Overseas nurses 'a get out of jail free card for health and care sector'
Overseas nurses are being used as a "get out of jail free card" to fill staff shortages in the health sector, the Government's immigration advisers have warned.
The lack of nurses is mostly down to factors which "could, and should, have been anticipated" by the Department of Health and related bodies, a highly-critical report found.
The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) said it was recommending "with considerable reluctance" that nurses remain on the Shortage Occupation List.
This comprises a number of job titles and occupations which have priority for work visas given to skilled non-EEA nationals.
Professor Sir David Metcalf, chairman of the committee, said: "We have reluctantly made this recommendation.
"However, there is no good reason why the supply of nurses cannot be sourced domestically.
"There seems to be an automatic presumption that non-EEA skilled migration provides the health and care sector with a 'get out of jail free' card.
"The long term solution to addressing this shortage is recruiting and retaining staff by providing sufficient incentive and opportunity."
The committee said it found evidence suggesting that employers are using non-EEA nurses to save money rather than address the shortage through other means.
It previously found that on average migrant nurses are being paid £6,000 less than equivalent UK workers.
The review also found:
:: The current shortage of nurses in England is closely linked to a decision to cut training places by almost a fifth between 2009 and 2013.
:: Poor workforce planning is a problem and until recently did not take into account demand for nurses in the care and independent sectors.
:: Continued financial pressures on NHS budgets - including ongoing pay restraint for nurses - have played a key role and may have incentivised healthcare employers to recruit migrant nurses at lower cost.
Nurses were added to the shortage list on an interim basis in October to ensure there were safe staffing levels across the NHS over the winter.
The committee said it was "sensible" to allow health sector employers continued access to the list, with evidence suggesting it will be another three years before there are enough UK-born nurses to meet demand.
The report also warned there is a danger that nurses could crowd out skilled migrants from occupations not in shortage, including engineers and workers in the financial sector.
Under an immigration cap the number of "tier 2" visas issued to skilled workers from countries outside Europe is limited to 20,700 a year.
The report recommended an annual ceiling for nurses of between 3,000 and 5,000 places in the first year, which could decrease year-on-year so nurses would come off the list in 2019.
The committee was told that employers in England will look to recruit 11,000 nurses from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) over the next four years, possibly rising to 14,000 for the UK as a whole.
Alp Mehmet, vice chairman of campaign group Migration Watch UK, said: "This report confirms all that we have been saying. The need for foreign nurses is a clear result of the disgraceful failure of governments to train the nurses we need.
"We keep being told that the NHS would collapse without immigration. The truth is that immigration has permitted a long term failure of planning for the training of the medical staff we need."
A Department of Health spokesman said: " Overseas staff have always played a vital role in the NHS.
"We are pleased the MAC has recommended that nurses remain on the occupation shortage list, but at the same time, we are already delivering our plan to train more home-grown nurses."
Unison head of nursing Gail Adams said: "The NHS is still desperately short of nurses, so hospital trusts across the country will have breathed a collective sigh of relief at the news that they are to be allowed to continue recruiting staff from overseas.
"Since its creation, nurses from overseas have made a huge contribution to the NHS. Without them the health service could very well have gone under."