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UK home care workers cannot work as visa regime tightened, says employer

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The Guardian


One of the UK’s biggest home care providers says it is paying dozens of migrant workers to sit at home and do nothing because the Home Office has not renewed key immigration permits.

Thousands of workers, mostly from Africa, were welcomed into the UK to help fill the one in 10 care worker jobs vacant after the Covid crisis. But after scammers abused the system, leading to allegations of modern slavery, the government appears to have tightened the application of the rules.

“It has gone from one extreme to the other,” said Darren Stapelberg, the chief executive of Grosvenor Healthcare, the UK’s third largest domiciliary care provider, who is paying reduced wages to 30 Zimbabwean workers and faces having to do the same to 90 more in the coming months. “It was very, very easy to sponsor people to come over, but the system has been abused, so now they are making it almost impossible to get new people in and staff who are already here can’t get renewals.”

Eleven of his workers have left the country, despite a care worker shortage of 152,000 across England. “We are losing workers who have made a great contribution to this society, at a time when you could quadruple our workforce and still not have enough staff,” he said.

The newly hostile environment comes after the government issued 106,000 care worker visas in 2023. But hundreds of companies that have never been inspected by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) regulator were granted licences and the chief inspector of borders found that 275 visas were issued to a care home that did not exist.

As part of a crackdown, ministers announced in December that care workers would no longer be able to bring in dependent partners and children. The CQC warned MPs that modern slavery was becoming a feature of the care system.

The Homecare Association has written to the care minister, Helen Whately, warning the Home Office about the problem.

Jane Townson, the chief executive of the industry body, wrote: “The Home Office appears to have lurched from one extreme to the other.

“Even established, high-quality, regulated homecare providers who have sent in evidence of block contracts with councils cannot get certificates of sponsorship extended or issued. Homecare providers are now close to handing back thousands of hours of homecare to councils.”

Already the visa problems were preventing Grosvenor, which serves almost 100 councils in England, Scotland and Wales, from making about 3,000 care visits a week, Stapelberg said.

1st Homecare, which operates in Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, said the Home Office had demanded more than 230 documents, including contracts, care plans and rotas, to prove it had enough work to recruit just one foreign worker who was already in the country on a working visa.

“It was just ridiculous,” said John Rennison, its owner. “It is not helping our national shortage of care workers and it’s an impediment to what we are trying to do, which is look after vulnerable people.”

The worker he was seeking to recruit had only been paid about £60 a week by their previous employer. There have been widespread reports of unscrupulous operators charging foreign workers excessive visa fees and promising working hours that do not materialise.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our guidance clearly stipulates for those who have submitted an application for further leave in the UK before their existing leave expired have the same entitlements as their original leave. We require sponsors to show evidence that a genuine vacancy exists at the time the application is submitted. Where there is no evidence to suggest the declared work will be available, applications are not approved.”

Cathie Williams, the joint chief executive of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, said: “International recruitment is not a long-term solution to the recruitment crisis in social care. The only way any government is going to address this is to … fund it well enough to provide the pay and working conditions that will attract more people in the UK to do these vital and rewarding jobs.”