Unison briefing: Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill Second Reading 2019



Briefing by Unison ahead of 2nd Reading on the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination.

UNISON is the UK's largest union with 1.3 million members. Our members are people working in the public services, for private contractors providing public services and in the essential utilities. They include frontline staff and managers, working full or part time in local authorities, the NHS, the police service, colleges and schools, the electricity, gas and water industries, transport and the voluntary sector.


This Bill gives the UK Government significant powers to implement the proposals set out in its White Paper, with none of the reforms or safeguards UNISON believes is urgently needed. We share Liberty’s concern that the Bill represents ‘a blank cheque to Home Office ministers. If enacted, it will further diminish the role of Parliament in an area of policy that is already urgently in need of far greater scrutiny, not less’. We endorse the civil liberties concerns raised by Liberty’s briefing.

Over the past decade public services, employers and migrant workers have had to cope with a byzantine immigration system which has steadily grown in complexity and unwieldiness. It has also led, in the form of the “hostile environment’  to a profoundly unfair set of rules that has rendered non-EU migrants into second-class citizens in this country.

Rather than taking this chance to reform the whole system, the Government proposes to place millions more people into an already unworkable system. It will increase exploitation in the labour market and jeopardise essential public services.

As a result UNISON believes the whole points based immigration system will come under severe strain – along with a serious crisis in the health and social care sector. Social care would already be in crisis without the impact of EU exit, but the Government are proposing to increase the size of the crisis. Unless positive steps are taken, the care sector will continue to hover on the brink of collapse, and the people who rely on vital social care services will be the ones to suffer.

UNISON has had to campaign and negotiate for better pay, better training and better resourcing for UK workers from a Government that is both reluctant to invest in these, and also reluctant to operate a fair and dignified immigration policy.

A crisis in the social care sector

Vacancy rates in the care sector now stand at 8%, up from 6.6% in 2017 and equating to 110,000 jobs (1). There is also a sizeable number of staff leaving the sector each year with currently 31% of staff leaving their job each year.

The poor terms and conditions that care workers are subjected to are the main drivers of the shortages in the sector.  A survey by UNISON in summer 2018, which took in responses from 2,751 careworkers in England from across the sector found that almost half (49%) of care workers said they are currently thinking of leaving their job; 73% said one of the reasons for this was low pay. Almost half (44%) also said that they could earn more money in other sectors; the second biggest factor was the lack of time they have to deliver care, with half (53%) reporting this as an issue.

Because of demographic changes in UK society we will require an extra 1 million  care workers by 2025. It will be impossible to meet this target whilst care workers continue to be paid so poorly and treated so badly creating  continuous churn and turnover of staff. This high rate of turnover is contributing to a decline in standards in the sector. Removing EEA care workers from the sector will clearly make the situation worse .

The Government has based its immigration proposals on the Migration Advisory Committee’s recommendations. However, MAC has specifically highlighted the impact of its own proposals on the social care sector: “The combination of rising demand, downward pressure on public spending leading to relatively low wages making many jobs relatively unattractive to resident workers and the absence of a non-EEA work-related route for the lower-skilled roles in the sector mean that this is a sector that could face even more serious problems if EEA migration was restricted.”

Ending Freedom of Movement and extending the Tier 2 system to EEA nationals would have a very damaging effect on the care sector. IPPR modelled the impact on EEA nationals currently living in the UK and working in social care and found that  four in five (79%) of EEA employees working full-time in social care would have been ineligible to work in the UK under the skills and salary thresholds proposed by MAC (2).

Exploitation in the labour market

Reports that supposedly ‘low-skilled’ workers would be given one year visas to plug the problems caused by the rigid immigration system we have now will simply create a highly vulnerable, easily exploitable  workforce at the mercy of the most unscrupulous of employers. This will create a race to the bottom in parts of the economy that will leave decent employers stranded and workers exposed. This creates even greater incoherence within government policy, given that much of its current work on tackling exploitation has been distorted by a focus on immigration status rather than improving labour standards.

Impact on public services

It is deeply concerning that the government plans to have a threshold of £30,000 p.a for ‘medium skilled’ workers. For example, a newly qualified nurse at Band 5 earns £23,023  - nurses do not reach the threshold of £30,00 till mid-way through Band 6.

UNISON has consistently argued that Government policy around immigration mistakenly uses ‘salary’ to mean ‘skill’ and that salary thresholds and language around high/low skill is deceptive. Low-status and badly paid work is not synonymous with low skill. Many important sectors such as social care and child care have been historically undervalued as women’s work and hence badly paid, but are not low skilled or dispensable.

Public sector pay/training

The major obstacle to improving pay and training for workers of all backgrounds has been the Government. Seven years of pay freezes, caps and wage increases well below the cost of living had a major impact on staffing. The welcome recent breakthrough on NHS pay only goes some way to restoring the value lost during the years of pay austerity.  During this period the NHS struggled to hold onto experienced staff or recruit many of those needed to fill vacancies.

Bursary abolition and the imposition of tuition fees

Since August 2017, no healthcare students have received the bursary in England. The impact has been felt in both falling applicant numbers for nursing degree courses in England and falling numbers of those eventually taking up the courses. In the current academic year, applications for nursing degrees plummeted by almost 5,000 compared to last year and by around a third in the two years since the bursary was scrapped (3). Of those that applied, even once additional students entering through clearing was factored in, the number that began a nursing course in September was still down by 570 on last year (4).

A significant longer term impact of bursary abolition and the imposition of fees is the fact that it hinders the ability of the NHS to plan for future student numbers: the government no longer commissions training places directly, depending instead on universities in the free market creating extra places and recruiting the students to take them up. The government’s draft health and care workforce strategy recently acknowledged that “the new funding system adds a challenge to planning for future numbers” (5).  While there is this level of uncertainty it will be hard to guarantee the staffing numbers the NHS needs.  The new system is also a self-defeating one for the Treasury: nursing and other healthcare students in England are incurring huge debt that on current projections they will never repay.

The Hostile Environment

As a public service union, many of our members have been caught up in the delivery of the ‘Hostile/Compliant’ environment. Immigration controls are now embedded in everyday interactions between trusted public sector workers and the people they are supposed to serve: nurses and patients, police and victims of crime and teachers and their pupils. This has come at a time when public services have already been under immense resource, workload and time pressures. Trust must now be urgently rebuilt between public services and the communities they serve – instead the Government proposes to increase the number of people who will be affected.

This is deeply concerning because the Windrush Scandal exposed a shocking level of tolerance within the Government to poor quality, badly evidenced immigration decision making. Earlier this year the Law Society warned that nearly half of the Home Office decisions that go to appeal in England and Wales are overturned (6). UNISON believes that this masks the true extent of the problem as many vulnerable migrants may not have the resources to appeal the Home Office’s decision and this is precisely what the Government relies on.

UNISON’s migrant worker members from the EU are extremely concerned about the prospect of falling within the bounds of the Hostile/Compliant environment.

The creation of a new immigration category of ‘settled status’ runs the risk of perpetuating the problems experienced by Windrush/commonwealth citizens – UNISON believes the Government needs to end the ‘hostile environment’ as part of a major review of our immigration system.  


(1) Skills for Care ‘The state of the adult social care sector and workforce in England’(2018)

(2) P15 https://www.ippr.org/files/2018-11/fair-care-a-workforce-strategy-november18.pdf

(3) “Nursing course applications have crashed by third in two years”, www.nursingtimes.net/7025246.article

(4)“Number of nursing students in England down by 500 this year”, www.nursingtimes.net/7026080.article

(5) Facing the Facts, Shaping the Future, www.hee.nhs.uk/our-work/workforce-strategy

(6) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-43737542