Civil Society News Update

Social care sector at ‘tipping point’, says charity boss

Robert Longley-Cook, chief executive of Hft The social care sector has reached a “tipping point” after increasing financial pressures in recent years, the chief executive of learning disability charity Hft has said. Speaking to Civil Society News, Robert Longley-Cook reflected on his charity’s recent report on the learning disability sector, which revealed that the majority of social care providers had been made to cut services and hand back contracts in the past year.

Longley-Cook said a combination of increasing National Minimum Wage (NMW) and National Living Wage (NLW) rates and cuts to funding from local authorities had led social care providers to start making losses on contracts. He said: “These cutbacks have all been coming since 2010 really when austerity started. For me this felt like a tipping point. Before you felt we were on a trajectory towards a painful place, but this actually feels like we might be there.”

The report highlighted the issue of high staff turnover in the sector, which Longley-Cook said was about 33 per cent and mainly involved those in their first year of doing the job. With lots of staff leaving, the charity has been made to rely more on agency workers, who require a higher fee because their agency takes a cut and sometimes charges VAT for the service. Longley-Cook said both these trends had put a lot of pressure on the charity’s longer term staff, who were constantly having to provide training to new workers.

Regarding staff pay, Longley-Cook said: “We used to be able to pay much better than the minimum wage but with the NMW cranking up, we are at the point where about 75 per cent of our staff will be at the NLW. They are still being paid well-below what they should be.” “Interestingly, for the first time, some of the back-office staff are starting to fall into the NLW area. We had never had that before.”

Longley-Cook said the quality of social care services was also dropping, he said, because high standards are not being rewarded. He said: “If I run the best learning disability service, I get paid the same as a person who is just good enough. You start to think I can cut back on this bit extra here and there. At some point things do start to get to crunch point.”

Post-Brexit pay increase

The government’s white paper on its post-Brexit immigration policy caused controversy when it included a distinction that only “skilled workers” from the EU who earn more than £30,000 a year would be able to apply for a visa in the UK. Front-line social care workers typically earn less than this amount and Longley-Cook said the immigration policy could force providers to pay higher wages. He said: “For us, in 2017 I think 4.5 per cent of our staff were from non-UK EU countries, so we are not a very high employer of non-UK EU workers, however the sector as a whole is. “The problem is if those go back it could create a vacuum that forces wages up. What you will have is a move up where you have to pay that level to bring people in.” He said the boost in wages “would be great if it was paid for” but could be a further source of financial pressure if providers are only funded to pay NLW rates to workers.

Vacuum in government leadership

An additional source of financial pressure for social care charities was put back on the agenda this week as the Supreme Court announced it would hear an appeal over the landmark Mencap ruling made in July last year. If the Supreme Court rules against Mencap, it could lead to social care charities having to pay back-pay and penalties to large numbers of staff historically paid less than the minimum wage to work overnight on-call sleep-in shifts. Longley-Cook said Hft has a potential back-pay liability of £4.8m and says the charity is “having to hang on to any funds that we can”. He wrote to HM Revenue & Customs after the charity was fined “a small amount” before the Mencap ruling for failure to pay sleep-in staff the full minimum wage historically, asking for the money back. However, he said HMRC refused to reimburse the charity arguing “at the time that we fined you, the law was in our favour”. Longley-Cook said: “There has been a complete vacuum when it comes to leadership.”

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