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 waiting 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 and the Royal College of Nursing have 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.
The number of vacancies across the health service in England reached 132,000 in September, a “staggering” record high, according to NHS Providers, the body representing trusts.
It 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 a top government immigration adviser has warned that universities will go bankrupt if the government shuts out foreign students doing “low quality” degrees.
Brian Bell, chair of the Migration Advisory Committee, said on Friday that a harsh crackdown could send many universities “over the edge” without a huge increase in fees paid by British students.