Huge numbers of our care workers across the country are being illegally paid.  Around 200,000 care workers, the people entrusted to look after our elderly and disabled, are regularly being paid less than the National Minimum Wage.

Earlier this year the National Audit Office report that between 160-220,000 care workers are routinely being illegally paid.  HMRC, which polices this issue, reported in October 2013 that half of the care providers they investigated were guilty of paying care workers less than the NMW.

Not only is this having a harmful impact on care workers and the people they care for, it is heaping further pressure upon the NHS.

All political parties say that they recognise the importance of helping to ensure that people are able to remain living in their own homes for as long as possible to help reduce the demands on NHS services.   The need to reduce the demands upon the NHS have been starkly spelt out with the recent publication of the NHS’s 5 Year Forward View.

But how can we expect this to be achieved when our care workers are treated so appallingly?

Our care workers are increasingly doing the sort of demanding job that used to be carried out by district nurses; with tasks like stoma care and peg feeding.  They are regularly dealing with people with increasingly serious health needs such as Parkinson’s Disease and Multiple Sclerosis and more and more demands are being placed on top of them.

The Future Care Workforce report by the International Longevity Centre found that the adult social care sector in England will need to add approximately 1 million workers by 2025 in response to population ageing and the implied increase in the numbers of people with disabilities.   Any efforts to try and recruit more staff are doomed to fail unless the Government takes a lead in ending the endemic practice of illegal pay in the care sector.

The turnover of staff in the homecare sector in particular is currently as high as 30% a year; driven by a toxic combination of illegal pay rates and poor treatment.  It means that good and experienced care workers are continually being taken from our care system because too many of them just cannot afford to do the job.

Not only does it lead to a loss of good and skilled care workers but it also helps drive the terrible incidents of elderly and disabled people having a stream of strangers coming into their homes to provide them with intimate personal care.

A 2013 report by the Care Quality Commission called Not just a number found that care users greatly value having the same care worker and were really concerned about how often they are allocated different care workers.

One of the main drivers of illegally low rates of pay is the non-payment of travel time for homecare workers.  We know that not paying care workers for their travel time places them in a terrible position where they are forced to choose between cutting one visit short to get to the next on time, or arriving late for the next visit causing distress and anxiety.  Yet only 7% of councils in England and Wales make their homecare providers pay care workers for their travel time.

This damning statistic neatly encapsulates how many politicians in power, at both local and national level are turning a blind eye to the problem of illegally low pay rates for care workers.

At a national level HMRC has stopped carrying out any proactive investigations into the care sector despite uncovering endemic levels of illegal pay in their previous themed investigations which took place between 2011 and 2013.

This is not to say that there has not been some positive steps.  A handful of progressive councils, led by Islington and Southwark have now adopted UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter. Adopting it means homecare workers are now paid the Living Wage of £7.85 an hour (£9.15 in London), have more time to care and receive better training, leading to better care standards.

Adoption of the Ethical Care Charter means that councils initially have to pay more but it will lead to savings down the line.  Just think of savings that could be delivered to the NHS through a reduction in avoidable emergency admissions and delayed discharges if all councils across the country adopted it.

More MPs have also increasingly been raising the issue of the need to improve the treatment of care workers into to save both our health and social care system.  Andrew Smith MP (Oxford East) recently secured a Parliamentary debate on the topic where he outlined a clear example of what needs to happen

“Much good work is done by front-line care workers, but too many of them are treated shabbily. That must be stopped. We must make sure that carers get the status, training and pay that they deserve, so that those who need care and those who give it can enjoy better lives, with dignity and respect.”

This call needs to be taken up by all politicians at both a national and local level.  Not only is there a clear moral imperative for us to treat our care workers far better, but without it we are never going to deliver a truly joined up health and social care system.

 

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