A cloud of uncertainty is hanging over adult social care and childcare providers and almost 10,000 EU nationals working for them, according to a major survey on staffing in the sector as Brexit looms.
The Scottish Government-commissioned survey of more than 1,500 employers in adult social care and childcare found more than a quarter expect to struggle to retain staff as the UK leaves the EU, risking further stress on public services already under pressure.
Recruitment has already become much more of a challenge in some areas of social care over the past 12 months, with 52.4 per cent of nursing agencies and 66.4 per cent of adult care homes saying they had found it more difficult to find staff.
And despite there being less than a year before the UK leaves the European Union, the report found low levels of awareness of the process for European nationals living and working in Scotland to apply to stay after Brexit.
It comes as the UK government prepares to publish its White Paper on the future relationship with the EU, which will cover issues including immigration after Brexit. A summary of Prime Minister Theresa May’s breakthrough agreement signed off by her Cabinet at Chequers on Friday merely confirms the UK will “end free movement, giving the UK back control over how many people enter the country”.
However, the Prime Minister has not ruled out “special status” for EU nationals after Brexit, allowing them to continue to work in the UK.
It is not clear whether this will apply to all workers or only skilled workers, and exactly how that distinction would be made.
A system for EU nationals already living in the UK to apply for “settled status”, giving them the right to stay and work, is expected to be introduced in the next few months.
EU nationals fill tens of thousands of posts across the UK public sector, particularly in services such as the NHS.
The study by Ipsos-Mori found that across adult social care and childcare in Scotland, EU nationals make up 5.6 per cent of the workforce, or around 9,830 people. That includes an estimated 3,150 EU nationals involved in caring for adults at home and 2,290 providing childcare services.
Despite many of the employers surveyed being “unusually reliant” on EU nationals and describing their work ethic and qualifications as often being better than domestic applicants, the report found awareness of ‘settled status’ as an option was low.
“Both managers and workers displayed at best a limited awareness of the UK government’s and European Commission’s current position with respect to the future status of EU workers in the UK,” the report stated.
Mike Russell, the constitutional relations secretary in charge of Brexit talks with the UK government, said there was “clear confusion” among EU staff working in Scotland’s public services about their rights.
He said: “This report is yet another illustration of the lack of appreciation the UK government has about the impact of Brexit on both our public services and the highly-skilled and hard-working EU nationals who help deliver them.
“Added to this is the clear confusion among managers and workers from European nations about the future, again exposing Westminster’s lack of forethought and planning.
“I strongly urge the UK government to act to provide clarity to all those facing uncertain futures, not least the almost 10,000 delivering care services to the people of Scotland.”
Scotland is already facing a recruitment crisis in social care, with the Care Inspectorate watchdog last year pointing out that more than one in three services had unfilled vacancies.
The private sector firm JLL, which provides property services to the residential care home sector, last year estimated 90,000 social care staff would be needed over the next ten years to meet the demands of an ageing population – an increase of 70 per cent.
Public health minister Joe FitzPatrick MSP said: “European citizens make a fantastic contribution to our care services, through their knowledge and dedicated hard work in both adult social care and childcare.
“This report makes clear that we need to do all we can to help these almost 10,000 caring professionals to stay in Scotland and plan for Brexit. It would be unacceptable if years of work to make care an attractive and rewarding career for people from both Scotland and abroad was to be damaged by Brexit.”
In a report on the coming White Paper, the UK in a Changing Europe research body warned the pressure was on government to provide answers to business and individuals in crucial areas such as immigration.
Director Anand Menon, professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London, said the lack of clarity two years on from the Brexit vote “has confused and dismayed the UK’s negotiating partners … and made it extremely difficult for businesses to plan for a post-Brexit world”.