The NHS is forced by the government to spend £180m a year on visa fees when recruiting staff abroad, it has been reported.
The health service has to pay the Home Office between £1,000 and £5,000 for each sponsored visa, despite calls by unions and opposition parties for the NHS to be exempted.
The Liberal Democrats said money spent on “outrageous and senseless” fees last year was enough to pay the salaries of 6,800 new nurses, as the NHS continues to struggle with a staffing crisis.
Leader Ed Davey said: “It is outrageous that the Conservatives are taking millions of pounds out of the NHS, where they are desperately needed, and instead putting it into the coffers of the Home Office.”
The leading figure accused the Tories of “neglecting local health services for years” as millions of people waited months to start treatment and several weeks to see a GP.
“Instead of charging the NHS a meaningless Home Office fee to recruit the doctors and nurses they need, the government should ensure that everyone can get an appointment when they need it and the crucial treatment they desperately need,” said Mr Davey.
Under the immigration skills charge introduced by the Tory government in 2017, employers must pay a fee for every visa they sponsor, including recruiting doctors, nurses and other NHS staff from abroad.
The latest figures from the Home Office show that just over 61,000 health and care visas were issued between October 2021 and September 2022. Visa fees totaled £180m and were “wasted”, according to Lib Dems, based on an estimated average duration of the visa. three years old
The British Medical Association (BMA) and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) have called on the government to exempt the NHS from charges as the health service suffers from stretched budgets and severe staff shortages.
Dr Kitty Mohan, chair of the BMA’s international committee, said it was “simply unthinkable” that a short-staffed person “would be financially penalized for recruiting staff abroad”.
The older figure said the independent: “This charge is taking desperately needed money away from our health service, worsening current staffing problems and ultimately affecting the level of care hospitals can provide our patients.”
Dr Mohan added: “Until the government starts training enough doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff here in the UK, it should exempt the international workforce on which the NHS so heavily relies.”
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said: “While nine-figure sums are being spent recruiting workers overseas to cover the NHS workforce crisis, we are told that a pay increase for nursing staff is unavailable”.
He added: “International nurses make enormous contributions to the health and social care workforce, but should not be continually used to make up for permanent staff shortages. A deficit that exists due to the low salaries of nurses”.
Nurses will go on strike on December 15 and 20 in England, Northern Ireland and Wales after the government rejected an RCN bargain offer over wage demands.
A government spokesman said money raised through the immigration skills charge “is sent to the Treasury and spent on improving domestic skills.”
They added: “Unemployment is at record lows and our immigration points-based system ensures we can bring in the key workers the UK needs, including thousands of NHS doctors and nurses through the health and care visa.”
The dispute comes as Rishi Sunak faces mounting backlash over plans to cut the number of student visas in a frenzied bid to reduce immigration.
Department for Education officials are reportedly keen on the new push to reduce the number of international students after figures showed annual net migration to the UK amounted to a record 500,000.
The prime minister is considering cracking down on international students bringing dependents and restricting admissions to top universities, No. 10 confirmed this week.
home secretary brave sole he has previously complained about foreign students bringing in family members who “take advantage” of their student visas, saying they were only “supporting poor courses at unsuitable institutions.”
But government adviser Brian Bell, chairman of the Migration Advisory Committee, has warned that some universities will go bankrupt without a big increase in fees paid by British students.