Carers should be paid a higher minimum wage and made permanently eligible for work visas under immigration rules to help tackle staff shortages, according to Government advisers.
The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), which briefs ministers on immigration policy, urged the Government to adopt a string of recommendations “as soon as possible” in order to “alleviate the challenges facing the social care sector”.
However, the body warned immigration “cannot be a silver bullet” to solve “fundamental” problems in the industry, such as “increased demand for care, high vacancy rates and poor terms and conditions of employment compared to competing occupations”.
MAC chairman Brian Bell told reporters: “The only thing that can fundamentally change the workforce crisis that is in social care is paying workers more.
“There are other things that you can do … but front and foremost is pay, and unless that’s addressed, frankly, nothing else will do the job.”
The committee investigated the effect ending freedom of movement after Brexit is having on the social care industry after Home Office minister Kevin Foster commissioned a report last year.
Its findings, published on Wednesday, said “persistent underfunding of the care sector by successive governments underlies almost all the workforce problems in social care. Higher pay is a prerequisite to attract and retain social care workers”.
The report comes after the Government relaxed immigration rules in February for care workers, following an early MAC recommendation, so providers could recruit from overseas to fill vacancies.
At the time, some care charities warned the change would have “little or no effect” on staff shortages as most UK employers do not pay enough for them to qualify for the scheme.
Among 19 recommendations made in the latest report, the MAC said the Government should immediately introduce a “fully-funded” minimum rate of pay for care workers in England that is above the national living wage (of £9.50), starting at £10.50 per hour.
This would apply to contracts with public bodies or authorities, as opposed to private firms, and could cost the Government “about a billion pounds as a rough estimate” if adopted, Mr Bell said.
He told reporters changes to pay could have an “immediate impact” on recruitment and retention.
Acknowledging that £10.50 is not “going to be enough”, and that “you can still earn more, frankly, working at the Amazon centre down the road”, Mr Bell described this as a “stepping stone process” and the recommendations as “marginal changes that can make a short-term difference”.
Offering this wage as a starting point would “make the sector more competitive and will in some cases be more than some competing firms are paying”, he added, but stressed this had to be “part of a longer-term strategy”.
The MAC also recommended care workers were made permanently eligible for the health and care worker visas and kept on the Shortage Occupation List (SOL) – designed to help migrants get work visas to fill jobs where there are shortages – until it is next reviewed.
It called for additional taxes placed on such staff to be scrapped or lowered.
Firms can face costs of up to £1,000 per worker per year under immigration skills charges. Mr Bell described it as “illogical” to tax public bodies and described this as “simply shifting funds across government”, so recommended the charge be removed for all health and care worker visas.
He also said the cost of applying for indefinite leave to remain in the UK after holding the visa for five years – at present almost £2,400 per person – should be waived or reduced to the “actual processing cost” of £243.
Mr Bell said: “This sort of profit margin would normally have the Competition and Markets Authority knocking on the door. Surely as a society we want to encourage dedicated workers in health and social care to remain in the UK.”
The National Care Forum (NCF) said the findings provided “further evidence” the government should act “as a matter of urgency” while the Voluntary Organisations Disability Group (VODG) said the report served as another “wake-up call”, adding: “We need to be ambitious in rewarding talent for much-needed social care.”
In a written statement to Parliament, Mr Foster said the Government will “consider the report and its recommendations carefully before deciding what steps to take next”.