Recent Our democracy Articles
by Stewart Lansley
Later this week, the government’s social mobility and child poverty commission will report that middle-class children from families with above average incomes are set to become materially less well off in adulthood than their parents.
For a growing number this is old news – it has been reality for a small but rising proportion of the working population for years. Growing numbers of the young have already had to face much bleaker life chances than their parents: a more treacherous job market, lower pay and fewer chances of advancement. On top of this they also face shrinking housing opportunities, a weakening safety net and a more punitive benefit system.
Across Britain, adverts to work in cinemas or in coffee shops attract thousands of applications, despite the jobs on offer being low paid and often temporary. Even short-term Christmas jobs in warehouses are hugely oversubscribed. With sometimes up to 200 chasing every job, the search for work in Britain has become increasingly futile.
Such trends are imposing profound social and economic costs. They are capping opportunities and trapping more of the workforce into poverty. On top of this, they are weakening the incentive to work and putting a growing strain on the benefit system.
While the global crisis has exacerbated these trends, they have much deeper roots. The last thirty years have seen a shrinking earnings pool, a doubling of the numbers on low pay, the decline of labour’s bargaining power, deindustrialization, a much more individualised social and economic culture and a housing market that benefits the already well-housed.
Three decades ago, the UK was one of the most equal countries in the world. Today it is one of the most unequal, with the proceeds of growth increasingly colonised by a small corporate and financial elite, leaving most of the rest with a shrinking share of the cake, greatly polarising life chances in the process.
Those who have suffered most are those with parents on low and middle incomes, the very groups who prospered most in the immediate post-war era.
Before the war, the social shape of Britain looked like a pyramid, with a small top and a large group at the bottom. By the 1970s it had turned into a diamond shape with a much larger and more prosperous middle. Today the ‘diamond` has gone, replaced by a contorted ‘hourglass’ with a small bulge at the top, a long thin stem in the middle, and a fat bulge at the bottom.
The impact of these trends can be seen most forcefully in the US, where the reversal of opportunities began in the mid-1970s. With incomes stagnating, the size of the middle has shrunk by more than a tenth since 1980. With large numbers of the current generation now facing lower living standards than their parents, more and more US citizens express a ‘fear of falling`, exposing as a myth one of the country’s once most widely shared values – the much vaunted ‘American Dream’.
Britain is not far behind. Here the ‘fear of falling’ has been mostly confined to those in the lower half of the income ladder. Middle class professionals – a group that sits somewhat above the ‘squeezed middle` – have largely been protected. That may be about to change.
With a third of graduates now in permanent non-graduate jobs – many from middle class backgrounds – the tightening cap on aspirations may already be spreading upwards.
Stewart Lansley is a visiting fellow at Bristol University and the author of The Cost of Inequality
by Andy May
It was a strange feeling watching this week’s Labour conference. Once a political enemy, I could conceivably be voting for the party in 2015.
I joined the Liberal Democrats over a decade ago, and worked for two MPs. My parents are founder members of the SDP. I won’t go into my reasons for leaving – these are self-evident. Clegg is the best recruiting sergeant that disaffected centre-left voters Labour could ever want.
Instead let’s concentrate on five things Labour might do to convince the swathe of progressives who voted Lib Dem in 2010. These people hold the key to a Labour victory in 2015. Many of them, like me, are as yet undecided.
I have discounted the obvious… like not privatise the NHS or entrench inequality in education – plus there has been enough on energy already!
Here are five that specifically push Lib Dem buttons:
1. The Economy
Totemic policies such as the introduction of the minimum wage in the early Blair years have been eclipsed in the minds of voters by mismanagement and light touch regulation in the run up to the financial crash. Ed Balls made a shrewd move towards rehabilitation by announcing he would submit Labour’s spending plans to the Office for Budget Responsibility. But more reassurance will be needed. I want to see the positive role of the state championed without the irresponsible spending and incompetent implementation that came with the Blair era.
2. Environmental policy
Invest in renewables not fracking; tackle energy inefficiency in homes and vehicles; properly fund the Green Investment bank. Plenty more where that came from, but with the Lib Dems in government supporting a dash for gas and failing on initiatives such as the Green deal, Miliband has an opportunity to outflank my former party.
3. Democracy, lobbying and big money in politics.
Miliband is one of the most progressive leaders Labour has ever had on constitutional issues. He deserves more credit than he got for supporting Yes2AV, after fierce opposition from many in his party. He must support PR in the House of Lords, or local government along with party funding reform and lobbying transparency. This will only get noticed by 5-10% of the electorate, but many will be those all-important ex Lib Dem voters. To achieve this some in Labour will need to understand their party does not have a monopoly on progressive political thought.
Most of my twenty and thirty something friends cannot conceive of a time they could afford a deposit. 200,000 new homes a year by 2020 is welcome – the difficulty will be doing this in a sustainable manner that doesn’t wreck the same communities that would benefit from fresh housing stock. Frankly anything sounds good compared to the Governments half-baked Help to Buy scheme.
5. Civil Liberties
When Sadiq Khan claims Labour now the party of civil liberties all I can do is think back to 28 days detention, ID cards, illegal rendition… and laugh. I think it naïve to make such a claim although Sadiq’s personal record is commendable. Labour need to show they not succumb to scaremongering by the shadowy figures in the home office bureaucracy with clear human rights based framework to privacy and security, rejecting the authoritarian excesses of the last Labour government.
Here’s hoping Ed can do it if Clegg cannot. -his speech certainly warmed the cockles of my heart.
I and other social liberals and democrats would prefer not to be stuck in the political wilderness for the rest of our lives.
Andy May is a communications consultant, and formerly worked in as a constituency organiser for the Liberal Democrats.
The think-tank Institute of Employment Rights has today published a set of policy proposals to strenthen the labour movement and collective bargaining in the UK.
They point out that economic growth and resilience is strengthened by the resulting increase in demand for businesses’ services and products when income inequality is reduced.
The ten-point manifesto is aimed at Labour MPs
1) A Ministry of Labour should be established: to give working people a voice in government to counteract the voice of powerful corporate interests. One of the duties of the new department will be to promote collective bargaining;
2) ACAS should encourage sectoral collective bargaining: Legislation should be introduced to delegate from the proposed Ministry of Labour to ACAS (or a similar body) the duty to encourage the establishment of sectoral collective bargaining;
3) Employers should be encouraged to participate in collective agreements: The legislation should include measures designed to oblige all employers to participate in these arrangements, including a provision that participation is a pre-condition of the award of all public contracts;
4) Sectoral bargaining should determine pay and conditions: The legislation relating to sectoral bargaining should make provision for the determination of pay and other working conditions, provide procedures for the resolution of disputes, and deal with skills, training and productivity;
5) Sectoral bargaining agreements should be inderogable: The legislation relating to sectoral bargaining should provide for the legalisation of sectoral agreements, so that the appropriate terms of the agreements in question become inderogable terms and conditions of all workers in the sector;
6) CAC should resolve disputes about sectoral boundaries: The legislation relating to sectoral bargaining should include a power vested in the CAC to resolve disputes about sectoral boundaries, and to determine which collective agreement is applicable to which employer in case of disputes;
7) The new scheme should be implemented gradually and flexibly: The statutory scheme providing for sectoral bargaining should be implemented gradually and flexibly, the agencies responsible for its development being empowered to respond to the specific needs of each sector; in industries without the apparent infrastructure to support collective bargaining, wages councils should be instituted;
8) Trade unions should be recognised where 10% of the workforce are members: There should be an overhaul of the statutory recognition procedure so that trade unions are entitled to be recognised by an employer on demonstrating 10% membership and evidence of majority support verified by the CAC;
9) Every trade union should have the right to bargain on behalf of its members: When that threshold for recognition on behalf of a defined bargaining unit is not met there should be a statutory right of every trade union to recognition by an employer to bargain on behalf of its members;
10) Every worker should have the right to be represented by their trade union: The existing statutory right to be accompanied should be overhauled so that every worker has the right to be represented by his or her trade union on all matters relating to his or her employment.
The ten-point manifesto has already attracted the official backing of Unite, Unison, GMB, NUT, PCS, CWU, UCU, RMT and ATL.
Last Friday, the Green Alliance published their review of the three major political parties’ activity on the environment since May 2010. The “Green Standard 2013” makes disappointing reading for all parties – but for none more so than the Conservatives.
On becoming Prime Minister in 2010, David Cameron said he would lead the “greenest government” ever. He described the existence of a fourth, mysterious minster at the Department for Energy & Climate Change, “who cares passionately about this agenda – and that is me, the prime minister. I mean that from the bottom of my heart”.
Yet despite such reassurances, Cameron’s own Chancellor has repeatedly suggested that environmental progress would compromise a healthy economy. Meanwhile, Owen Paterson, the UK’s Secretary of State and political leader on all things environment, has publicly questioned the reality of human-induced climate change.
However, neither the Liberal Democrats nor Labour have come away unscathed either. The Green Standard describes Labour’s failure to lead upon, prioritise, or even propose credible solutions to green the UK economy.
The Liberal Democrats are portrayed as having “no clear vision for the environment” –a portrait which certainly rings true as only yesterday, the Lib Dems backed a motion to support fracking- a fossil fuel industry vociferously opposed by 1000s of demonstrators nationwide, with 67% of citizens preferring to have a wind turbine near their home than a fracking site.
As extreme weather and energy insecurity bear down on our continent, we need someone to lead us to a better place, fast. While British politicians flag, our EU membership may haul us out of the smoggy darkness. The EU’s record on the environment, while not perfect, is often better than Britain’s record.
From addressing carbon capture, to banning bee-harming pesticides, the EU is providing both a platform to debate these issues, as well as leadership in exploring change.
Let’s take fish as an example. In 2005, the Northeast Atlantic was 95% overfished. Recognising the seriousness of the situation, the European Commission tackled the issue head on through determined fisheries management. Today, the same waters are only 39% overfished.
Concurrently, the European policy governing fisheries has undergone significant, progressive reform; a process frequently led, perhaps surprisingly by Richard Benyon, the UK’s Tory Fisheries Minster. A chance on the world stage allowed him to push for positive change, in a way which he’s failed to do at home, as shown by his desultory progress in establishing only 31 of the originally propose 127 marine conservation zones in UK waters.
The possibility to participate, shape and share a common future on issues such as air quality, weather, natural resources and energy security is one that shouldn’t be overlooked by the debate on our membership of the European Union.
The environment is one issue we’re unable to go alone – we need to be in it to win it.
Lord Ashcroft’s mega poll of key marginals, released yesterday, has been interpreted as showing three things:
1) Labour are doing very well against the Tories in the Tory-Labour battlegrounds
2) The Lib Dems are doing less well but still ok against the Tories in the Tory-LD battlegrounds
3) The Tories’ problems are a result of their voters defecting to UKIP
I agree with the first two interpretations, but the third looks to me to be a misreading of the data. Its extensive coverage in papers that would prefer Cameron to be more UKIP-like – the Telegraph, Mail & Express – suggests wishful thinking.
I’m going to focus on the poll of Tory-Labour marginals because that’s got more constituencies (32 vs 8) and a much bigger sample size – and it’s the one the coverage has focused on.
This is a poll of constituencies the Tories hold, so at the last election, Labour were slightly behind in all of them. Yet now the headline voting intent figure has Labour 13pts ahead*:
But UKIP’s vote is 14% and Labour’s lead is only 13pts, so that means UKIP are the reason Labour are leading in the constituencies, right?
Not even two in five of that 14% who would vote UKIP in the next election voted Tory in 2010:
If UKIP were to disappear after the EU elections and the Tories were to be reunited with their lost voters, they would gain just 5.3pts – not nearly enough to overhaul Labour’s lead. And of course if UKIP were to disappear, some of those Labour defectors could return, potentially adding 2pts to Labour’s score. Put those together and the UKIP damage to the Tories is just over 3pts: less than a quarter of Labour’s lead.
This isn’t to say Labour’s lead in these constituencies is secure. Out of the main parties it has kept the highest proportion of its 2010 voters, and of course it’s had a sizeable chunk of people who abandoned the Lib Dems after the coalition was agreed. But it also has the largest number of people who didn’t vote in 2010**:
These people have already said in the poll that they’re going to vote at the next election, but the high proportion of people who didn’t vote in 2010 is a risk if they regularly don’t turn up at elections (though some are probably first-time voters). And of course there are other reasons the Labour vote may fall.
But the idea that UKIP is the reason the Tories are behind in these key marginals is just not true – or at best it’s a quarter of the truth.
* There’s a separate voting intent question that encourages respondents to think about their particular constituency. This might be a better guide of how people will actually vote when push comes to shove, but I’m not using it here because I’d rather stick with something that’s comparable with other polls. Anyway, UKIP’s vote is smaller there and Labour’s lead is larger.
** The tables don’t show exactly what proportion of those “Other/Didn’t vote” were non-voters in 2010 (they need to be weighted by turnout), but the raw numbers suggest they’re overwhelmingly non-voters and that more than half of those who didn’t vote in 2010 but would now, would now vote Labour.
Since launching in the UK in May 2012, Change.org – the world’s largest petition site – has seen its UK user base grow to almost 3 million people, starting, joining and winning campaigns on issues they care about.
What makes some petitions fly and why do some not catch the imagination? Here are my ten top tips for using the site to win your campaign.
1. Tell your story
When Nic Hughes died of cancer and his life insurance company refused his family’s claim, his best friend Kester wanted to fight for justice. Kester didn’t bother explaining the in-and -outs of the insurance claim, he simply told the story of his incredible friend and the family he left behind. It was enough to get 60,000 backers who helped secure a pay-out for the Hughes family. Not everyone loves causes – but we all love a story. Tell yours.
2. Don’t be so formal
“We the undersigned” is the least engaging first sentence ever. The best petitions on Change.org read like a news story not a policy briefing. Be engaging and use simple language – it won’t just be your supporters that understand the issue better, it will probably be more convincing to the decision makers to.
3. It’s not a petition, it’s a community
Everyone that signs your petition is someone saying ‘I agree with you and I want to help’. Get them to help you. You can email the people that sign your petition through Change.org so think about what you can ask them to do. Kester got his supporters to call up the insurance company, Caroline got women to dress up as historical figures and turn up outside the Bank of England. You’ll often be surprised by the enthusiasm of your supporters.
4. Don’t get hung up on numbers
Thanks to the government’s e-petition site, 100,000 signers has become a defacto figure for petition success. The parliamentary debate idea is a myth (lots of petitions lower than 100k have been discussed; while lots at 100k haven’t). It’s not the numbers on your petition that matter, it’s the campaign that goes with it. The vast majority of winning campaigns on Change.org have far less than 100k supporters.
5. It’s not all about Twitter
Forget Stephen Fry’s Twitter feed (as lovely as he is) building movements online is about storytelling, Facebook and email. If you really want to get your campaign trending on Twitter or get a bunch of new signers – send an email. Twitter is where you can speak to media and celebs but Facebook and email are better for new signers and engagement. Use them all.
6. Find the little big thing
When the Bank of England announced that Elizabeth Fry would no longer be on a five pound note Caroline Criado Perez thought it said something profound about how women’s’ achievements are celebrated. She won her now infamous campaign and by doing so inspired a huge media debate about sexism. Big issues are important, but can be tough to make sound urgent. Think about the little thing that makes the big thing come to life.
7. React fast
When Jo, a sexual abuse survivor, heard that a lawyer and judge had referred to an abuse victim as “predatory” she started a petition. It was up and running before the press have even picked up the story. By that afternoon she had thousands of supporters, the next day she was telling her story to the media and soon charities and the Prime Minister spoke out in support. Less than 48 hours later she had won her campaign.
8. Put yourself in the target’s shoes to change their mind
Take some time to think about who is the most important decision maker you are trying to reach and what motivates them – their brand, customers, voters. Then break down your campaign to target each of those elements.
9. Celebrate every win
What motivates supporters is winning. If you get a result, even if it is small, tell them and celebrate it. Releasing the power you have to make change is addictive and gets people coming back for more.
10. Victory comes in lots of forms: be agile
IDS doesn’t live on £53 per week. Lucy hasn’t won her campaign to get topless images off Page 3 – but both campaigns have had impact in different ways. For one week in April the debate on welfare shifted – while for twelve months media sexsim has been highlighted through Lucy’s campaign. Embrace progress, report it back to supporters and keep campaigning.
Imagine you get a phone call at 6am each morning, to tell you if you’ll get any work – or pay – each day. You’re awake, dressed, waiting, then it’s “stand down”. That can happen five days in a row, and you’ll get to the end of the week without a penny coming in to your pocket.
Imagine you’ve got to arrange childcare whenever you have to go to work – and you only get a couple of hours’ notice that you have to go to work. That’s not a situation that far too many British workers have to imagine – that’s their reality.
All of those cases I was told about by audiences to whom I’d been speaking about zero-hours contracts. And they’ve strengthened my conviction that these contracts should be banned.
It’s an issue that I’ve been addressing since I was elected Green Party leader almost a year ago, and I’ve noticed a trend. When I first asked meetings “do you know what zero-hours contracts are?”, I’d get lots of head-shaking, and would need to explain. Yet in the past month or two, that’s rare – in part no doubt because of publicity about the issue, but also it seems because the employment practice is spreading fast.
It’s still most common, and most known, in the sectors in which it began, in retail and care. And defenders of zero-hours contracts, like this Telegraph leader, which claims “many people have to take uncertain, unskilled jobs is because they lack the training to do anything else”. And many of the high-profile cases that have emerged in recent days, McDonald’s and Subway, and Sports Direct, have been in retail.
But – ignoring the question of whether caring for vulnerable elderly, disabled or young people really is something that should be regarded as an “uncertain, unskilled” job (or for the fact that other countries treat retailing as a proper career) – that’s a misunderstanding.
For these contracts are spreading like a disease among a wide range of workers, from academics, to IT professionals, to accountants, to lawyers, to doctors and nurses.
One claim often made about these contracts – indeed it was made yesterday morning by Ruth Porter of the Institute for Economic Affairs when we debated the issue on BBC Radio Ulster– is that they are desperately needed by struggling small businesses. But that’s belied by the facts – it’s 23% of workplaces with more than 100 employees that are using them, and only 6% of the businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
Yes, there are a few workers who these contracts suit perfectly, and they might be disadvantaged by a ban. But the cost of having them available to employers, and used with abandon, far exceeds any benefit.
Flexibility can be maintained without leaving workers trapped, as Larry Elliot in the Guardian said, in a digitised version of the early 19tt century dockers line-up. Seasonal contracts, contracts with guaranteed hours that are flexible about when those hours are worked and allow staff to take other jobs as well, we might look at the German model which demands that a maximum of 25% of a contract can be flexible hours.
The Green Party is calling for zero-hours contracts to be banned, as part of a broader shake up of our labour laws. What we need from our economy are jobs that workers can build their life on – that pay a living wage.
Then workers can rent homes, start families, think about mortgages – or at the very least be certain of being able to pay for food and essential bills at the end of the week.
Last week saw the release of all registered parties’ finances for 2012, as well as Q1 figures for 2013.
It was gold dust for politics geeks. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), the media chose to ignore pretty much all of the data, probably due to all the much more newsworthy story of a couple having a baby.
The press did pick up on Labour’s finances, noting it received the most donations out of any party after raking in over £33m). Yet this fails to note that the total was in reality a fair bit higher than that due to the existence of the Co-operative Party, which only runs candidates jointly with Labour – effectively adding over £1m to Labour’s spending. So £34m spent, with not much of a boost for Miliband.
There are some much more interesting findings altogether ignored. Here’s the top ten:
1) The BNP remains heavily in debt (despite claims by Nick Griffin that it’s on the mend), with over £356,000 in liabilities. While a slight improvement on its previous £541k of debt, in relation to its income (nearly £650k) it still equates to the party being 55% in the red.
2) UKIP’s rise isn’t really reflected in its 2012 finances after bringing in £1.23m, only slightly up on its £1.07m in 2011. And it spent just over a million pounds, little up on its £971k the year before. So its surge in membership and support doesn’t seem to have translated immediately into hard cash. On the other hand, it looks like it’s building up a substantial-ish fighting fund for the 2015 election (see here). Thus far it’s amassed over £323k, tripling its 2011 assets of £104k. Keep your eye out for a continuing trend in 2014 in the run-up to the election.
3) The SNP’s income plummeted last year from over £5m in 2011 to just over £2.3m. That doesn’t bode well for its independence hopes. It’s also reflected in its expenditure, which went from £3.45m in 2011 to £2.66m last year. It does have half a million quid in reserves, meaning the SNP could be gearing up for a big referendum campaign spending spree in 2014. Or it could reflect its activists and independence supporters tunnelling funds directly into the Yes to Independence campaign. Check out the dramatic graph anyway.
4) A mixed picture for the Welsh nationalists, with Plaid Cymru racking up £683k in income and spending £594k of it – yet with similar assets to that of UKIP of £318k. Why does a Welsh-only party have the same amount in the kitty as a UK-wide party polling double that of the Liberal Democrats?
5) The Green Party of England and Wales is on the up, remaining one of the only parties to spend less than it brings in. Basically, the Greens know how to ‘balance the books’. Scoring some steady gains in local government, the party ran a pretty tight ship on an income of £781k (not much more than the collapsing BNP’s £650k), and spent £745k. Not bad work.
6) Things aren’t great for the Liberal Democrats. They’ve gone from holding nearly £2m of assets in 2006 to being £1.15m in the red today. At the same time, their income has gone from £10m in 2010 (at the peak of Cleggmania) to £6.4m today, a collapse of more than a third. The phrase ‘terminal decline’ comes to mind.
7) Labour are actually much less in debt than the Conservatives. Says a lot about Osborne’s economic policies both for the country and his own party…
8) The Communist Party of Britain seems to be doing reasonably (especially given it sort of disbanded at the start of the 1990s), with an income of £123k while spending over £129k in 2012 – leading some to ask how it was planning to make up the shortfall: Keynesian stimulus or ruthless austerity? Either way it’s unclear what they spend it on given they rarely stand candidates. Either way we won’t know who funds them since they stopped registering large donations in mid-2009 (check it yourself here).
9) The ~200 member strong Socialist Party of Great Britain, not to be confused with the much larger Socialist Party of England and Wales (hold off the People’s Front of Judea jokes…), raked in a £295,775 donation early this year from a certain Mr. Stanley Robert Parker. He’s a published sociologist (cited on Wikipedia, no less). In fact, his donation is the 7th largest party donation of the whole first quarter of 2013. The same chap also gave them £150k at the end of 2012.
10) Company donations made up over 40% of UKIP’s income in the first part of the year, a higher proportion than any other party (the Lib Dems ranking second at nearly 25%, with the Tories on less than a fifth).
Josiah Mortimer is an activist and Politics student – @josiahmortimer
So the #RoyalBaby has arrived. Congratulations to the Duchess of Cambridge and her husband.
Already tired of the preposterous media circus? Frustrated by the sycophancy? Here’s a constructive way of looking at the coverage:
You know how people like Michael Gove and David Starkey bang on about the importance of monarchs past? The traditionalists say that our Kings and Queens are useful milestones, markers or entry points to the wider social history.
Well, that can be true for future monarchs, too.
The baby boy born yesterday is now the perfect future milestone for discussions of the country we are making. He will likely begin his reign in the last decades of the twenty-first century.
That’s precisely the kind of planning horizon we need to sensibly discuss issues like climate change, technological innovation and population control.
Want to say something about the birth of this child? Set it in future historical context.
On #RoyalBaby media coverage: let's hope at least it prompts a load of 'what will the UK be like when little XY is King?'
— robertsharp59 (@robertsharp59) July 22, 2013
Last Thursday the BBC released a video of 83-year-old Muriel Price, sobbing pitiful protests to an empty house as she lay stranded in her bed, her agency carer having failed to turn up to work. Her quiet desperation painted a shameful picture of how little our society values the elderly and vulnerable.
I found it hard to watch Muriel’s video, but wasn’t remotely surprised by the content. Just as with other recent care scandals in the UK, the pattern of failure and neglect was all too familiar to me.
I stumbled into agency care work as a 19 year old looking for employment that required neither qualifications nor experience. After two days of basic food hygiene and health and safety training I was sent to out support young adults with learning difficulties in day centres and residential homes for £5 an hour. I was utterly unprepared for the demanding work. Some of my clients had extreme behavioural difficulties; no one had told me what I should do when a charge of the same body mass as me bit an old woman in a shopping centre for example, or kicked children in a playground.
There was also little support; often I’d be left bathing, changing and moving clients alone, when for safety reasons these should have been two-person jobs. This was backbreaking work for me, and often humiliating for the person being cared for. Then there would be the times at the end of an exhausting 7am – 3pm shift when my manager would call and inform me he hadn’t managed to find cover for the afternoon and I’d have to do a ‘double’ sixteen hour day.
Although most of my colleagues were diligent and genuinely caring, I regularly witnessed malpractice. In one care home, waking night staff would tie emergency alarm cords out of reach of disabled residents, leaving them crying impotently for help in the night as the staff would catch up on sleep. I saw teenagers with learning difficulties locking in rooms for hours to ‘cool down’, by staff who’d had no training to deal with their complex needs.
Then there was the casual neglect. I’d regularly come on shift to find that an incontinent client had not been changed in the preceding 8 hours, or incapacitated clients who should have been up, washed and dressed had instead been left in bed while their carers watched TV.
To my great shame as an awkward 19 year old I never spoke up or reported wrongdoing. I did the best I could and kept my head down. I also saw the futility of complaining about individuals; this wasn’t about a few bad eggs, it was a systematic problem. We were all undertrained, underpaid and overstressed. I knew that colleagues who were negligent were also exhausted by erratic shift patterns, long commutes between different jobs and the usual stresses of trying to feed their families below the poverty line.
As frontline workers, we were also in the firing line for the failings of more senior staff; either our own managers or thinly spread social-workers. If something did go wrong or if our company lost contracts we knew that as agency workers we could be sacked at a moments notice.
The net result of all this was a sense that our work was unimportant. To many, care work was just another insecure stop on a merry-go-round of crap, poorly paid jobs and occasional spells on the dole.
It shouldn’t be like this.
Caring isn’t just another job; it is a vital component of a civilised society. The justifiable public outrage at widespread substandard care is testament to this. And despite all the stress, the antisocial hours, the lack of training or support and the rubbish pay, in many ways I loved my job. I got a buzz from enabling people to lead fuller lives than their circumstances would otherwise allow. At times the work could be genuinely rewarding and even fun. I’d go home drained, but feeling far more fulfilled than I had in the mind numbing call centre job I had paid my rent with up till then. Caring should be a vocation, but the current framework denies workers the support and security to make this possible.
Norman Lamb MP, Minister for Care and Support, has recently called for recommendations on how to reform the care system, stating the need for sweeping change. This is encouraging, but really the recipe for reform is very simple and is already working in other countries.
A few years ago I met a Swedish woman who had recently qualified as a care worker after two years of formal training. She was on a decent salary and was employed directly by the state on a permanent contract. She also had opportunities for further training and education to develop her career in the sector. She felt valued and supported and consequently took her job very seriously.
In Sweden, caring is a profession. In the UK it’s a dead end.
The neglect experienced by Muriel Price was not inflicted by one lazy carer; it is systemic neglect which implicates our priorities as a society. If we take the care of our most vulnerable seriously we need to invest in carers, giving them the tools and support to do their job properly and pay which reflects the demands of their vital work.
Joe Cottrell-Boyce is a Policy Officer at the ICB’s Traveller’s Project
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