The scandal of low-paid care workers

A New Year’s resolution? Let’s stop paying less than the minimum wage to those who care for the elde

A friend who is a care worker employed by an agency has a moan to me about her work. Repeated 15 minute slots with a client followed by a frantic dash to another part of the city she lives in to do the same again. Care in a hurry, on the cheap. Welcome to home care for growing numbers in Britain: some of our most vulnerable people cared for by a growing number of overly stretched and underpaid workers.

Her first concern is about the always rushed, and often inadequate, care this way of working results in. But, to my initial surprise, she also expresses anger about not getting paid for the travel time that necessarily eats up a large chunk of her working day. She typically makes 40 journeys between clients a week, sometimes 50 (not counting her journey to and from work). "Surely", I say, "you must get paid for this travel time, or else I don't see how you would be getting paid the minimum wage". Indeed.

It's well known that social care is a notoriously low-paying sector, with the Low Pay Commission (LPC) estimating that one in four workers get paid below £6.50 an hour. Far less well known is that many of these workers get paid less than the national minimum wage. A new and authoritative report by Dr Hussein of Kings College London now reveals that, even under extremely conservative assumptions, there are at the very least 150,000 care workers getting paid less than the legal minimum - and quite probably far more.

How is it that the law of the land is being so widely flouted? My friend's pay slip sheds some light, exposing the chaotic system of pay that is the norm for many care workers, especially those working for agencies or private firms: constantly shifting hourly rates of pay - varying dramatically by client, length of each care visit, time of day, and day of the week. The opacity of pay rates makes it hard for those affected to fathom if they are getting their legal minimum; indeed the LPC has suggested that some employers don't themselves understand their own pay systems. A closer examination, together with records kept by my friend of her travel time over a period of a month, suggests there are weeks where she has clearly been paid significantly less than the minimum wage (though there are others where this is not the case). And the real story is worse than the pay slip suggests. She had to pay for her CRB check. There are no travel expenses even though travel is essential ('I couldn't afford to work if I didn't cycle'). Regular mobile phone use is essential to stay in close touch with the office - again, no expenses are paid. It just doesn't pay to care.

In theory the legal position governing the minimum wage is clear: workers should be paid for time spent travelling between clients (apart from between home and their place of work). Less clear is who in government or anywhere else is taking the lead for sorting this out and ensuring that the law is enforced. Awareness of this issue remains very low, this Panorama being an exception, and care workers are not anyone's political priority (can you imagine a Cabinet member, or for that matter the media, making a fuss about this issue as they did about graduate interns?).

All those responsible for this saga claim they have an alibi - which is cold comfort to those being under-paid. The LPC has repeatedly flagged up these sorts of working practices as a concern - though it has never taken it upon itself to make specific recommendations to government about non-compliance which in turn would require Whitehall to make a formal response. HMRC, which is responsible for enforcing the minimum wage, says that it takes any allegation of non-compliance very seriously. But it is yet to prioritise this issue as an area for its 'Dynamic Response Team' (lagging response times suggest that it could be, err, a bit more dynamic; though this is in part due to inadequate resourcing). The problems of the care sector currently fall behind unpaid internships in the queue for HMRC attention; though it is said that the care sector will receive priority at some point in 2012. For their part, local councils argue with some justification that they aren't receiving enough funds to cover the full cost of social care. And the Department of Health, who are ultimately responsible for social care in England, concede that Dr Hussein's report is a 'cause for concern' but maintain that pay is a matter for local employers so it's not really a question for them. All the while, the law on the minimum wage continues to be flouted.

There are lots of injustices in Britain that are so entrenched and complex that they would take a generation to turn around. This isn't one of them. The minimum wage is supposed to be a right, not a nice to have. So here's a resolution that we should stick to: let's make 2012 the year when every care worker gets what they are legally entitled to.

A year on from the Spending Review, the coalition's soothsayer has emerged to offer another gloomy economic prognosis. Asked by ITV News whether he could promise that there wouldn't be a double-dip recession, Vince Cable replied: "I can't do that.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.