries. On 30 June 2020 The Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill comfortably passed its latest hurdle in the House of Commons by 342 votes to 248 and will now be sent to the House of Lords.
In the new system, prospective migrants will be assigned points based on skills, qualifications and job prospects, as well as other compulsory conditions such as a required level of English, a confirmed job offer and a job at an appropriate skills level. Despite advice from the Migration Advisory Committee that previous attempts to introduce a points-based immigration system in the UK had proved “ineffective and overly complex”, this move has been offered by the Home Secretary as a way of opening up the UK “to the brightest and best from around the world.”
As the bill continues its passage through parliament, we’ve been considering how these new measures might impact the social care sector, including the supply of EU workers, how skilled the workforce is and what role the Covid-19 pandemic will play.
Social care’s dependence on immigration
The social care sector has been very reliant on a migrant workforce. A recent analysis of the social care workforce by Skills for Care reported that 8% of the social care workforce, or 115,000 jobs, are EU nationals (with a further 9% of workers coming from outside the EU).
At the same time, the care sector has experienced an increase in demand for labour, with an estimated 122,000 unfilled vacancies in adult social care (7.8% of total positions).
Nowhere is this reliance on health and social care workers illustrated more strongly than the current coronavirus crisis; the Home Secretary recently announced that free visa extensions will be granted to “crucial overseas health and care workers” to continue to wage the fight against the virus over the coming months.
So, how might The Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill affect the social care workforce?
One consequence might be the levels of skills in the care workforce. One of the bill’s stated aims includes driving up the level of skill among the workforce. However, the impact of the bill may be counterproductive to this aim.
A 2015 study by Independent Age showed that migrant care workers are significantly more likely to be high skilled (having a qualification equivalent to level 4 or above), compared to their UK-born counterparts. Given that 69% of current EU migrants working in health and social work would have been ineligible to migrate under the new proposed system, a statistic that has been acknowledged by the government, will this supposed effort to upskill the sector actually result in the opposite effect – pushing a cohort that are more likely to be skilled out of the workforce?
Reactions from the sector to the proposed new system have been overwhelmingly negative, with experts across adult social care calling the move an “absolute disaster,” one that “looks set to make our social care crisis even worse,” and an immigration policy that will lead to a “vacancy black hole”. Threaded through these responses is a clear message that the sector needs fewer barriers to recruitment, not more, and that “arbitrary salary thresholds” will do little to enable the social care sector to retain the number of staff needed to meet its needs. The proposed changes to the immigration system will only serve to worsen these “deep-rooted problems within the care sector”.
The future of social care
So what is next for the social care sector in the face of this challenge? As the bill travels through the Lords, it could be subject to a number of changes, including suggestions such as a separate migration stream for the recruitment of social care workers, or the designation of these positions as “shortage occupations”.
However, it is likely that the bill will be substantively the same when it returns to the House of Commons, so providers of adult social care will need to think about what they can do for themselves. In Independent Age’s report they identify the importance of making social work an attractive option for UK workers, through better working conditions and more appropriate levels of pay.
As Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc with the economy, social care will not face such stiff competition from the retail and leisure sector, which are already cutting jobs. Care workers have also perhaps never been held in such high esteem, given their heroic efforts during this crisis. It seems that this immigration bill will mean it is necessary for care providers to take advantage of these conditions to recruit more home-grown workers. The question is whether this will be enough to fill the gap left by the outstanding contribution of EU-workers that will no longer be able to seek work in the UK?
 Migration Advisory Committee, January 2020, ‘A Points-Based System and Salary Thresholds for Immigration’.
 Skills for Care, October 2019, ‘The state of the adult social care sector and workforce in England’.
 Home Office, April 2020, ‘Home Secretary announces visa extensions for frontline health and care workers’.
 Home Office, February 2020, ‘Home Secretary announces new UK points-based immigration system’.
 UNISON, February 2020, ‘Immigration plans ‘spell disaster for care sector’, says UNISON’.
 The Health Foundation, February 2020, ‘New points-based immigration system looks set to make our social care crisis even worse’.
 GMB Union, March 2020, .Care system risks 460,000 vacancy black hole thanks to immigration policy’.
 Social Care Today, February 2020, ‘New immigration system ‘won’t meet population’s health and care needs’’.
 NHS Providers, February 2020, ‘New immigration system will be difficult pill to swallow for social care’.
 Macmillan Cancer Support, February 2020, ‘Macmillan responds to government plans to move to a points-based immigration system’.
 Nursing Times, February 2020, ‘New social care warnings as government confirms immigration plans’.