Thousands of care workers in the UK risk being criminalised and losing their right to work overnight, according to a new report which issues a stark warning about a lack of knowledge of the EU settlement scheme.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) warns that the care sector faces being “devastated” at a time when it has already been brought to its knees by the coronavirus pandemic, as a large cohort of its workforce are unaware that they need to apply for settled status.
The EU settlement scheme allows EU citizens and their family members living in Britain to apply for a new post-Brexit immigration status. They have until the end of June 2021 to apply, and if they fail to do so they will lose their legal right to reside in the UK and become liable to removal.
Nearly 4.9 million people have so far applied under the scheme, but the total number of EU nationals in Britain is unknown so the Home Office will never know if all those who are eligible to apply have done so. The report warns that even a small fraction of people do not apply, tens or hundreds of thousands of people could lose their immigration status.
The research, which is based on an online survey and in-person interviews with 295 EU care workers, reveals that one in seven surveyed online did not know or were not sure what the EU settlement scheme was, and that one in three were not aware of the deadline.
The figures for those surveyed in-person were more stark, with one in three and unaware of the scheme and more than 50 per cent not knowing when the deadline was.
The care industry, which has suffered severe cuts in recent years, employs around 250,000 non-UK nationals who make up 16 per cent of the workforce – 113,000 of whom are EU citizens.
Campaigners said the lack of awareness about the EU settlement scheme stemmed from a number of factors, including a lack of outreach work by the Home Office and a shortage of support to help people apply – which has been further reduced by the loss of face-to-face contact during the pandemic.
Susana Auger, a Portuguese care worker living in Chippenham, who has applied for and been granted settled status, told The Independent that while she was fortunate to have had the skills and support to do so, many of her colleagues did not.
The 49-year-old, who has been in Britain since 2013 and lives with her British husband, said she was not surprised by the report’s findings, citing poor English language skills, a lack of support and inability to access a smartphone as barriers to care workers applying to the scheme.
“There are a lot of care agencies out there that just want the profit. They won’t help the carers to apply for settlement, they are there to make money, and the carers have to sort out their own problems,” she said.
“There are small networks of support here and there, but a lot of people don’t know about them. Lots of people in the sector don’t speak English, which presents another barrier. And many of the houses live-in carers live and work in don’t have broadband, so they can’t access the internet – especially now that most libraries, cafes and pubs are closed.”
Ms Auger called on ministers to improve outreach support for care workers to ensure people apply, adding: “They could do that if they wanted to, and I think they will want the carers to continue to work here. There aren’t enough carers here as it is.”
The Home Office has provided up to £17m to 72 charities across the UK to support people applying to the scheme, but the JCWI said this was “inadequate” and insufficient to meet the need, adding that the reliance on charities and employers to “fill the gaps” was “unrealistic and dangerous”.
Nine in 10 care workers surveyed in-person for the report did not know where to find assistance with the application process, and of those who had received help to apply, 77 per cent said this support was a “quite” or “very” important part of the process.
Karolina Gerlich, executive director of the Care Workers’ Charity, pointed out that the Covid-19 crisis meant the care sector had little time to support and inform employees about the scheme, and workers themselves had little time to think about it.
“This kind of thing isn’t at the forefront of people’s minds. Care workers are working beyond their capacity all the time at the moment because there’s just so much to do. Brexit on top of Covid is already very bad timing, so capacity is particularly low at the moment,” she said.
“The scheme should be extended because we need to give people time to be able to do everything.”
Under the government’s new post-Brexit immigration system, there is a mandatory requirement for visa applicants to have a job offer on a list of eligible occupations, with a minimum salary requirement of £20,480 – meaning most foreign care workers are not eligible.
The report calls on the government to lift the deadline to beyond June in order to ensure care workers do not lose their legal status and rights, and recommends that every EU citizen and family member resident in the UK before the end of December 2020 is granted automatic settled status.
It goes on to warn that the problems are not unique to care workers but will affect EU citizens from all walks of life, particularly those who are vulnerable, including older and disabled people, survivors of domestic abuse, looked-after children, homeless people and Roma communities.
Caitlin Boswell, author of the report and EU citizens project officer at JCWI, said that with the scheme’s deadline less than six months away and the UK still in the middle of a pandemic, ministers must “act now” to prevent EU citizens from losing their right to live in the UK and “providing the services we so rely on”.
She added: “This includes thousands of care workers and others who have worked tirelessly throughout the past year, putting their lives and their families’ lives on the line to get us through this crisis.
“The window of time for EU citizens to apply to the scheme was already extremely short and now Covid has used up around half of that. It couldn’t be more urgent that the government lift the deadline, otherwise tens of thousands of EU citizens face losing their right to remain in June.”
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said the findings were “worrying” and should serve as a “wake-up call” for the Home Office, warning that failure to extend the deadline and renew its effort to raise awareness among care agencies and staff would “risk making an already very difficult situation in social care even worse”.
“Our care system was in bad shape before the pandemic arrived and has taken a terrible hammering over the last ten months. And with more than a hundred thousand vacancies in the care workforce the contributions of European care workers are vital – we need every good care professional we can get,” she added.
The Home Office has been approached for comment.