Zero tolerance

Philip HuntPhil Hunt on the urgent need to tackle poor employment practices in the private care sector

We face a real challenge in the UK with the growing number of disabled and elderly people needing support, much of it provided by private sector companies under contracts commissioned by local councils.

Despite their dedication, thousands of care workers operate in a very fragmented industry; and they are badly treated and often insecure in their employment. Hardly the best conditions for providing good quality care.

Following a recent parliamentary question, it has been revealed that more than 300,000 workers in social care are employed on zero-hour contracts – not knowing from week to week what hours they will be doing and the likely income. 

A Unison survey meanwhile has shown just how scandalous some practices are. 80% of the staff who responded had to rush work or leave clients early to go to other calls because so little time is given to each individual. Over 36% were allocated different clients each day, so there was no continuity of care or building of relationships. Perhaps most shockingly, 41% had not been given specialist training in medical needs, such as dementia and stroke related conditions. Only 43% saw fellow workers on a daily basis, so were often very isolated. And nearly 60% were not paid for travelling times between visits, which when combined with low pay has led to a high turnover of staff.

This appalling picture has been further confirmed by a UK Homecare Association survey revealing that 75% of all visits to older people had to be completed in less than 30 minutes, with one in ten limited to no more than 15 minutes.

So what can be done?

If we are to provide quality care we must that those tasked to do so are treated right and given proper training and support. 

We need action to prevent the abuse of zero hour contracts, and the government needs to look again at the rules underpinning standards in the private care sector. Too many unscrupulous owners are all too ready to increase their margins by cutting corners. The failure to pay travel time is not only a potential breach of the law but an outrageous way to treat low paid staff.

We should also ensure that local authority contracts with private providers guarantee visits to clients of sufficient length with fair employment practices.

All of this ought to be a priority for the Care Quality Commission, as it starts a new approach to inspections and the rating of providers. To date, Ministers have indicated that local authority commissioning will not be a priority. That needs reversing quickly, and the latest session of Committee on the Care Bill today is as good a place as anywhere to do so.

Lord Phil Hunt of Kings Heath is a Shadow Health Minister and Labour’s Deputy Leader in the Lords

Published 9th July 2013

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