17 February 2022
Implementing Migration Advisory Committee recommendation – social care workers
I wanted first of all to introduce myself in my new role as the Minister responsible for issues relating to migration for the Scottish Government. I am responding to your recent letter to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care regarding changes to the UK immigration system which affect our devolved social care sector.
Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recommendation
The interim recommendation made by the MAC for the addition of all social care roles to the Shortage Occupation List(SOL) recognises the grave situation our social care sector is in regarding its workforce. The recommendation aligns with an ask made in the evidence submitted by the Scottish Government and acknowledges what the Scottish care sector has asked of the UK Government for several months.
Scotland’s social care sector must have access to workers from outwith the UK to help meet shortfalls in workforce capacity and avoid the subsequent impact on our most vulnerable citizens. I hope that adding all social care workers to the SOL will begin to address the challenges faced by the sector. However, they do not go far enough to alleviate the immediate shortage of care workers which has worsened considerably since the ending of free movement.
The UK Government has been clear that it considers these moves to be a temporary solution. I, therefore, remain concerned that these changes continue a worrying trend of reactive measures offered to sectors experiencing significant recruitment challenges as a result of the ending of freedom of movement.
In particular, these changes take no account of the fact that many social care providers in Scotland do not currently hold skilled worker licences and will need to negotiate the Home Office’s costly, lengthy and bureaucratic systems before reaching the stage of recruitment. Although I note that the Home Office is carrying out some work with providers to increase take-up of the route, the benefits of doing so for a temporary period are still likely to be questionable to given the government’s stated objective to close the route in due course. Rather than recognising that the immigration system itself is dysfunctional, it appears this and many other recently announced measures such as the poultry, butchery or HGV visas, are poorly designed temporary measures which almost appear designed to fail.
There is no doubt that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the pressure on this sector in a number of ways. It has clearly complicated the efforts of our hardworking service providers to build and maintain a sustainable and resilient workforce.
However, the challenges the sector faces in recruiting from overseas are much broader and relate primarily to the ending of freedom of movement. Partners in the care sector have highlighted the importance of EU citizens in their workforce and that the ending of free movement is already having considerable impact on their ability to deliver services. Scottish ministers continue to believe free movement provided the best solution for Scotland’s public services, communities and economy. Following its ending though, the UK Government needs to develop long term, sustainable solutions to allow key sectors to recruit international staff. Scotland has distinct demographic issues, particularly in our rual communities. Proposals for immigration change which fail to reflect that demographic and geographic reality do not meet the needs of Scotland’s communities. Short term measures do not help to deliver stability or sustainability for key services. We need broader reform to provide longer term solutions to the shortages.
As you know, the Scottish Government is clear that migration is the sole solution to workforce issues. We are committed to improving the experience of the social care workforce, including improving fair work that we know is crucial to to addressing long-standing recruitment and retention issues and attracting new people to the sector.
We are taking forward a number of actions to improve social care terms and conditions and invest in up-skilling and training for the social care workforce. This includes a number of activites to deliver policies on upskilling and workforce development including better career opportunities, development of a national induction programme to support new entants in adult social care and the development of foundation and modern apprenticeships and resources for those providing careers advice. Yet we continue to see limited take-up of this sector from local populations.
Long-term, sustainable immigration solutions are part of the solution to complement to workforce changes and to help address the key issues facting the social care secotr in Scotland.
Shortage Occupation List earnings threshold
I am also concerned that the recent move to add social care workers to the Shortage Occupation List could have limited benefit due to the level of the earnings threshold.
The past few years, the Scottish Government has shown its commitment to improving the experience of the social care workforce, including increasing levels of pay, as we believe in the importance of our care workers and want to ensure that we recognise and value the work that they do. On 9 December 2021, as part of the Scottish Budget for 2022/23, the Scottish Government announced that the minimum hourly rate for those providing adult social care will rise from a minimum of £10.02 per hour to £10.50 per hour from April 2022. This hourly rate is higher than the National Living Wage which applies to many social care workers in England and Wales.
Yet despite these changes, the current minimum earnings threshold for roles on the Shortage Occupation List of £20,480 remains above the pay level for many of those in the sector. After the April pay uplift, social care staff working 35 hours per week will earn a salary of £19,110 - those working 37.5 hours per week will earn £20,475. This means that only those social care staff on a contract of 38 hours per week or above will be eligible under the current earnings threshold. These types of contract are exceptionally rare, with roles in the sector usually contracted at 35 hours per week.
Had you engaged with us meaningfully prior to making the change, we could have made this clear and looked for a reasoned and evidence-based solution.
Scotland’s distinct demographic needs
Scottish ministers have consistently highlighted Scotland’s distinct demographic and population needs which require a tailored migration system. The Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population reported in 2019 that the social care sector in particular would be disproportionately impacted by the loss of freedom of movement, which in the context of our declining and ageing population in Scotland poses a number of significant challenges for the future
Analysis from the Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population showed that the ending of freedom of movement will likely lead to a 30-50% reduction in net overseas migration into Scotland. The National Records of Scotland’s recently published report Projected Population of Scotland, 2020-based further reinforces the worsening picture of population challenges, presenting three major demographic processes – mortality, fertitility and migration as central to these.
Of deeper concern is the fact that these bleak figures are based on past data and therefore do not yet reflect the full impact of the ending of freedom of movement. What they do illustrate is the extent that Scotland’s population challenges are distinct to the rest of the UK. That is why we established a Population Taskforce in 2019, followed by the publication of Scotland’s first national population strategy in March 2021. This is a national challenge that requires a national response across the Scottish Government, local government and partners to ensure a thriving and sustainable country for generations to come.
Scotland must have migration policy tailored to our needs, to help us respond to the structural legacy of historical outmigration as well as future demographic change. The Scottish Government can only do so much with the powers it has - the UK Government should give further powers to us and partners to deliver the changes that Scotland needs. Until UK Government ministers are willing to engage with us meaningfully on these issues, many which have a direct impact on devolved policy, we risk jeopardising our economy, the delivery of our devolved public services and other critical infrastructure that sustains our people.
It is unfair to imply as you have that the Scottish Government sees immigration as the only solution in our future. I note your assertion that “the MAC does not believe immigration can solve all, or even most, of the problems associated with social care recruitment”. Migration is part of a package of actions which need to be taken to support social care. The MAC analysis is, of course, looking at the UK as a whole rather than Scotland’s distinct challenges. The evidence from the Expert Advisory Group and National Records of Scotland clearly sets out the impact of migration.
Lack of engagement on devolved responsibilities
The points above demonstrate how effective and meaningful engagement at ministerial and official level is vital to ensuring that the UK’s migration policy meets the needs of all parts of the UK. This has sadly been absent from past decision-making despite concerted efforts on the part of Scottish Government. For example, Scottish Government contributed in detail to the MAC’s call for evidence on adult social care, setting out the evidence and case for migration changes that would begin to meet Scotland’s distinct needs. Scottish ministers and Donald MacAskill from Care Scotland reiterated those points to you in a meeting in October around Social Care. However, these points have been met by little in the way of constructive engagement.
Instead, the announcement of this temporary scheme took place without any consultation with Scottish Government. Our officials were only notified of the announcement immediately prior to publication. I further note from your letter that the addition of social care roles will “be reviewed internally at a later stage in 2022 to determine the success of this change”. You do not set out the detail of this internal review, by what measure you will determine success nor whether you intend to engage devolved governments in this decision. Scottish ministers have called repeatedly for engagement in the exercise of migration decisions such as these which impact heavily on the exercise of devolved competencies.
I, therefore, call again for meaningful engagement on this issue and consideration of the detailed policy recommendations made by myself and other Scottish ministers in previous correspondence.
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