Talking about immigration issues is not a usual area of concern for an older people’s charity but it’s become increasingly obvious that the pressures on the social care workforce are just too pressing to ignore. Social care (a bigger employer than the NHS) is already struggling to recruit all the workers it needs, with over 70,000 vacancies currently and a rate of staff turnover nearly double that in some other sectors of the economy – it just can’t afford a further hole made in its numbers.
Our work with the ILC-UK found that nearly 80,000 migrants from the EU* working in adult social care in England don’t have British citizenship. And, as Brexit negotiations loom we don’t know whether these vital workers will be able to stay in these jobs or in the country. It’s a particular problem in London and the South East, where between one in nine and one in ten social care workers are from the EU and without British citizenship.
Not only that, but over 80% of migrants who came to England to work in social care this year come from the EU. So the care workforce in England is more and more dependent on workers from the EU than ever before. Were we to lose these people from the workforce – and potentially reduce our ability to attract workers from the EU in the future – it could contribute to a workforce gap in social care of up to 1.12million in the next twenty years. If that happens, care services for elderly and disabled people could simply fall over.
We know that the care sector has an existing problem with the recruitment and retention of staff. Vacancy and turnover rates have been steadily rising for the past decade. The work is responsible, demanding, low paid and can be seen as unattractive to some British people. Care providers often bemoan competing with the NHS, the hotel and catering trade, supermarkets and coffee shops for employees. And years of negative reporting have cast a shadow over the sector’s reputation. Yet social care performs a vital role in society caring for people with disabilities, the frail and the elderly.
The funding challenge and severe pressures facing the social care sector are well documented but our report seems to have struck a chord. The report provoked debate in the national media and appears to have got a lot of people talking. Influential organisations such as ADASS and Local Government Association spoke out on the topic. The Government issued a response. People called in about it, and our social media channels were full of discussion about it.
We were not without challenge. We were told that older people voted for Brexit so maybe they’d got their just desserts! (Yes, really!). We replied that some older people had voted to leave and some to remain, but they hadn’t voted for all the consequences of that decision. Aren’t you scaremongering, said some. Isn’t it likely that EU migrants already living and working in the UK will be allowed to remain, said others. The reality is, we are not scaremongering. Without guarantees, there remains a real risk that we will lose a large number of EU workers in an already stretched sector. Our call stands alongside a similar call for guarantees for EU NHS workers made by Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England.
We do want EU migrants currently working in social care to be able to remain. We want them to feel valued and secure in their jobs. We also want more support for the sector as a whole to recruit British-born workers with the right skills, the right qualities of care and responsibility to work in one of the most rewarding jobs in the world, supporting frail older people. With an ageing population the demand for these vital roles will only continue and we need to think harder about turning around perceptions and attracting people with the right stuff – from home and abroad. In the meantime, those charged with Brexit negotiations have one more headache to add to their list.
*Throughout the report we mainly refer to European Economic Area (EEA) migrants, as Brexit could affect nationals from across the European Economic Area, which includes the European Union, but a small number of other European nations as well.