Department of Health and Social Care and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

Part of Ministry of Justice – in the House of Commons at 8:59 pm on 2nd July 2018.

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Photo of Laura Smith Laura Smith Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 8:59 pm, 2nd July 2018

It is a pleasure to follow Andrew Lewer.

One thing I think we can all agree on is that we take our health for granted. We all get bogged down with everyday worries and problems, and all too frequently we hear the phrase, often from those who are more experienced, “Your health is the most important thing. Don’t take it for granted.” Of course, everyday life—education, work, family, bills and so on—are very real challenges that we all face, and it is sometimes easier just to hope for the best and go for the line, “Fingers crossed, it won’t happen to me.” The reality, however, is that at some point every one of us will experience either poor health or the likelihood of having to care for a loved one who is suffering.

My real concern is that our health and social care system is built on shifting sands, and there seems to be no long-term strategy from the Government for dealing with the challenges we face as a nation. We have an ageing population, a growing population and a population with more complicated health needs, yet we lack forward thinking and planning.

At the time of my election last June, the Care Quality Commission had found that one in four social care services was failing on safety grounds, with at least one care home closing every week, while only 2% of providers were regarded as outstanding. Our Prime Minister acknowledged that our social care system was not working, and promised to fix it—it was even in the Conservatives’ manifesto—but that promise has been broken. Since then, the Chancellor failed even to mention social care in the autumn Budget, and he missed another opportunity in the spring statement. The single departmental plan of the Health Secretary’s Department of Health and Social Care has failed to acknowledge the social care workforce. The result is that care providers up and down the country, including in my constituency, have been placed in special measures and face closure.

It is devastating to see people at breaking point because of this undignified and broken system. It is not just those in need of care who suffer, but their families. I recently visited a very good care home in my constituency, and I spoke to a gentleman who told me how wonderful his care was at that home. He also stated that he had now spent his life savings on his care, and would more than likely have to sell his home, which his children live in, to be able to continue to fund his necessary care. He expressed his regret at an unfair system, in which dignity in old age is determined by the amount of money people can pay.

I wish to draw on one particular issue that has not had the publicity it deserves, even though it threatens the viability of the care sector and could jeopardise the care of the most vulnerable people in our society. It is the Government’s mismanagement of the sleep-in crisis. I first learned about this issue when a senior council worker at Cheshire East Council was sacked after raising concerns about dozens of careworkers who had been paid less than the national minimum wage by the Conservative-run council, which had pledged to pay all its workers a living wage. Since then, one of the Conservatives’ own councillors has said that the council knew it was underpaying careworkers as early as 2014, adding that he would resign if he was proven wrong.

Unison brought a successful claim to an employment tribunal, where it was ruled that careworkers who sleep overnight in care homes are entitled to the national minimum wage for each hour that they are at work in what are referred to as sleep-in shifts. In February 2015, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy updated its guidance to reflect the court ruling, and this should have been the end of it. The Government, now knowing that their previous guidance was wrong, should have taken swift action to ensure that all careworkers received the back pay they were owed and were paid the national minimum wage.

Yet freedom of information requests have revealed that HMRC was instructed in February 2016 that staff were not entitled to the national minimum wage during sleep-in hours. In my opinion, this mistake is unforgivable. Over a year later, HMRC has finally started enforcing complaints made by workers, who are in addition seeking six years of back pay to make up for missing wages. However, the Conservatives stopped this by delaying in July 2017, and again in September 2017. Incredibly, local authorities were not instructed to pay the national minimum wage for these sleep-in shifts until October 2017. From 2015 to 2017, careworkers were ignored.

A careworker in the constituency got in touch with me because he did not know where else to turn. He described how staff morale was at rock bottom, with many careworkers suffering from poor mental health, worrying about their job security, relying on food banks and payday loans, and being too scared to take time off sick and unable to afford going on annual leave.