Government's £3m social care recruitment scheme set to fall flat without long-delayed reforms, experts warn

Alex Matthews-King

A government recruitment drive to fill more than 100,000 jobs in social care could be doomed to failure because ministers are yet to deliver reforms promised two years ago, experts have warned.

The Department of Health and Social Care has pledged around £3m for adverts and events across England in February and March aimed at highlighting the rewards of a career in social care.

While around 1.45 million people work in social care, an extra 650,000 workers will be needed by 2035 to look after rising numbers of older patients, ministers said.

However, charities and care groups said that the “long overdue” recruitment drive would not be enough without fundamental changes to improve working conditions.

Labour meanwhile, said that the government had “ground down wages” for highly skilled social care staff with a decade of austerity and cuts to council budgets.

However, care minister Caroline Dinenage insisted that spreading the word that care work is “rewarding, varied and worthwhile” would help address the massive demand for staff.

But care experts pointed out that around 400,000 social care workers leave the sector every year – a turnover rate of 30.7 per cent, twice the national average.

As of February 2018, the average hourly rate for care workers in the private sector is £7.82 per hour, a penny less than the national minimum wage for over 25s.

“The recruitment crisis is a symptom, not a cause, of the ongoing funding crisis in the social care sector,” Billy Davis, policy and public affairs manager for Hft, a national charity supporting adults with learning disabilities.

Mr Davis said recognition of the need to recruit was welcome, but the charity’s Pulse Check survey of 56 care providers identified low wages as the biggest barrier to hiring and holding on to staff for 80 per cent of organisations.

It also showed that more than half of providers had to hand back unsustainable contracts last year, while two-thirds expected to do so in future.

George McNamara, director of policy and influencing at Independent Age, said “little job progression, lack of training and perceived lower status compared to similar healthcare roles” were other major issues. “Solely focusing on recruitment, without also addressing staff retention, will severely limit the impact of the campaign,” he added.

While the government promised social care reforms back in 2017, a pledged green paper has been delayed multiple times and still has not got a publication date. Meanwhile staff leave to work in better paid NHS roles or quit altogether.

Negotiations over leaving the European Union (EU) have been one of the factors delaying the reforms and Brexit is set to hit social care staffing particularly hard with one in six care roles is currently filled by overseas staff.

While EU workers - exempt from the visa cap - have filled many of these jobs, the government's pledged crackdowns on low skilled workers after Brexit could create 380,000 vacancies in the next decade, experts have said.

Labour’s shadow health minister for social care, Barbara Keeley, said launching a recruitment drive without fixing the underlying cause of staff shortages showed a “stunning lack of self-awareness” from ministers.

“Nine years of crushing cuts to councils’ funding at a time of unprecedented demand for social care has ground down the wages, terms and conditions of a high-skilled, overworked and underpaid workforce."

The warning comes as a report by the Health Foundation think-tank said staff shortages across the NHS threaten ambitions of the health service ”ten-year plan” to transform services and deliver more care away from hospital.

While the number of hospital-based doctors has continued to grow, the report shows GP numbers fell 1.6 per cent – equivalent to 450 full-time doctors – in the year to September 2018.

Similarly, numbers of nurses and health visitors working in community health services have continued their long-term decline, falling by 1.2 per cent (540 FTE staff) in the year to July 2018.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Our green paper, published shortly, will look at long term sustainable solutions for the adult social care system including how we can recruit and retain a valued workforce.

“In the meantime there is huge demand for more care professionals and we need to spread the word that careers in adult social care can be hugely rewarding, varied and worthwhile."