Scotland’s social care staffing crisis is acute and is showing no signs of improving anytime soon. The recent Budget announcement from the Scottish Government will do little to help.

Experienced and knowledgeable practitioners are leaving third sector service providers like Scottish Autism, for whom I work, in their droves. Staff who were already burned-out by the demands of the Covid pandemic are now working in services where turnover is high and pleas to cover extra shifts come thick and fast. It is unsurprising that many are choosing to join the exodus.

This instability and churn is acutely felt by the people supported in these services, many of whom have life-long support needs and feel disoriented by the constant changes to their support staff.

We expect social care staff to have the right values to support vulnerable people and a knowledge base that draws on disciplines as wide-ranging as psychology, health, and Speech and Language therapy. Many staff are expected to work autonomously, or provide 1:1 support. Yet few local authority contracts with third sector providers allow for a salary more than the social care living wage.

A survey of Scottish Autism staff recently showed that practitioners were suffering acute levels of financial stress, severely affecting their wellbeing. Many frontline care workers could not afford leisure activities or socialising, others were cutting back on activities for their children, and some struggled to pay rent, eat well, or pay for public transport.

From April the social care living wage for Scotland will be set at £12 per hour, lagging well behind pay rises in the NHS and education, and well behind stark cost of living rises. An NHS worker on Band 3 salary currently earns over £4,000 a year more than the social care living wage. The ever-widening gulf between social care and NHS salaries presents a significant challenge to staff retention in care, and reflects wider inequalities in esteem between sectors.

The NHS is rightly valued by the public. Its staff deserve the pay rises they have received. Yet social care is all too often the poor relation - overlooked, or seen simply as a pressure valve that can help to improve hospital discharge rates. Diversity and specialism within the sector is rarely recognised. This disparity in esteem is reflected in the way that we value and reward workers.

While Scottish Autism supports calls for a £13 hourly wage from April, arguing for specific figures will simply lead to perpetual campaigning and debate as the cost of living rises. A starting point for any serious solution should be parity with NHS Band 3 as a minimum social care salary. The Scottish Government must consider benchmarking of this kind as a sustainable response to the current staffing crisis.

How we, as a country, value those people who require social care is reflected in how we value those that care for them. If we are to have a professional, knowledgeable and sustainable workforce in social care we need to offer fair work within a respected and properly compensated sector.

Joe Long Director of Practice Innovation, Scottish Autism