By Alan Long

IT has been clear for some time that the way that adult social care is delivered across the UK is not working. There have been problems with the system for some time, but over the last two years, amidst the background of a pandemic, it has become more apparent than ever that something needs to change.

One of the major challenges is a shortage of staff across the sector. As providers of care across Scotland and the UK, it is clear to us that the way care staff are treated and viewed by employers and society must change. They should be valued the same as NHS staff – with the same respect and employment terms and conditions including full-time work, contracted hours, and guaranteed holiday allowance.

These employment terms may seem straightforward, and arguably the most basic expectation. However, often this isn’t the case. Recently there has been a focus on having higher hourly pay rates and abandoning zero hours contracts. This is vital if we are to get a more resilient, full-time care workforce who have a certainty of income. The current system of having the majority of staff on zero hours or fixed hours contracts is not enough.

The reason carers are employed like this is largely due to how we are expected to deliver contracts – during periods of high demand (morning, lunchtime, and evening). This results in local authorities commissioning work for these times but not for other periods. If we focused on utilising quieter times, it would provide for more stable and continual working patterns for carers, better social interaction for service users, and support the NHS with its work – namely with hospital discharges. The investment would pay for itself.

It should be said this is not the local authorities’ fault. They are being forced to cut costs across the board, and social care is not immune. This has been an issue for some time. In 2016 we had to take the decision to end several contracts with local authorities in England because the rates did not allow us to pay our staff the national living wage, or to meet the needs of the user.

But we are starting to see the beginnings of change across the sector. Recently published by the Scottish Government, the National Care Service Bill says it will ensure the workforce is recognised and valued and highlights care at home as a priority. We see first-hand at Mears the benefits this brings. A shift across the sector to how we can support people to live independently will have a massive impact on people’s lives.

We are optimistic that some of the changes proposed by the Scottish Government will bring positive change. However, a target of 2025/26 is not soon enough. Now is the time for action to ensure we have a resilient and skilled workforce providing the highest level of care to those who need it.

Alan Long is Executive Director for MEARS group