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‘We can’t magic up staff from nowhere’: Why Sunak faces a migration headache

sunak and braverman
Ousted former home secretary Suella Braverman has led calls from the Tory Right to bring down migration - James Manning/WPA Pool/Getty Images

“Have you been looking to move and migrate to the UK? Have you tried and tried and tried everything possible?,” asks an influencer known as Clara Immigration in a video on her YouTube channel.

“If this is you and you are on the verge of giving up, then I come here bearing very good news.”

Clara, whose channel has over 90,000 followers, goes on to outline how people can come into the country by getting a job in the care home sector.

“Don’t miss out on this opportunity: move to the UK with your family by January 2024.”

The video is one of hundreds in different languages on YouTube selling the prospect of working in the British care sector as a route into the country.

Some 154,000 overseas workers came into Britain to care for the elderly, sick and vulnerable in the year to June 2023, amid acute staffing shortages.

This influx has contributed to record net migration, which hit a staggering 745,000 in 2022.

Rishi Sunak has admitted that immigration is “simply too high” and the revised data published last month has unleashed the rage of the Tory right.

Ousted former home secretary Suella Braverman described the rise as a “slap in the face to the British public”.

suella braverman
Braverman described the net migration rise as a ‘slap in the face to the British public’ - Oli Scarff/PA Archive

To bring down immigration, ministers are now exploring options including preventing care home workers from bringing over their children and spouses, raising the salary thresholds or removing them completely from the Government’s shortage occupation list.

But deciding how to tackle the issue puts Sunak in a tricky bind as he tries to balance competing political and economic demands.

Leaders in the care sector warn that making it harder for overseas workers to get jobs in the sector risks stoking wage inflation, forcing some care providers to close their doors and jeopardising efforts to bring down NHS waiting lists.

Yet a failure to grasp the nettle of immigration risks inflaming a full-blown Tory civil war and will go down badly with voters.

Almost half of all visas were going to care workers in the most recent period for which we have data,” says Madeleine Sumption from Migration Observatory. “So you can’t really have a conversation about [migration] numbers without discussing care.”

The Government placed social care workers on the shortage occupation list in February last year after the sector complained of struggles to hire. The most recent figures for 2022-23 put staff shortages at 152,000, according to industry body Skills for Care.

The official classification made it easier for employers to sponsor care workers for visas that allow them to live and work here. Suggestions that the Government will now crackdown has already sparked panic within the industry.

“We had a team meeting where we bring key people together once a month: top of our heading was what the bloody hell are we going to do if this actually happens?,” says Paul De Savary, managing director of Home From Home Care, which runs 11 specialist care homes in Lincolnshire for adults with highly complex needs.

“It will be a total disaster. We can’t magic up staff from nowhere.”

Removing care staff from the shortage occupation list would mean few or none at all would come to fill jobs. Restricting workers from bringing over their families would also put off some migrants, industry leaders believe.

That, of course, is the point from the Government’s perspective. Changes to the system are meant to lower the immigration numbers. However, experts fear that trying to convince British workers to fill the gaps will be difficult without making care more expensive.

“The driver of shortages is effectively the poor pay and conditions,” Sumption says, adding that higher pay would be required to tempt British workers.

Geoff Butcher is the chief executive of care company Blackadder Corporation, which runs six homes. When he advertises jobs to workers domestically, there is little interest.

“We don’t get much of a pick-up. Out of 10 people who respond typically fewer than one show up for an interview.

“The reason behind this is very simple: the benefit system does not require people to prove that they have been for an interview or the result of a job application. Simply, they have to evidence that they have applied.”

While better pay for care workers may sound admirable, the money is difficult to find.

“Local authorities don’t have enough,” says Simon Bottery from the King’s Fund. “The rates that they pay for commissioning care are too low. As a consequence, providers find it hard to pay people the rate that they need to compete with the jobs in the market, particularly the NHS or retail or hospitality.”

Funding for public services is set to fall by £19bn in real terms over the next five years.

Increasing the salary threshold for foreign workers would also put pressure on wages. But wage increases are problematic for the Government for several reasons. As the Bank of England enters the most fickle stage of the inflation fight, the pace of pay rises across the economy is a key concern.

Butcher points out that increasing salaries across the sector by £2 would cost around £3bn – and even then it might not be enough, providers say.

In Lincolnshire, De Savary says: “We pay a minimum of a pound over the minimum wage. A lot of our people are earning much higher levels of pay than that – that’s just our entry point. We invest massively in training, mentoring and well-being. Yet we find it difficult to recruit.”

In contrast, the foreign staff who arrive are eager to work as much as possible.

“You have people coming into this country, believing that they can work any hour that God sends so you have to talk them back from that,” says Butcher. “We have someone actually who came onboard about a month ago and he wanted to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day.”

Employing lots of workers from overseas is already expensive – and not without problems.

“The cost of bringing in a Filipino worker is something like £10,500 per person,” says De Savary. “So the idea that somehow this is a cheap way of getting staff is just absolute nonsense.”

Butcher adds: “Last winter we had to provide winter clothing to people who came because they literally arrived at the airport with a bag of normal clothes from Kerala.”

Martin Green, chief executive of trade body Care England, warns that toughening up migration rules in the care sector would put more pressure on the NHS.

“You’d find that people currently waiting for care will be waiting longer and then probably they’re going into crisis and fall and end up in hospital. That would then have a knock-on effect in terms of causing an even greater backlog in the NHS.”

Yet warnings such as these are unlikely to hold much weight with the Right of the Tory party against the totemic number that is 745,000.

With an election looming, Sunak must pick his poison: an immigration crisis or a care home one. Neither looks palatable.