Don't clap for carers - pay them more to help level up deprived places

4 March 2021

By Rosie Stock Jones

5 minute read

Rosie Stock Jones writes for Radix and argues that if there was ever a moment to address the systematic problems with the social care system, it is now.

For a short while last year, those working in the social care sector were briefly recognised as frontline workers in a global pandemic which has been deadly for both care home residents and staff.

In the first wave of the pandemic, 40 per cent of all coronavirus deaths were care home residents while CPP analysis of ONS data shows that care workers had a death rate from coronavirus over three times higher than the average working age person.

If there was ever a moment to address the systematic problems with the social care system, it is now. Yet once again, the Chancellor has failed to use the Budget to tackle the poor quality jobs and standards of care in the sector.

This is a missed opportunity as improving working conditions and job progression for care workers would help the government to level up economic opportunity in left behind places, an agenda they claim to remain committed to.

Over the next decade, demand for adult social care is expected to rise as a result of demographic changes, making it a potential growth sector for the UK economy. The sector already contributes over £46 billion to the UK economy, and has greater potential for job creation than industries like construction.

In deprived places like Hartlepool, Sefton and the Isle of Wight, which have a relatively large and growing older population, the sector could become an increasingly important source of employment in the local economy.

Yet, many care homes that look after less affluent residents are instead at risk of closure due to inadequate funding, while employment in the sector is poor quality; with 3 in 4 of independent sector care workers in England paid below the real living wage and 1 in 4 on a zero hours contracts.

Skills for Care estimates that half of the workforce have no relevant qualifications, and turnover rates in the sector are high and increasing, suggesting that the wage and progression opportunities on offer are often not enough to retain staff.

Improving the quality of jobs in the care sector could help to unlock inclusive economic growth in deprived areas, where residents have experienced deteriorating health. It could do this by providing good jobs for those it employs, helping to raise the quality of care provided and support the health and wellbeing of the adult population.

By reducing the need for informal caregiving, increased funding for adult social care could also boost local economies by enabling unpaid carers to remain in the workforce for longer.

This is something that the public sector has the power to change. While only one in eight adult social care workers work directly for the NHS or local authorities, many more of the 1.3 million independent sector workers are commissioned by local councils who fund support for those with low savings.

Carers working directly for local councils are less likely to experience insecurity, and are more likely to receive training and qualifications, yet the purchasing decisions of these same councils have been blamed for poor job quality across the sector. Funding pressures have forced councils to freeze fees and pay for social care by the hour, making it difficult for independent providers to avoid exploitative contracts.

Coronavirus has only intensified the financial pressure on local councils, meaning that despite growing recognition of the social value of care work over the past year, without government action, we can expect conditions for these workers to deteriorate rather than improve.

The proper funding of adult social care is an issue that successive governments have ignored because there is no simple answer. But it is a problem that is not going away and will only become more acute as time goes on.

Surely there is no better time than now, when there is heightened public awareness and appreciation of care workers, when borrowing costs are low and when fiscal stimulus is required to secure our economic recovery, to address this issue and commit to funding social care.

As a starting point, CPP recommends that central government make key workers like care workers eligible for a compensation payment of up to £1,200 in recognition of their contribution over the last year.

We also suggest that the Department for Health and Social Care funds local councils to improve their commissioning processes and stipulate that all indirectly funded care workers are paid a real living wage and offered secure job contracts.

In addition, the government should take steps to professionalise the sector by developing nationally agreed skills and competencies frameworks and a portable qualification system.

Together, these actions could help to raise wages, reduce turnover and improve the quality of care, supporting deprived communities with a higher proportion of care workers and promoting the government’s levelling up agenda.