A Pyrrhic Victory?

Nathan Hollow

PLMR's Nathan Hollow discusses the Court of Appeal's latest landmark ruling

Earlier this month (13 July), the Court of Appeal issued a landmark ruling stating carers who sleep at work overnight in case they are needed will not be paid minimum wage. The ruling saved providers from a potential £400 million back payment liability which some reports suggested would have bankrupted two-third of those providers implicated. Whilst undoubtedly momentous for providers, this was a pyrrhic victory arguably secured at too great a cost for a sector struggling with both a recruitment crisis and an image problem.

The ruling was well publicised in the mainstream press with headline’s like the Daily Mirror’s, “Care workers denied millions in back pay after court rules they are not entitled to minimum wage for sleep-in shifts”, whilst the Independent led with, “Carers denied millions in back wages”. Meanwhile, the Press Association, who syndicate content across hundreds of local newspaper websites, went with, “Carers not entitled to minimum wage for ‘sleep-in shifts’”.

The somewhat celebratory tone of the sector’s press releases announcing victory in the case was also unhelpful. Whilst the ruling staved off immediate disaster, one must always think of the bigger picture – care workers earning £15,000 per year were just denied a £6,000 pay day, a sum that can make all the difference to some of the lowest paid in society.

Regardless of the legal position, having read the headlines following the ruling I simply thought to myself, who would work in the care sector now? This may have been a legal victory, but it was a PR disaster.

Recruitment in the sector is already tough. Parliament’s Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee found in 2017 that half of care workers (48 per cent) leave within a year of starting, while the annual turnover rate for nurses working in social care stands at 36 per cent. With an estimated 90,000 vacancies at any one time, and facing stiff competition from a more loved and now better funded NHS, headlines screaming that carers aren’t entitled to minimum wages are likely to further exacerbate an already intolerable recruitment situation whilst lowering morale amongst those already working in the sector.

I know the providers I work with want to pay higher wages to their staff and would do so if the sector was better funded by Government. It’s time this argument was bought to the fore by the whole sector, and expressed publicly with passion, particularly in the face of further delays to the social care green paper.

I’ve long talked about the need for a hearts and minds campaign for the future of social care, centred around a message that gets the average voter to act. Throwing out financial numbers, like the £2 billion per annum funding shortfall, has clearly turned off a disengaged electorate – hardly a surprise, when we’ve been saying the sector is on the brink the best part of a decade.

If you speak to Councillors and MPs, who ultimately act when faced with voter pressure, you find their mail bags are not filled with questions about the long-term sustainable funding of care – it’s bins and Brexit.

Perhaps therefore it’s time to change strategy. With a workforce totalling 1.5 million people, all of whom are of voting age, you are far more likely to meet a care worker who’d vote for a pay rise, than someone who understands the intricacies of how the care sector operates and the funding link between local and national government.

The arguments should therefore be about the inherent public good of care services, on the lives transformed and the immeasurable contribution to society that care workers make. By bolstering the prestige of care work, the sector can solve both its recruitment struggles and provide a compelling new argument as to why the public and their elected political representatives should back a transformation in care funding.

One idea would be for the sector to campaign for an agreement similar to that recently achieved in Scotland, where a fee uplift included the commitment to pay all care workers a minimum of £8.75 an hour – the Living Wage Foundation’s independently calculated Living Wage. Surely, in the fifth largest economy in the world, it’s time every care worker in the UK earned this, actual Living Wage?

If the Court of Appeal’s ruling isn’t to be seen as pyrrhic victory in years to come, the care sector must take steps to tackle this self-inflicted PR injury, and the morale and recruitment crisis it has exacerbated.

We’d do well to remember the tale of the Greek King Pyrrhus of Epirus, who scored two famous victories against the Romans in 280 BC. But, having lost and been unable to replace most of his elite fighters, his remaining demoralised and poorly trained army was roundly trounced in the third battle. It’s a cautionary tale for aspiring military commanders and care sector leaders alike.

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