August 15, 2023
Guest blog: “Which part of the elephant do we start with?”
For things to improve for supported people and carers, they first need to improve for the workforce, says Claire Cairns, Director of the Coalition of Carers in Scotland
As Desmond Tutu once wisely said “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.”
I have recently been reminded of this when considering the seemingly enormous task of how to reform and improve social care. It’s certainly stumped a lot of governments, which is why when I talk to my colleagues in other parts of the UK and Europe, they seem equally overwhelmed by the task.
And the social care system is undeniably complicated. There are so many competing demands, so many inter-connected issues, not to mention deeply embedded cultures, processes and structures that we know don’t work, but we can’t work out how to dismantle them. Where do you start? The legs, the trunk?
The Feeley report has given us a great map, or perhaps more of a hopeful brochure of our final destination, if we can ever get the plane off the runway.
So what is the word from unpaid carers on all this? And specifically what is their view on Fair Work?
When it comes to Feeley and the subsequent National Care Service Bill, the development carers are most invested in is the right to breaks from caring. This is something carers have been campaigning about for well over a decade. At the moment, as well as being unpaid, carers don’t have the right to time off from their caring role.
Let that sink in for a minute. Having to care for someone, 24 hours a day, often with a lack of sleep – yet no guarantee that you will be able to get a regular break. Even those carers who do have a decent support package are just coming out of the last two plus years of the pandemic with their batteries, all but depleted and many of the services they used to rely on, seemingly dismantled.
So you might think that the spotlight on Fair Work and improving the terms and conditions of the paid workforce would have carers saying ‘Hang on a minute’. But I think you would be wrong.
Carers know that very little can be achieved to improve social care without first addressing the existing workforce crisis. The right to breaks from caring is completely unworkable unless there are social care staff and services to meet the increased demand. Not to mention to ensure there is a broad range of services available to ensure the very diverse needs of the carer population can be met.
But more than that, carers see the unfairness of how the social care workforce is treated – overworked, underpaid and often unappreciated. Support workers and personal assistants come into peoples’ homes and are trusted with their loved ones. They build relationships with people and at times become like family members. Sometimes and especially over the last few years, they are the only people the family regularly sees, providing a bit of comfort and chat, as well as support.
Carers are often devastated when support staff move on, particularly when it’s because they need to earn more money elsewhere, but they don’t want to move on to a job they will find less rewarding. Then for the family there is the hard task of recruiting, or securing, alternative support from their local authority – yet another stressful thing to add to the list.
The truth is both unpaid carers and social care support staff are the frontline, often working together, both under-appreciated. Both at times hailed as ‘heroes’, when they would rather be recognised and properly recompensed for their essential and highly skilled labour.
Feeley and the National Care Service is rightly focussed on improving outcomes for people who use services and their carers. But for things to improve for supported people and carers, they first need to improve for the workforce.
I suggest that’s the bit of the elephant we need to start with.
The Coalition of Carers in Scotland exists to advance the voice of carers by facilitating carer engagement and bringing carers and local carer organisations together with decision makers at a national and local level.
Since its inception in 1998 the Coalition has played a fundamental role in advancing carer recognition and support and in establishing a Carers Rights agenda in Scotland.