I'm expecting a big U-turn on Boris Johnson's new immigration plan – he needs to protect social care

Why not just recognise the proposals now and spare a needless decline in care and health provision?

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 19 February 2020 15:04 GMT
Related video: Priti Patel refuses to say whether her parents would have been able to enter the UK under her immigration plans
Related video: Priti Patel refuses to say whether her parents would have been able to enter the UK under her immigration plans (Getty)

Whatever you think of the grime star Dave, you can’t fault his timing. His description of Boris Johnson as “a real racist” at the Brit Awards was brilliantly timed to share the headlines with the government’s long-awaited announcement of its post-Brexit immigration policy.

Priti Patel, the home secretary, told LBC radio on Wednesday that Dave had “managed to achieve a range of headlines on the back of this”. That was a bit rich, since Patel herself had garnered rather a lot of headlines with the immigration announcement. Revealingly, she had no answer to Nick Ferrari’s most important question: Under her new regime, would her Ugandan Asian parents will have been allowed into Britain in the 1960s to set up their successful newsagents business? “This isn’t about my background,” she insisted. No, in other words.

I suspect many people whose parents were welcomed to the UK, or who migrated themselves, will ask the same question about their own families today. Will they feel grateful they evaded the clampdown on low-skilled workers or upset that the drawbridge will now be put up for people like them?

Patel’s much-vaunted Australian-style points-based system, promised by Vote Leave in 2016 and by Boris Johnson in December’s election, turns out to not be much of a points system after all – unless you are deemed highly-skilled.

Ministers tell me Patel persuaded Johnson not to allow the policy to be riddled with exemptions for sectors with labour shortages. There’ll be one for the NHS but the government has a blind spot on social care, which already has 122,000 vacancies. No surprise when supermarkets pay higher wages, and many care workers are on the national minimum wage, and so would not meet the £25,600 salary threshold for most migrants (or even the £20,480 for designated “shortage occupations”). About one in six staff working in adult social care in England is non-British – 8 per cent come from the EU and 9 per cent from the rest of the world. In London, about 40 per cent of care workers are from overseas.

Ministers’ refusal to address the problems in care will mean fewer people receiving help in their own homes, and deepen the staffing crisis in care homes, with more providers likely to close. This will inevitably add to the pressure on the NHS. It makes no sense, not just for the people who depend on health and care but for the Tories politically, since health remains their potential biggest weak point.

The government argues that vacancies can be filled by the 3.2 million EU citizens already in the UK, recruiting British workers and automation. One day, robots probably will play a limited role in delivering care – but it will have to be done sensitively and won’t happen by next January. That’s when the new regime is being rushed in, earlier than business as a whole was expecting, giving it little time to prepare.

Patel argued on Wednesday that the way to address social care’s problems is higher wages, as if it had nothing to do with the government. Many care homes will pay the minimum wage (£18,137 from April for a 40-hour week) or a fraction above it until central government funds the sector properly. When Johnson finally unveils the long-term blueprint he promised last July, it should guarantee a minimum salary of £20,480 and designate care a “shortage occupation”.

I predict a U-turn, perhaps one of the Johnson government’s first big ones, with social care added to the list of exemptions. Why not just recognise it now and spare a needless decline in care and health provision?

Although ministers believe today’s headlines will play well with the Tories’ new working-class voters, public opinion on immigration is more nuanced than ministers choose to think. Most people have a balanced view, seeing the benefits as well as the pressures created. Immigration has fallen from the top of the list of what people view the most important issues facing the country to about ninth since the 2016 referendum. The Migration Observatory at Oxford University says attitudes have softened; it found that 44 per cent of people want to reduce immigration, 39 per cent for it to stay the same and 17 per cent to rise.

Government sets out plans for a new points-based immigration system

A new ICM poll for the British Future think tank found a majority want migrants seeking to work in the care sector to score medium or high points under the new scheme – not government policy (yet). A slim majority (51 per cent) would reduce low-skilled EU migration, but a third (31 per cent) think it should remain at the current rate. This mirrors the divisions of the Brexit referendum that Johnson supposedly wants to leave behind.

Immigration policy should be based on the needs of the economy, business and public services, not the Tories’ perceived need for a populist, divisive, permanent election campaign when they should be bringing the country together.

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