Learning Disabilities & Autism Opinion

The lack of value placed upon our exceptional workforce MUST change

Edel Harris, Chief Executive of Mencap

Royal Mencap Society was founded by families to campaign for the support and inclusion of people with a learning disability within society, and we continue that mission today as a campaigning organisation and as a provider of social care and housing to thousands of people with a learning disability across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Our work is all about people, so when I heard the recent narrative around the post Brexit immigration plans and the Government talking about an “unskilled” workforce, it made me, like other care providers across the sector, really cross.

The Government was basically classifying social care workers as unskilled – Unskilled? My colleagues are trusted every day with people’s lives. They are trained to provide medication, to undertake peg feeding, to deal with seizures and administer first aid. They help people manage their finances, their health, their wellbeing and they provide emotional support. They operate in a highly regulated sector and have to understand health and safety, mental capacity and deprivation of liberty law, safeguarding and often how to positively manage challenging behaviour.

My colleagues at Mencap were understandably shocked and appalled and their anger and indignation has been voiced loud and clear across our internal channels. Its now my job to take that message to Parliament and ensure that Government better understands the vital work our care workers do.

When our Prime Minister visited one of our services in his constituency earlier this year, he saw for himself that our care workers are exceptional – they work very hard, doing a skilled and at times difficult job and they care deeply about the people they support.   It isn’t a career you enter in to ‘for the money’.   Most people who work in social care do it for the job satisfaction; knowing you have made a difference and because they are committed to making life better for the people they support. As one of my colleagues recently told me ‘no matter who you are, the biggest and most skilful thing you can do in any day is often going to be a small act of kindness, decency or love for people who need it.’

In a sector where we are already struggling to fill approximately 110,000 vacancies at any one time in England and with a staff turnover rate of 30%, this kind of language from Government is most definitely not helping.

We need to change people’s perceptions about what it means to work in adult social care and improve the sector’s image as a long-term career option. We need Government support to recruit the right people with the right values to increase staff retention.

The Government’s response to the concerns raised by the sector was to say that employers should pay their staff more, to which we in the sector replied ‘with what?’   To me this showed a real lack of understanding of how social care is commissioned and funded in the UK. A fact made even more frustrating when Social Care was largely ignored in the budget. However as tempting as it is to run through a social care equivalent of ‘There’s a hole in my bucket’ – a funding conversation right now misses the point.

I look forward to seeing a cross-government plan on transforming the social care system to deliver the long-promised change and I pray that any reference to the workforce does not continue to reinforce the low skill, low pay narrative. This is simply a convenient narrative when funding is tight.

Edel Harris





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