It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate Mr Smith on securing this debate on an incredibly important subject. I agree with him and Jim Shannon that there are many great providers of care out there and vast numbers of extraordinarily dedicated care workers. Like the shadow Minister, I went out with a domiciliary care worker in London a while ago. He was from Sardinia, which makes the point that very large numbers of people from other countries, primarily from across the European continent, work in our care system. Without them and the dedicated work of care workers, the system would not survive. We should remember that in our debates about the movement of workers around Europe. Our health and care system depends on those dedicated workers, and the man I saw from Sardinia was a very impressive and dedicated man. He was earning a low income and not being paid for travel time between the stops in his working day, which I totally agree is completely unacceptable and a disgrace. I will come back to that issue a little later.
It is also important that we celebrate great care. I went to the first ever awards ceremony in my county of Norfolk that celebrates examples of fantastic care, and to see care workers who hitherto have never been recognised for the amazing work that they do was inspiring. Every part of the country should have similar exercises to acknowledge and celebrate great care.
Secondly, I wanted to comment on the point made by the right hon. Member for Oxford East that sometimes—indeed, quite often—the only companionship that people receive is from the paid care worker who visits their home once or twice a day. Does that not say that there is something profoundly wrong about our society, and if so, do we not all have to recognise that that must change? I have said this before, but we have inadvertently become a rather neglectful society. As our extended families have been dispersed far and wide, often older people are left rather stranded, living on their own, sometimes many miles—often, indeed, hundreds of miles—away from their loved ones. It is not a good society in which the only people seen by those older people are those who are paid to deliver care to them. The wider community and neighbours need to play a part in addressing this massive challenge that we face, whoever is in Government. There is absolutely a role for the total professionalism of paid staff, but the wider community must play its role, too.
There are amazing schemes such as the Cornwall pioneer project, in which volunteers work alongside GPs to combat people’s loneliness. There is also a brilliant community organisation called Friends and Neighbours in Sandwell, in the west midlands. That is a network in the poorest community in the west midlands, and yet volunteers give of themselves, and give companionship to people to give them their lives back. Those volunteers play a part in meeting this massive challenge we face.
Thirdly, part of the answer is for care workers to be far more embedded in joined-up and integrated teams of health and care workers. The work in Islington that the shadow Minister referred to is another of the brilliant and inspiring integrated care pioneer projects that join up health and care services and enable care workers to work alongside nurses, so that they recognise that they can possibly go on to become a nurse or a health care worker. Such projects give care workers a status and professionalism that they deserve, which can play an incredibly important part in this process.
Fourthly, I commend to right hon. and hon. Members an example from my county. The GP practice in the village of North Elmham, in the middle of Norfolk, has set up a social enterprise that provides domiciliary care to a widely dispersed rural area. As it is a social enterprise, it is able to pay its staff better. When staff stay and demonstrate reliability, they receive more pay. The consequence is that people know who their care worker is, there is continuity of care, and there is not, as the shadow Minister suggested is too often the case, a situation in which someone different turns up each night. I had a case—indeed, it involved Care UK—of an elderly lady finding a different man turning up each night to shower her, which was an assault on her dignity. The concept of locally based social enterprises, tied in closely to GP practices, seems to be an attractive way forward.
Fifthly, there is the issue of pay. To start with, I will say that Unison is right to campaign on pay; I support it in doing so, and I am very happy to work alongside it. The right hon. Member for Oxford East and others made the point that it appears that 220,000 people in the care sector are being paid below the minimum wage. That situation is completely unacceptable, and I hope that all of us in Westminster Hall today acknowledge that we find that practice to be totally unacceptable.
However, it was this Government who decided that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs should carry out a dedicated push in this sector to root out employers who are breaking the law in that respect. Indeed, I can confirm to the shadow Minister that I have specifically asked for a further dedicated focus on the care sector, because it is absolutely needed.