Sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. In politics, it’s more often than not the latter that matters most. Liz Kendall, star of my somewhat unsuccessful 2015 campaign to ‘Make Liz Kendall Labour Leader and Queen of Everything’, has been pilloried online for suggesting care workers would be ‘better off stacking shelves at Morrisons’ given their pay and conditions. Her remarks were pounced upon as proof of snobbery towards supermarket staff, a largely unacknowledged army of key workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
— Liz Kendall (@leicesterliz) April 13, 2021
You’re better off stacking shelves at Morrison’s than caring for older and disabled people, and that’s not good enough for our country. #COVID19 has exposed the urgent need to reform staff pay, terms & conditions. My question in Parliament today.... pic.twitter.com/rJjpraGk5d
As ever with outrage rampages, the truth is a bit more prosaic. Here is Kendall’s question in full:
“‘Despite repeated promises, the truth is that someone would be better off stacking shelves at Morrisons than caring for older or disabled people, and that is simply not good enough for our country. Can the minister confirm that the government’s Covid infection control fund had to be used to improve pay so that staff did not have to work for more than one care home and could actually afford to self-isolate? If that is the case, will she commit to permanently enshrining these improvements across the sector to keep all care users and all care workers safe?’
It’s fairly obvious that Kendall was arguing for the government to assign greater worth to the work of care staff, not denigrating the efforts of the people who help keep the nation’s larders stocked. We should esteem care workers more, not supermarket workers less. (Incidentally, the minister in question, Helen Whately, confirmed that the Covid fund was indeed used for pay purposes.)
Kendall didn’t pluck the retail employees example out of thin air: it’s a standard comparison for care sector pay. Skills for Care, the membership organisation for registered care managers, produces an annual report on the adult social care workforce that indexes care pay against four other sectors of the economy. One of them is ‘sales and retail assistants’.
It’s easy to get sidetracked by a culture war flashpoint like a comparison an MP uses, but Kendall’s central point is correct: Covid has exposed how little we value care workers and how poorly they are paid. Clapping on the doorstep in the early days of the pandemic was all well and good, but it will have been a hollow gesture if we don’t put care sector pay and conditions at the heart of the recovery.
Three in four care workers in England earn less than the living wage (the real one, not George Osborne’s pretend one), with that figure rising to 82 per cent for those in the north-east. Their comparative pay situation has gone backwards in recent years, even though this has been masked by headline rises in the minimum wage. In 2013, they earned on average more than hairdressers, shop assistants, cleaners, laundry workers and catering staff but by last year had fallen behind shop workers and cleaners.
Only last month, the Supreme Court ruled that care assistants did not have to be paid the minimum wage for ‘sleep-in shifts’, in which workers are expected to stay overnight at their place of work and be ready to respond to incidents during the night. Little wonder, then, that at any given time in 2020 there were 112,000 social care vacancies and the staff turnover rate stood at 30.4 per cent. The journalist James Bloodworth went undercover as a care assistant for his 2018 book Hired and I recommend his account for an insight into just how poor pay and conditions are.
Demand for social care is rising. Between 2016 and 2019, there were an additional 100,000 requests for local authority-funded care — and 18,000 fewer people receiving it. The consequences of Covid will only aggravate the situation in the years to come.
The Nuffield Trust says ‘any meaningful reform to the care system will require more money to be raised from the electorate’ but ‘people need to know what they are paying for, how much funding is needed and how costs will be shared’. The Living Wage Foundation’s social care charter urges better training, a living wage for care workers, occupational sick pay and pathways to career progression. More ambitious still would be a national care service, which Labour has previously proposed, and which the SNP has pledged in Scotland.
Liz Kendall identified a question we can avoid no longer: what do we expect from social care and are we willing to pay for it?