Banning visa dependents won’t solve the social care crisis

The Government has recently introduced new rules banning social care workers brining visa dependents into the UK. Home Office social media ads proudly declared that the Government has “BANNED overseas care workers from brining dependants.” Adding that “120,000 people who arrived last year would no longer be eligible under our new rules.” However, these new rules won’t solve the social care crisis. Instead of looking at the fundamental issue of undervaluing people who work in health and social care, Government decided to focus on some headline. It is high time we reclassify social care as a professional occupation.

There is a significant shortfall in social care workers across the UK, with many positions remaining unfilled and heavy reliance on an overseas workforce. While pay and conditions are important factors contributing to this shortage, it is also crucial to acknowledge that social care work is often undervalued. This undervaluation undermines the profession’s attractiveness to UK workers and exacerbates recruitment difficulties.

At the start of 2024 James Bullion, chief inspector of adult social care and integrated care, told the Commons health and social care select committee that cases of modern slavery are on track to have increased tenfold in the last three years. He said the CQC made four referrals about modern slavery in 2021-22, 37 referrals last year, and is on course to make 50 this year.

In addition, a report from Skills for Care last summer noted the vacancy rate in social care was at about 9.9% – around 152,000 vacancies on any given day – and providers have stated that overseas workers have been crucial to their staffing.

Unison’s Social Care Lead Gavin Edwards is right to conclude that “Care companies couldn’t function without migrant care workers. Firms have to recruit from overseas because the Government’s done nothing to solve the care staffing crisis (…) We do now need to focus more of our efforts, more of our energies on that domestic employment side and, as I say, I think that paying people properly for those roles is clearly an important part of that.”

There are positive signs that a Labour Government is willing to look at more structural solutions. The party’s New Deal for Care Workers includes a workforce plan to address recruitment and retention, professional status, and a Fair Pay Agreement for care professionals, and the Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting is one of the many Labour MPs who have signed Unison’s national care pledge calling for care workers to be valued, recognised and rewarded as skilled professionals.

To address part of the challenge to better value the professional status of care workers the Vice Chancellor of London Metropolitan University and I have written to the Shadow Health Secretary to propose Labour looks at reclassifying social care as a professional occupation within the Office of National Statistics Standard Occupational Classification 2020. This reclassification would not only elevate the status of social care workers but also make the profession more appealing to prospective social care workers. Without such recognition, it will be challenging to meet the estimated need for an additional 480,000 social care staff by 2035.

Evidence supports the assertion that social care work is undervalued. Statistics reveal significant pay disparities compared to other professions, and testimonials from social care workers underscore the need for change. Reclassifying social care as a professional occupation would not only address these disparities but also improve the quality of care provided by attracting and retaining skilled professionals.

If Labour gets elected later this year they will face enormous challenges to bring back standards in public services, with financial room to manoeuvre having been wiped out by 14 years of under investment, but a simple reclassification of social care will send a strong signal that under a Labour government health and social care workers will no longer be undervalued. 


To read more from Tijs Broeke, see his previous piece, The Horizon scandal demonstrates how civil service under Labour needs to get to grips with business.