Ministers block release of ‘no deal Brexit’ social care recruitment plans

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Ministers are refusing to release information that would show what extra plans – if any – the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has put in place to deal with an adult social care recruitment crisis in the event of a “no deal Brexit”.

With just 43 days until Britain faces the possibility of leaving the European Union without a deal in place, DHSC claimed that “premature” release of the information could put at risk “effective policy formulation and development regarding our exit from the EU”.

Instead of releasing its records, it has pointed to “high level” plans published just before Christmas, but they suggest that ministers have no plans in place to deal with an adult social care recruitment crisis.

Disabled people who use personal assistants (PAs) have warned repeatedly of the risk that any form of Brexit could mean their access to PAs from EU countries could dry up, with a no-deal Brexit making this even more likely.

Inclusion London said in December that the impact of Brexit on social care recruitment was “potentially disastrous”.

The refusal by DHSC to release the information came in response to a freedom of information request from Disability News Service (DNS).

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock has already laid out some plans, including a national recruitment campaign to “raise the image and profile” of the adult social care sector, which was launched this week, but these will go ahead regardless of the Brexit outcome.

The adult social care green paper – which has been postponed yet again because of the government’s Brexit struggles – is also set to look at how to “recruit and retain a valued workforce”, says DHSC.

But DNS has been trying since November to discover from DHSC whether Hancock has put any specific plans in place to deal with a possible recruitment crisis in adult social care if Britain tumbles into a no deal Brexit.

Evidence Hancock (pictured) gave to the Commons health and social care committee in November suggested he had no such plans, but his department subsequently refused to confirm that this was the case.

Following Hancock’s evidence, DNS asked through a freedom of information request what recorded information the department possessed on preparations it had made for dealing with recruitment into the social care sector in the event of a no deal Brexit.

DHSC says in its response that it does hold information “relevant to your request” but is relying on an exemption under section 35(1) of the Freedom of Information Act, which allows it to refuse to release information “relating to the formulation and development of government policy”.

Guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office makes it clear that a government department can only rely on this exemption “if the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure”.

DHSC says in its response that “premature” disclosure of the information – just a few weeks before Brexit – “could prejudice effective policy formulation and development regarding our exit from the EU”.

It adds: “We feel that the public interest would be better served by protecting effective policy making as we continue to negotiate our exit from the EU/prepare for all EU exit scenarios.”

But the disabled peer Baroness [Celia] Thomas, disability spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, said the DHSC refusal “suggests that there is no plan if there is a ‘no deal Brexit’”.

She said: “This just confirms our worst fears that, in the event of no deal Brexit, there will simply not be enough personal assistants to help disabled people live their lives properly if those from Europe stop coming, or those that are here go home.

“This is a shocking state of affairs, which the government must face up to. It is not good enough just to hope for the best. They must take urgent action.”

The DHSC response does direct DNS to its “high-level plans”, which were published four days before Christmas and include letters to adult social care providers and commissioners about the government’s plans in the event of a no deal Brexit.

They also include the department’s “Brexit operational readiness guidance for the health and care system in England”, which again deals with action that should be taken in the event of the UK leaving the EU without a deal.

But the letters and guidance suggest that while DHSC has put into place a series of contingency plans for the NHS, some of which would also support the adult social care sector in the event of a no deal Brexit, it has done nothing to prepare for a possible social care recruitment crisis.

In a letter to adult social care providers, Sir Chris Wormald, DHSC’s permanent secretary, says: “To ensure you are as prepared as possible, we encourage all social care providers to have fully up to date and robust contingency plans for the possible implications for a ‘no deal’ EU Exit.”

But on workforce issues, his letter merely points providers to the government’s EU settlement scheme, which protects the rights of EU citizens already living in the UK, and which will apply whether there is a deal or not.

He also encourages providers to provide data on their workforce to a national scheme more regularly than they would usually do, as this “provides an important source for our national workforce risk assessments and we will be drawing data from it on a regular basis throughout the first six months of [2019]”.

In his letter to local authority chief executives and directors of adult social care, Sir Chris encourages them “to work closely with your adult social care providers… to assure yourself that any impact on providers can be managed locally”.

And he reminds them of “the importance of having robust contingency plans in place so that the duty to ensure continuity of services can be met”.

He adds: “I know that Local Authorities’ contingency plans will take into account the potential effects from a ‘no deal’ EU Exit scenario and you will be considering the impact on vulnerable people who use adult social care services.”

He says DHSC will “work closely” with the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services to support councils in this work and “ensure that activity is co-ordinated nationally across the health and care system”.

But he provides no suggestions for what steps DHSC has taken or will take to deal with the impact of a no deal Brexit on adult social care recruitment.

DHSC’s Brexit operational readiness guidance, also published on 21 December, focuses heavily on health and the NHS.

In the workforce section, it merely says: “The current expectation is that there will not be a significant degree of health and care staff leaving around exit day.

“Organisations can escalate concerns through existing reporting mechanisms to ensure there is regional and national oversight.”

Despite this optimism, in an annex laying out suggested actions for NHS providers, the guidance warns them to “consider the implications of further staff shortages caused by EU Exit across the health and care system, such as in adult social care, and the impact that would have on your organisation”.

A DHSC spokesperson refused again to say what extra plans – if any – DHSC has put in place to deal with a possible adult social care recruitment crisis in the event of a no deal Brexit.

He suggested that DNS could ask for an internal review of the department’s freedom of information response. DNS has already asked for such a review.

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