The NHS is forced by the government to spend £180m a year on visa charges when recruiting overseas staff, it has emerged.
The health service has to pay the Home Office between £1,000 and £5,000 for each sponsored visa, despite calls from unions and opposition parties to make the NHS exempt.
The Liberal Democrats said the money spent on the “outrageous and pointless” 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 it is desperately needed, and putting it into Home Office coffers instead.”
The senior figure accused the Tories of “neglecting local health services for years” as millions of people wait months to start treatment and several weeks to see a GP.
“Instead of charging the NHS a pointless Home Office fee to recruit the doctors and nurses they need, the government should be ensuring that everyone can get an appointment when they need one and the crucial treatment they so desperately need,” said Mr Davey.
Under the immigration skills charge introduced by the Tory government in 2017, employers have to pay a fee for every visa they sponsor – including recruiting doctors, nurses and other NHS staff from abroad.
The latest Home Office figures show that just over 61,000 health and care visas were issued between October 2021 and September 2022. The fees for the visas amounted to £180m being “wasted”, according to the Lib Dems, based on an estimated average visa length of three years.
The British Medical Association (BMA) and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) both called on the government to make the NHS exempt from the charges, with the health service suffering from stretched budgets and huge staff shortages.
Dr Kitty Mohan, international committee chair of the BMA, said it was “simply unthinkable” that an understaffed was “being financially penalised for recruiting staff from overseas”.
The senior figure told 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 that hospitals are able to provide to our patients.”
Dr Mohan added: “Until the government begins to train enough doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff here in the UK, it should exempt the international workforce that the NHS so heavily relies on.”
RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said: “While nine-figure sums are spent on recruiting overseas workers to stick a plaster on the NHS workforce crisis, we are told a pay rise for nursing staff is unaffordable.”
She added: “International nurses make enormous contributions to the health and social care workforce but they should not be continually used to offset a shortfall in permanent staff. A shortfall that exists because of low pay for nurses.”
Nurses are set to strike on 15 and 20 December across England, Northern Ireland and Wales after the government rejected an RCN offer of negotiation over pay demands.
A government spokesperson said the money collected 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 that the UK needs, including thousands of NHS doctors and nurses through the health and care visa.”
The row comes as Rishi Sunak is faced with a growing backlash over plans to cut the number of student visas in a frantic bid to slash immigration.
Officials at the Department for Education are reportedly anxious about the new push to reduce the number of international students after figures showed annual net migration to the UK climbing to a record 500,000.
The prime minister is considering a crackdown on international students bringing dependants and restricting admissions to top universities, No 10 confirmed this week.
Home secretary Suella Braverman has previously complained about foreign students bringing in family members who “piggyback” onto their student visas – saying they were only “propping up substandard courses in inadequate institutions”.
But government adviser Brian Bell, chair of the Migration Advisory Committee, warned that some universities will go bankrupt or have to hit British students with huge fee increases if the government limits the number of foreign students.