[John Robertson in the Chair] — Care Workers

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:15 am on 5th November 2014.

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Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields 10:15 am, 5th November 2014

I could not agree more. The guidance should include a proper requirement for compliance with the minimum wage law; otherwise it will simply be ignored, as it currently is. I hope that the Minister will commit to strengthening that requirement when he sums up the debate.

Providers might also be convinced to pay their staff a fair wage if they thought that they might suffer consequences for non-payment, but it seems, sadly, that under this Government there are no consequences. The Government told us that they would “name and shame” companies that failed to pay the minimum wage, but so far only a handful have been named and not one of them has been from the social care sector. That is unbelievable when we consider that HMRC believes that half of providers are non-compliant. The Government’s relaxed attitude lets providers know that they can continue to ignore minimum wage laws with no consequences.

In all this, we have to remember that what affects care staff also affects the people they care for. Quality social care needs well trained, motivated staff who are able to build a strong relationship with those they care for. All the evidence suggests that things are moving in the opposite direction. The care sector is not an attractive place to work right now.

The weak requirements on the minimum wage create an unfair playing field for care providers. With the funding pressures facing councils, the incentive to commission on cost is stronger than ever, and as long as the wage is considered a target and not a requirement, providers that pay a fair wage will be at a disadvantage, compared with those that break the rules. The providers that win contracts will be those that are least able to attract and retain well trained staff, and service users will lose out as a result.

Pay is not the only problem. Care workers have told me horror stories about the way in which they are managed and the effect that that has on the people they care for. Timetabling of visits is a disaster. Appointments are booked back to back, so staff do not get to spend the time with clients that they are allocated. If a client needs a little extra help, dedicated care workers often go back in their free time. I have also heard of cases in which incompetent management has meant that multiple staff have been booked to cover the same appointment. After they have all shown up at the client’s home, only one of them has been paid. Not only is that bad for staff, but it means that clients sometimes do not see the same carer twice in a week, and they never get a proper introduction to a new staff member. Clients are expected to let a stranger into their home because they say that they come from an agency. The system owes people better than that.

Staff have told me that the training and supervision offered by some providers is close to non-existent. One employee told me that their training consisted of being given a set of forms to fill in, after which they were given no feedback and no professional advice or support. Not only were they not paid for that training, but they were told that they would be financially penalised if it was not completed in time. Essentially, they were training themselves, and the provider took no responsibility for making sure that its staff were fit to do their jobs.

Even on important matters of safeguarding, some staff received no training, and they were entirely unprepared to deal with situations in which they thought a client was at risk of harm. Worse still, although staff in such a situation should be able to refer the matter to a manager, in some cases even the managers did not appear to understand how safeguarding procedures worked or how to proceed, with the result that at-risk clients were left in serious danger. As many care staff work on zero-hours contracts, they are afraid to speak out. They cannot afford to challenge their employer or properly advocate on behalf of their clients, because if they do, they find that they are denied shifts.

That is why there should be a proper system of oversight, and it is why Opposition colleagues and I tabled amendments to the Care Bill to give the Care Quality Commission responsibility for overseeing the commissioning of services. It is not enough for the CQC simply to inspect services on the ground, because by the time an inspection is carried out, serious failings could have occurred. The CQC should look at the standards on which local authorities commission, to make sure that the providers to which they award contracts can do the job properly.

Between low pay, stressful working conditions and lack of support, it is no wonder that many skilled care staff are leaving the sector as fast as they can. To stand up for vulnerable people in care, we have to stand up for our dedicated and hard-working care staff. If the Government want to show that they value high-quality care, they need to start holding providers to account and making sure that they take their obligations to staff seriously.