'Rampant exploitation' of social care visa system exposed in damning new report

A rush to hire carers from overseas resulted in a “shocking” wave of abuse of worker visas, a damning report revealed on Tuesday.

The Home Office gave out 275 certificates of sponsorship to a care home after "forged" documents were used to make an application, the probe found.

In another case 1,234 certificates for carers were granted to a company that stated it had only four employees.

“In just these two examples, up to 1,500 people could have arrived in this country and been encouraged by a risk of hardship or destitution to work outside the conditions of their visa,” the report’s author, David Neal, said.

Mr Neal, the former borders and immigration inspector, claimed the government had a "limited understanding" of the care sector after it agreed to add it to the UK's shortage occupation list in December 2021 - allowing more people to come from abroad to fill jobs.

It created a system that "invited large numbers of low-skilled workers to the UK country who are at risk from exploitation", the report found .

“This report details the shocking results of the policy’s implementation,” Mr Neal said.

“While the inspection does not detail the extent of this abuse, my inspectors encountered migrants with care visas working illegally in two out of eight enforcement visits they observed during my inspection of illegal working enforcement (August to October 2023).

“To their credit, front-line staff engaging with migrant care workers showed themselves to be aware of the serious risks to those workers and eager to document and address exploitation where they found it.”

It took the Home Office until late summer 2023 to begin making “policy and operational changes” to address the most “flagrant examples of both exploitation and abuse”, the report adds.

Mr Neal’s report, entitled "an inspection of the immigration system as it relates to the social care sector", criticises the department's "underestimation of demand for the care worker visa".He outlines a case in which an application was submitted using forged documents in the name of a real care provider, along with a fake bank statement.

Despite online checks showing the provided address had "no trace" of links to a care home, 275 certificates of sponsorship were secured, with 181 assigned to workers.

None had “arrived to undertake genuine roles" and it took more than two months after the sponsorship licence was granted for Border Force officers to raise their concerns about the visas.

The former inspector called for a full review of the visa route and sponsorship licensing, as well as the creation of a multi-agency agreement.

In his conclusions, Mr Neal said: "When this report is published, its findings will doubtlessly be explained away.

“The remedial measures I have mentioned will be highlighted despite their remarkable slowness in coming.

“Such a response should not be allowed to distract from the damage that has already been done and a reflexive, defensive response should not prevent a critical examination of what has gone wrong here and what steps must be taken to prevent its recurrence.”

Mr Neal was fired by the Home Office last month after he leaked details a probe into Border Force operations at London City Airport. The report, which was released alongside the health care visa investigation, found there was “a significant risk to security” at the airport.

A record number of foreign health and care workers were issued UK visas last year, according to government figures.

New laws that will restrict health workers from bringing family to the UK and require care providers to register with the Care Quality Commission (CQC) if they are sponsoring migrants came into force on March 11.

Downing Street has previously said it is keeping the crackdown under “close review” following fears that hundreds of new care providers have been granted licences to sponsor staff from abroad.

Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: "These inspection reports are scandalous. They expose a Conservative government which has lost control of our borders and our border security.

“From allowing high security risk flights to swan into the country with zero in-person checks, despite risks from drugs, guns and people smuggling, through to rampant labour exploitation in the social care visa.

“Even now ministers are hiding the true scale of the flaws, redacting much of the vital information, and slipping the reports out when Parliament can’t respond.”

A Home Office spokesman said: "We have already intervened to stop the flow of overseas care workers entering the UK where there is no genuine role for them to undertake and taken robust action against businesses committing labour exploitation.

"We do not tolerate illegal activity in the labour market and we will continue to revoke licenses from those who abuse the system.

“New measures already in force will cut the rising numbers of visas granted and address significant concerns about high levels of non-compliance, worker exploitation and abuse. "As with all our policies, we will keep them under close review and if needed, we will not hesitate to go further."