THE BLOG

Brexit May Be The Story Of The Day, But The Chapter On Social Care Is Missing

24/04/2017 12:51 BST | Updated 24/04/2017 12:52 BST

Brexit dominated the political agenda long before Theresa May called the snap general election. But news that the UK will head to the polls on June 8 - less than a year after the EU referendum - threatens to blow any other election issue but Brexit out of the water.

There are well-documented concerns over how Brexit will lead to employment gaps as EU nationals leave the country. National debate about potential job gaps includes, for example, the Chartered Institute for Personal Development's research suggesting a loss of EU nationals working in the UK is contributing to staff shortages. Some industries are already beginning to make plans to secure their workforce - such as Pret offering work experience to young people to head off future recruitment challenges.

But there is little specific focus on how the essential EU workforce supply impacts on social care. There are, however, some 90,000 EU nationals working in social care across England, around 7% of the country's social care workforce.

This might sound like a small proportion, but it is shortsighted to dismiss it as such, not least because the number of EU workers is higher in some geographical areas, and also varies by services across the country. Prior to the EU referendum the numbers of jobs held by people with a non-UK EU nationality had been increasing, but now that trend has stopped. Yet the contribution of EU nationals in social care is vital given the sector's perennial problems with recruitment and retention.

But there are few headlines about how the loss of non-UK EU nationals would make it harder for social care providers to deliver sustainable services, or about how future immigration policy is likely to discourage overseas workers to the UK to replace those leaving post-Brexit. This comes at a time that social care providers are already operating in an extremely difficult financial climate with a growing need for services but dwindling resources.

The care crisis has, in addition, been largely ignored in the country's fiscal strategy. While the spring budget offered £2bn over three years for social care, it still fails to offer a sustainable future for the sector.

With the Brexit white paper published in February and article 50, which officially starts the process of EU withdrawal, triggered on 29 March, it is little wonder that around two thirds of Department of Health officials are involved in some way with Brexit policy.

A recent National Audit Office report suggests that Brexit is already a burden on civil servants; the risk is that policy makers are so focused on the logistics of leaving the EU, there is no time for attention to specific detail on social care.

With a Brexit-driven election looming, how can we ensure that domestic social care policy does not become Brexit's poor relation?

VODG has already done much to highlight this overlooked area and we support the views of organisations such as the King's Fund, which also argues that Brexit's impact on health and social care should not be forgotten.

With this in mind, we have embarked on work with our members to assess the risks, issues and opportunities facing the sector as Britain leaves the EU. The primary responsibility of VODG members is the delivery of high quality, safe and sustainable care and support to disabled people, and all parts of the independent and voluntary sector must respond to the challenges together.

The first challenge is an obvious one of workforce, and this involves not just numbers, but tackling the declining staff morale as non-UK EU nationals return to their home countries. VODG has already set out arguments on retention and future supply in previous reports. And of course social care leaders have long been sensitive of the need to develop stronger recruitment and retention strategies.

The impacts of Brexit come at a time that we already need to increase workforce supply. With the expected 21% increase of people aged 65 and over to 2025, the adult social care workforce will need to rise by 18% to 1.83m jobs, according to Skills for Care. While think tank IPPR, suggest the government will need to boost standards in quality, training and working conditions to attract more British workers to replace their EU counterparts. Action to respond to the workforce challenge could include staff surveys to assess morale, or revisiting HR strategies to place more stress on personal development.

Another significant issue is funding, commissioning and investment. For example, will Brexit lead to a downturn that adversely affects social care funding? And while UK charities received over £200 million from EU funding in 2014, Brexit means they will no longer have access to this money. This is a significant challenge ahead and there is an urgent need to lobby government to replace lost EU funding.

There are also wider repercussions for equality issues that will affect social care organisations. Countries joining the EU are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights, but Brexit could means human rights and community cohesion, leading to a harsher climate of opinion in relation to disabled people. It is vital that providers raise awareness and promote a positive message here, highlighting the contribution to society of people supported.

Meanwhile, whether we leave the EU with a "hard" or "soft" Brexit - how close a relationship the UK retains with the EU and its access to the single market - will affect the sector. A hard Brexit would restrict the free movement of people and result in a growing shortage of workers, for example.

It is imperative that the social care sector responds to such challenges. One way forward is through our backing of the Cavendish Coalition campaign, the group of health and social care organisations aiming to influence and lobby on Brexit issues. Its work includes a focus on making sure the UK still attracts people with the right skills from Europe and around the world to work in health and social care.

Brexit has so far raised more questions than answers, but it is now up to health and social care organisations to argue the case for social care in this unfamiliar new landscape. Brexit makes it vital for us to unite and redouble our existing efforts to ensure we develop a sustainable workforce and that our aims - to support people who need help to live the lives they want to live - are not undermined. Above all - and whether we voted for or against the decision to leave the EU - and whatever the outcome of the forthcoming general election our work must incorporate and positively respond to the fresh challenges ahead.