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By Debbie le Quesne

Zero hour contracts: Between a rock and hard place

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The issue of zero hours contracts in the care sector raised its head again yesterday – this time care of The Guardian’s social care online columns.

On reading the report from Roger Kline research fellow at Middlesex University and an associate with Public World, I find myself between a rock and hard place.

He observes that when Robert Francis QC reported earlier this year on the shocking treatment of elderly patients at Mid Staffordshire Hospital, several of his recommendations explicitly applied to adult social care.

Why? Because, he argues, it was clear from numerous reports from the Care Quality Commission and others that the care of the elderly in all settings – including residential and nursing homes, and in their own homes – was troubling.

Kline then adds: “There is plenty of evidence linking the treatment of staff to the safety and quality of care the elderly receive. Above all, good care relies on competent, trained, supervised staff having the time and continuity to build relationships with vulnerable adults.” That is wholly true.

What I find most disturbing is the fact that according to Skills for Care, 307,000 social care workers are now employed on zero hours contracts.

This accounts for one in five of all professionals in this sector and the numbers are growing rapidly.

Kline’s economic analysis is simple (and again true). “This is happening for two main reasons. Firstly the immense squeeze on council finances (notwithstanding the recent transfer of some adult social care funding from the NHS) has led most councils to adopt commissioning models for home care that fund providers for fixed and often unrealistically short time slots. . .

“ Secondly, ‘personalisation’ has led to a growth of a section of the homecare workforce with virtually no employment rights at all – often on bogus self-employed terms – as well as raising serious questions about support, quality, training and supervision,” he writes.

There is a huge push from local authorities to contract out both residential care and home care provision, but as Kline points out, it comes at a time when council funds are being slashed.

It’s a bizarre contradiction of logic that as the elderly population rises to record levels, funding to care for them and the resources and staff required to do just that are being withdrawn.

I see first-hand the current stringent economies in play as my members desperately try to deliver care with little financial rewards. Morally I cannot support the zero hours contracts and most definitely, good care needs to have relationships built between carers and their charges. But I understand too that zero hours contracts can be the only way forward for some care operations. It would be easy for me to judge, but only if I have evidence of compromised care in such circumstances,

Sometimes I wish we lived life in primary colours – it would be much easier then.

Kline adds: “As personal budgets proliferate and block contracts decline, because councils cannot guarantee set volumes of work to providers, the uncertainty of funding and contracts is passed on to staff, in the form of zero hours contracts and other ways in which they pick up the funding slack.”

Is this really the way ahead?

Charity social researchers The Resolution Foundation argue that social care is not the place for such contracts; the Social Care Institute for Excellence agrees and advises commissioners and providers to ensure staff have set-hours; and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and President of the Board of Trade Vince Cable has promised a review on such practice.

Government movers and shakers, who sit on the fence with their ears nailed to the floor, have long beset the care sector. Could we please have a proper decision on the zero hours soon, please.

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