By Debbie le Quesne

Why this boss is handing contracts back to the LA

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Alan Long is executive director of Mears Group PLC and in the last few months, has taken the “agonising” decisions to hand back a number of homecare contracts to local authorities, especially in the north of England.

In a Guardian article he explains why he felt it necessary to take such action.

The sense of desperation and frustration is tangible. It’s an argument you’ll have heard before . . . currently being considered by our providers in Birmingham and other Midlands areas.

This is what Mr Long writes: “As painful as this has been for the people we have been providing care for – and for our care workers – we hope others will follow our lead and help to end commissioning practices that should have no place in 21st-century Britain.

“Exiting contracts in this way is always the last resort and follows many months of trying to develop a different solution with a commissioner. But, ultimately, it may be the only means to drive the essential change in services that are life-critical to our most vulnerable citizens.

“We are not happy with the disruption this creates, but we feel that we have to take a stand to lead positive change in the absence of leadership from elsewhere.

“The contracts we have exited are those where simple mathematics shows that the charge rate a council wants to pay will result in a provider either not meeting the requirements of the “national living wage” for care staff, or not delivering the service needed by the user.

“In the homecare world, generally, councils only pay for “contact time” – the time a care worker spends with a service user. They don’t pay for the time it takes the worker to get to the property or move on to the next. They don’t pay for any of the time the worker must spend on training, or for the worker’s “on-costs” to ensure they are looked after if they fall sick. Nor do they help pay into their pensions.

“In recent years, councils have also shortened call lengths in order to cut costs, and many people have lost a service altogether.”

Could this be written about any area of the West Midlands and especially in Birmingham where most of our members have already withdrawn their services from the City? I think so.

Business are getting progressively militant it seems as they are driven into impossible corners. I started this post thinking of using just a few comments, but the article makes compelling reading without embellishes from myself.

Mr Long continues: “The “national living wage” is, of course, the bare minimum we need to pay – and rightly so. Being a care worker is an increasingly skilled job, requiring staff who can provide highly intimate personal care as well as support with medication. It is not for the faint-hearted and requires talent, dedication and strength.

“It is no surprise then that there is a national shortage of care staff. In the last 12 months alone, a lack of homecare capacity in the community has caused delayed discharges from hospitals to increase by 40 per cent.

“At a time when the NHS is creaking at the seams, there is an inherent short-sightedness in a system that focuses on cutting support for individuals, reducing call lengths and keeping charge rates for providers below sustainable levels.

“Unfortunately, many care providers still choose to accept very low charge rates from councils. This could be due to a lack of understanding of the minimum wage law, but is often simply caused by local businesses feeling they have no choice but to accept the terms offered, or risk going under. These businesses are often small and rely on a single contract just to exist.

“I have huge sympathy for councils on this issue, especially as many have been forced to cut other services to protect social care budgets. However, there is no excuse for setting charge rates that will almost certainly lead to breaches of the minimum wage or poor service.

“The last few governments have talked about reconsidering how we, as a society, fund social care – but nothing material has happened. Ultimately, this means we are failing to examine how we want to look after older and vulnerable people who need our support. All demographics point to an increasingly elderly population over the next 10 to 20 years, many of whom will be living with multiple long-term conditions. Surely it is a measure of a good society that we provide proper care for those people, at a time when they need it most?”

Mr Long suggests: “If we had given even 1 per cent of the time spent discussing Brexit on trying to reach a solution to the social care crisis, we might have one by now” and majors on the importance of having a sustainable care system.

Mears Group PLC is a major care industry player. Sadly, many of my members are independent, small businesses that do not have the wherewithal to join such a protest.

I fear for our future if we fail to move the hand of this government. I hope sincerely that Mrs May, a self-confessed champion of fairness, gets the message the care sector is sending out and administers fairly over our current needs.


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