The number of non-British EU nationals working in the UK’s crisis-stricken social care system has shot up by more than 40% in three years, according to official figures – prompting fears that Brexit will lead to a catastrophic staffing crisis across the sector.
The data released in answer to a parliamentary question by the Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake shows the total increased from 65,000 in December 2013 to 92,000 by September last year, the most recent date for which figures are available.
The proportion of the social care workforce from other European countries varies by region, from 2% in the north-east to 12% in London, showing how a system already suffering recruitment problems is hugely reliant on EU workers in large parts of the country. In all, European workers make up 7% of a social care workforce of 1.34 million.
The figures prompted calls from the Tory chair of the Commons health committee, Dr Sarah Wollaston, for the government to act not only to guarantee without delay the right of resident EU nationals to stay in the UK – something Theresa May has so far refused to do – but to draw up contingency plans to ensure European workers can still come to work in the NHS and social care after the UK leaves the EU.
“I am very concerned about existing workers, but I am also concerned about future staff,” Wollaston said. “The government has to ensure that those who need care are not left high and dry when we leave the EU.”
During an appearance before the health select committee last month, health secretary Jeremy Hunt admitted that the system would not be able to operate without EU workers, saying: “Frankly, we would fall over without their help.”
Brake said: “These figures show how incredibly reliant our social care services are on hard-working EU nationals. This government’s hard Brexit plans, and refusal to guarantee EU nationals the right to stay, risk sparking a disastrous exodus of workers on whom our health and care system depend.
“There are people who contribute hugely to our society and look after our disabled and elderly, yet Theresa May is insisting on using them as pawns in Brexit negotiations.”
Hunt told the committee he was confident that appropriate arrangements would be made to ensure European workers would be able to come to work in the social care system and NHS after Brexit, but was unable to offer details ahead of negotiations, which will begin after article 50 is triggered next month.
This week the government, which has said it will end current EU free-movement arrangements after Brexit, will come under yet more pressure with the release of a report by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) that will warn of serious skills shortages unless ministers agree a “light touch” immigration system which permits skilled and unskilled EU workers to continue to come to the UK.
The BCC’s own polling shows that 76% of UK manufacturers are experiencing recruitment difficulties for skilled workers and that businesses reliant on low-skilled staff, such as agriculture and hospitality, are also concerned about restrictions.
The report adds: “If EU27 citizens are subject to future restrictions, a simple and light-touch system is required. This should allow businesses to hire staff at any skill level, where there are demonstrable local labour shortages.”
In an intervention that alarmed some hardline Tory Brexiters and will concern voters who backed leaving the EU as a way to control immigration, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded last week that it could take “years and years” to fill all the jobs that would otherwise have been done by EU immigrants. Davis suggested ways would be found to ensure an adequate flow of labour.
Speaking on a visit to Estonia, Davis said: “In the hospitality sector, hotels and restaurants, in the social care sector, working in agriculture, it will take time. It will be years and years before we get British citizens to do those jobs.
“Don’t expect just because we’re changing who makes the decision on the policy, the door will suddenly shut – it won’t.”
Number of EU care workers in UK surges – The Guardian