Brexit: the social care sector must fight its corner

Brexit’s impact on the UK’s workforce undermines the social care sector’s potential to help people that need the most support. The grey area caused by the government’s protracted negotiations over leaving the EU and its delays over Brexit impact studies creates anxiety, both for people who use services as well as professionals.

This is not just my opinion, it is a widespread concern across health and care, as reflected in comments by a leader of a health trust: “We would not be able to maintain high-quality care for the people we serve without our diverse workforce. The current lack of progress in the Brexit negotiations is creating unhelpful uncertainty in an already challenging workforce environment.”

The UK has one of the highest levels of reliance on internationally trained health professionals of any OECD country. Before the EU referendum, there was a healthy growth in the NHS workforce. After the referendum, the trend began to reverse; around 10,000 EU nationals have quit the NHS since the vote.

Take, for example, staff from EEA working as nurses or health visitors. In year to May 2016 — before the referendum — NHS Digital figures show 6,333 EEA workers started nursing and health visitor roles, and 2,840 people from EEA left such jobs. Yet the following year — the 12 months to May 2017 — the figure for new nurses and health visitors from EEA countries was 3,399, a drop of 46% compared to the previous year. Meanwhile, 3,837 such staff left the sector, a rise of 35%.

The exodus of EU workers from the NHS is an alarm bell for the social care sector, which also relies on an overseas workforce — 7% of the 1.45 million workers in the adult social care sector have an EU nationality.

Social care already faces recruitment and retention challenges and, according to regulator Care Quality Commission, is at “full stretch” in terms of funding and potential to meet rising demand. There are 11m disabled people in England — 20% of the population — and this is set to rise to 12.3m by 2035.

VODG recently issued a stark warning about the state of social care funding in our True Costs report. The Chancellor’s Autumn Budget included a welcome statement about increasing the national living wage but was silent on social care funding. There is a crisis over essential sleep in shifts payments for people who rely on round the clock care, and publicly funded care services must have these wage increases paid for. There are significant rising costs associated with sleep in services which are close to collapse.

Since the decision to leave the EU, VODG has regularly reviewed the impact of Brexit on social care, lobbied government for solutions and produced resources to support the not-for-profit care sector. This is a priority for us and we will continue to advocate and represent the interest of the not for profit sector. But there is more that care organisations can and should do to advocate for the sector.

Action is vital because Britain’s exit from the EU could fuel further staff shortages. Recent research suggests that there could be a shortfall of more than a million care workers by 2037. EU staff currently working in care may leave, others may be put off filling the vacancies — including EU nationals volunteering in social care.

There is also a risk to disability rights that originate in European Union law — there are more than 300 EU directives relating solely to disabled people, for example, in terms of access to jobs and training. The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has raised concerns about the negative consequences for disabled people once we leave the EU. The government’s comparison of EU and UK positions on citizens’ rights shows some significant convergence, but also reveals several aspects where the rights differ.

VODG also has concerns about the loss of EU funding after Brexit. UK charities received around £300 million from EU funding in 2016 — much of this funding is for disability projects.

The social care sector must rally to create a strong case for itself during and after Brexit negotiations.

VODG, for example, is a member of the Cavendish Coalition, which brings together health and social care organisations campaigning for EU citizens to have a right to remain in the sector.

We need to lobby government to do more. EU nationals need to know their future is secure. Government must safeguard the future supply of health and social care workers so we can continue delivering safe, high quality care. Any future immigration system must include a range of skills and employer needs, not just salary levels. This system must allow recruitment from Europe if staffing needs cannot be met in the UK.

Government has launched an industrial strategy to boost productivity, but it must also also analyse the impact of loss of EU funding on services provided by the voluntary sector. And the rights of disabled people must be protected by UK legislation. We need assurances that reform of the adult social care funding system will not be abandoned — it certainly feels like Whitehall is too distracted by Brexit to make decisions (such as on back pay for “sleep ins”) or to meaningfully plan ahead to make social care more resilient after we leave the EU.

Social care needs to fight its corner in the run up to Brexit. Without firm action, we will not be able to protect essential care services for disabled and older people.