The UK’s au pair childcare programme is at risk of disappearing as a result of new post-Brexit immigration rules, the industry trade association has warned.
An estimated 45,000 families in the UK, including many key workers such as doctors, nurses and police, rely on the longstanding au pair cultural exchange programme for affordable childcare.
But with the end of EU free movement this year, au pairs have been categorised as “skilled workers” under the UK’s points-based immigration system alongside nannies and childcare workers, with new entrants needing to earn a minimum salary of £20,480 a year.
Jamie Shackell, chair of the British Au Pair Agencies Association (BAPAA), said the new regime was not suitable for the au pair system, which was originally conceived as a cultural exchange programme for 18 to 26-year-olds.
Before Brexit, au pairs — more than 90 per cent of whom came from the EU and European Economic Area countries — received board and lodging, a contribution towards English language classes and £100 a week “pocket money” in exchange for about 25 hours of childcare per week.
Shackell is pressing the Home Office to amend the visa rules to enable agencies to sponsor au pairs on behalf of families who could then pay them via a payroll company. She estimated au pairs would then cost about £180 a week.
“If the Home Office doesn’t provide a simpler visa route for au pairs, then the programme will be lost. It is inappropriate to categorise au pairs as skilled workers as they have no formal childcare qualifications — they don’t belong in that bracket,” she said.
She added that the simplest route would be to reinstate the au pair visa that was scrapped in 2008 because it had essentially been made redundant by EU free movement rules.
However, in a letter to the BAPAA seen by the Financial Times, the Home Office said: “The UK’s points-based immigration system will not offer a dedicated route for au pairs.”
The Home Office added the new rules were intended to encourage the “development of the UK’s domestic labour force” following the Covid-19 pandemic, but Shackell said that previous attempts to recruit young British people to work for £100 a week in their own country had failed.
The Home Office said au pairs can use other schemes, such as the Youth Mobility Scheme (YMS), which is open to young people from nine non-EU countries, including Australia, Canada and New Zealand, as possible routes for au pairs.
In a statement Kevin Foster, the immigration minister, said those looking to hire au pairs should “look to offer a package which makes it attractive” to those arriving on the YMS, which brings in 20,000 young people a year.
He added that the government was open to negotiating youth mobility arrangements with other countries within the EU and further afield, but that “these must be reciprocal and we will not add nations unilaterally to the list”.
However, Shackell said the YMS scheme was not a practical alternative, with less than 1 per cent of YMS visas being taken up by au pairs.
Oli Long, an NHS consultant in London who is married to another consultant physician, said he was unsure how his family life could work without an au pair, having had six au pairs since his two daughters, aged eight and 10, went to primary school.
“We honestly couldn’t manage without them,” he said. “We both have senior positions and sometimes we unavoidably get stuck at work, and when that happens we know someone is there who can put the girls to bed. Leave aside the cost — a daytime nanny or childminder doesn’t work for that,” he said.
Mark Lilley, an oil trader from Chingford, east London, who is a single parent and has an au pair to help care for his 11-year-old daughter, Paige, said it was unrealistic to think UK workers would be willing to fill the gap.
“It’s nuts. My last au pair, Mirella, was from Spain and was doing a masters, so while Paige was at school she was free to study. She improved her English and got to spend time in the UK, she gave Paige Spanish classes and helped with childcare — everyone was happy,” he said.