One thing I’ve learnt from this crisis is that you have to be careful to avoid being seduced by what appears to be a consensus of the need for systemic change. In the most dramatic moments of the pandemic, you couldn’t pay for someone to criticise key workers. They were lauded by every bad boss, Tory MP and Daily Mail commentator from Dundee to Dover. But if concrete, specific victories aren’t won – contractual, regulatory or ownership changes – never underestimate the ability of those who had untrammelled power before the crisis to seek to get back to their normal when the worst has passed.
Social care seems to be a pretty good case of lots of warm words (and clapping) not backed up by serious actions to change a sector which is the largest group of workers in Scotland in in-work poverty. Of around 170,000 social carers, 43.6 per cent earn below £20,000 a year, with 10 per cent on zero-hours contracts. This pre-dominantly female workforce not only was left without sufficient PPE and testing at the start of this crisis, exposing them and their families to Covid-19, they also had to cope with the fact that low incomes left them financially exposed if they did have to quarantine, with Statutory Sick Pay of £95.85 not enough to put food on the table, pay the electricity bills and keep the debt collectors from the door. In a sector where the biggest care providers have been making over 20 per cent in profit, according to a 2017 Competition & Market Authority report, surely this would be the first group of key workers where the pandemic will herald a new dawn?
Not so. In a written submission to Holyrood’s Covid-19 committee on the Scottish Government’s social care staff support fund introduced so workers get paid if they need to self-isolate, Unison finds that: “Poor staffing practices are still widespread in the sector – this means that large numbers of staff have no access to proper sick pay protections.
“This in turn meant that staff, if they either believed themselves too ill with Covid-19 or that they had been in contact with those who were, had the choice between taking a risk in going to work or feeding their families.”
The submission explains that many employers, particularly in the private sector, are not operating the scheme in the way it was intended, with some paying contracted hours rather than the hours care workers actually work on average per week, while others are simply “not paying out under the scheme”.
“The regulations are a tragic necessity because our market driven care home system treats its staff so poorly that one of the most basic conditions to ensure safe and healthy working is absent,” the submission concludes.
Health Secretary Jeane Freeman has said she can’t understand why the care home providers won’t take “free money”, but it’s quite obvious why – the money doesn’t go to them, it goes to their employees. If social carers have decent sick pay it changes the power balance a little away from the boss and towards the social carer. And the Scottish Government has to take a bit of responsibility here too: they had the chance in May to support an amendment in the Scottish Parliament which would have allowed trade unions to access private social care workplaces and make national collective bargaining mandatory in the sector, and voted with the Tories to reject it. If workers can organise they can fight for themselves, including ensuring access to the staff support fund. It was good that at the height of the crisis a back-dated 3.3 per cent pay rise was introduced for social care staff, but it will be their capacity to organise which ensures they get a bigger increase next year.
And then we have the promises of structural changes to a sector that has suffered from creeping privatisation in the 21 year history of the Scottish Parliament, including in the last 13 years of SNP government. I say promises, but they are more hints and suggestions that it might be a bad idea if heavily indebted, tax haven-owned private equity firms continue to be responsible for residential care. Nicola Sturgeon has said “the appropriateness and fitness for purpose of that model” has rightly been questioned, but that’s not the same as a commitment to ending private ownership. The Care Inspectorate haven’t even be able to get the registration of the largest private provider in the UK, HC-One, cancelled at Home Farm care home in Skye through the courts, despite NHS Highland having to step in due to an unprecedented failure from the company to look after residents. As Nick Kempe, former Head of Service for Older People in Glasgow, has said, that’s because there’s no existing government mechanism to deal with private providers failing, with a full court case required to push through cancellation, which “would make public the failings of all parties and the system as a whole and require significant extra resources in the short-term to enable Home Farm to be taken over.”
“Unless the Scottish Government intervenes, as they have the power to do, it appears unlikely to happen,” Kempe stated.
So we are still waiting for change to social care in Scotland. It should be a litmus test for whether the much-talked up ‘progressive’ credentials of Scottish politics have any real substance.
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