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Certificate of Sponsorship: Foreign Health and Care Workers

Volume 834: debated on Monday 13 November 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they will take action to ensure that care providers who issue out-of-country certificates of sponsorship to foreign health and care workers provide sufficient work to allow them a living wage while resident in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Home Office’s sponsor licence system places clear and binding requirements and obligations on employers, including paying the required salary, looking to recruit and manage overseas employees across all sectors, including care. Should an employer be found in breach of these requirements, we will swiftly take action and can remove its ability to recruit from overseas.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. Is he aware that those requirements are frequently not complied with? Is he aware that the Kenyan and Zimbabwean diasporas report certificates of sponsorship regularly being sold in those countries for many thousands of pounds to care workers who, when they arrive, are not provided with sufficient hours of work to enable them to live, leaving many indebted and destitute? Will the Government end this scandal by requiring a minimum number of hours of work to be provided, and enforcing compliance through an audit of HMRC records held for every employer for whom a certificate of sponsorship is issued?

The rules provide that care workers must be paid at least £20,960 per annum, not lower than £10.75 per hour based on a 37.5 hour working week. The Government do not tolerate illegal activity in the labour market. Any accusations of illegal employment practices will be thoroughly investigated, and it goes without saying that we strongly condemn the offering of health and care worker visas under false pretences.

My Lords, recently I had brief contact with a residential care home where it seemed that many of the front-line care staff were from the Philippines. It made me realise that these staff were a long way from home and unlikely to understand the safeguards in British employment law. Is the Minister satisfied that safeguards are in place for such staff?

Yes, I reassure the noble Lord that the Home Office works very closely with the Department of Health and Social Care on ensuring the safety and security of those who come to work here on visas and of those for whom they care.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a key problem with the health and care worker visa scheme is that it forces workers into dependency on an individual employer? If a worker leaves that job, they need to find another sponsoring employer within 60 days or face deportation. The terrible truth is that many vulnerable care workers are more frightened of the Home Office than they are of an exploitative boss. Does the Minister agree that the Government should introduce a sector-wide fair pay agreement, strengthen workers’ rights and work with trade unions so that workers have the confidence to exercise their rights?

I reassure the noble Baroness that migrant workers are able to seek alternative employment in the event that their initial placement is unsatisfactory for the reasons that she outlines, provided that they have a job offer from a Home Office-approved sponsor—which of course stands to reason. They can make a new application for a further visa in those circumstances.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be very helpful to have a long-term national social care workforce plan, so that we can compare the assessed need for care workers from overseas with the number of certificates of sponsorship being issued?

As I said, the Home Office works closely with the Department of Health and Social Care in relation to the requirement for those working in the health and social care sectors—and there is a lot in what the noble Lord says.

Recently, it has been reported that a number of care workers have been exploited. The Minister has given assurances that this is totally unacceptable. How many prosecutions have taken place over the last year of people, bodies or care homes that have exploited the system?

I reassure the noble and right reverend Lord that, since 1 July 2022, 87 sponsor licences have been revoked and 32 suspended pending further investigation.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that these care workers—not all of them, but some—who come to the UK to look after our elderly are sometimes charged thousands of pounds by recruiting companies and care companies. It has sometimes been as much as £20,000, yet it is illegal for the workers to pay more than £260 for the costs of their visas and travelling. Sometimes—not always—when they arrive in the UK, the company that hired them will fire them after a few months so that it can bring in another worker and charge them £20,000. My information is based on talking to some of these care workers. They do not want to give their names, or the names of their companies, because their immigration status is rather precarious. Are the Government aware of this money-making scam?

The Home Office is aware that abuses exist. I reassure the noble Lord that the sponsor licence system places clear and binding requirements and obligations on employers looking to recruit. The Department of Health and Social Care has published guidance on applying for jobs from abroad, as part of a wider effort to address its concerns about exploitive recruitment and employment practices. That guidance helps prospective overseas candidates to make informed decisions when seeking health or social care jobs in the United Kingdom, including information on how to avoid exploitation and where to report concerns.

My Lords, the Minister has acknowledged that abuses exist in this sector. In a previous answer, he seemed sympathetic to a social care workforce plan and to agree that there should be some sort of fair pay agreement. What is his ministry doing to implement these things? Is he consulting his colleagues in the health and social care sectors to bring the workforce plan into being?

There is no workforce plan in process. As I say, the communication between the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care and other relevant government departments is a close one. The function that the Home Office can perform is to set the minimum floor for the sum that these workers must be paid, which, as I said earlier, is £20,960, reflecting an hourly salary of more than the living wage. That is an important mechanism to achieve the objective that the noble Lord outlined.

My Lords, I read in the financial pages of the profits that chains of privately owned care homes are making. I also note that some of them have their headquarters outside the United Kingdom for tax and other purposes. Is it a failure of regulation that these companies are extremely profitable with a substantial chunk of those profits coming from subsidies from the state or local government? Do the Government think they should tighten regulations to make sure that conditions for such workers are adequate?

It is not for the Home Office to regulate the profits made by private companies, and the noble Lord would not expect me to comment on that. I reassure him that the Department of Health and Social Care is sighted on what the appropriate standards should be for those working in the sector, and it works with the Home Office on the grant of sponsor licences for those coming to work in the sector.

Attracting social care staff to the social care sector, whether from the United Kingdom or from abroad, is important. Where there are cases of exploitation what advice can the Minister give to those individuals—especially those who come from other countries and may not know the system very well—about where they can turn if they feel they are being exploited?

Information is certainly available on the GOV.UK website, which is signposted from the health and social care visa pages. There are also NGO bodies, including Care England and the gangmasters licensing authority, and, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, said, trade unions.

The Minister has used the term “abuses” a number of times. The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, to which he has just referred, says that the health and care worker visa system is being abused by criminals, leading to a “constant stream of allegations” of fraud and modern slavery—a rather stronger term. Following on from the question about the involvement of the private sector in this, I ask: what value are all these Wild West private sector firms that are popping up adding to the system? Would it be better to do this not in a privatised way but, if we need to recruit care workers from overseas, to do so through a national workforce plan and not-for-profit agencies?

The noble Baroness will be unsurprised to learn that I do not agree that the state is the answer in the provision of health and social care in the way that she suggests. It is entirely appropriate that private companies can recruit in the way that they presently do, that abuses are stamped out and that the Home Office uses its enforcement powers in the way that it does and will continue to do.