John Sentamu: We should value work of carers with fair pay

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MILLIONS of people have got up this morning, and have left their families and gone to work to carry out jobs that we all depend on, particularly those who are most vulnerable. They will be caring for people who can’t care for themselves, serving them food, keeping their surroundings clean. They will do more than a fair day’s work, but they won’t get a fair day’s pay.

As we work to ensure that those needing care are not isolated from neighbours and friends, we are becoming more and more aware of the need to provide excellent and consistent care. In order for us all to feel confident about the care that is available, we must ensure that the work is properly paid.

A little over a century ago Winston Churchill gave a speech as President of the Board of Trade that said: “It is a serious national evil that any class of His Majesty’s subjects should receive less than a living wage in return for their utmost exertions.”

Much has changed since then, but the principle that Churchill spoke to remains as strong as ever. Though the world has changed in many ways, and provision has improved in many ways, the vision for social care must not be lost through an inability or unwillingness to pay a living wage which properly reflects the value of those whose job is to care for the vulnerable.

It was a great honour for me to be asked to chair the Living Wage Commission, which presented its final report in June this year. We came across many moving stories of those who were struggling to do a good and necessary job. One care worker earning £7 an hour felt pressed by rising food bills and anxious about the future. “Even though I’m 30, I still have to rent a room and I could never afford to even think about buying my own place. In the last 12 months I have noticed my food bill go up. I only buy the basics and I have gone from spending on average £66 up to £90 a month, and that isn’t buying anything really nice which I would like to. I haven’t been on a holiday for five years....my wages just go on basic living.”

The care sector is an area where employers are struggling to pay the living wage for various reasons. I am sure that this is not because of an unwillingness in principle, or a sense that the workers are not worth higher salaries. I know that a number of church and charity-run organisations still feel unable to pay the living wage.

But the principle must be constantly re-addressed, for the sake of the work in the care sector, and for the sake of those for whose work we are so thankful. We know that the quality of care will be better if people can be better paid.

It is sad, but not surprising, to hear that morale in the care sector is low. The media tends to concentrate on stories of poor care – and of course these must be told. But this often means that we do not get to hear the marvellous stories of the many people who work in the care sector who show loving kindness to their clients every day and go the extra mile to support them. Many times these care workers are paid the minimum wage, and may work unsocial hours so that 24 hour care can be provided 365 days a year.

All political parties are committed to the funding and protection of the NHS. It is high time to correct an anomaly which occurred when the NHS was set up, where the accountability for the NHS would be the responsibility of the Health Secretary, and the accountability for social care would be the responsibility of local councils.

Although public funding through government grants provides social care, it is my view that all political parties need to be committed to protecting social care provision.

Quality assurance is a good thing, but that alone will not deliver a well-funded social care service. The new Inspectorate which has been set up is a good thing. I would like to suggest that the commissioning bodies also ought to be inspected, to ensure that sufficient funds are provided for the work they commission, and therefore ought to be accountable, together with the providers, for the success or failure of provision.

There are benefits to everyone – short term as well as long-term – from introducing the living wage. Benefits to the morale of the workers; benefits to the delivery of care for those who need it; benefits in motivated and committed workers for the employers. Paying a fair day’s pay for a hard day’s work helps to drive standards higher among those looking after our older relatives, affording them some dignity and independence in their own homes.

So far all governments have just been applying a sticking plaster to the crisis of low pay, especially among social care workers. Our Government needs to be at the front of the pack and we need to make sure that we seize the opportunity to build a brighter future for the millions of forgotten social care workers who are struggling to make ends meet.

Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York who spoke at a conference of the Independent Care Group (York and North Yorkshire) yesterday to mark its 10th anniversary.