Cases of abuse have cast a shadow over the care industry. Photo: John Moore
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“We’re almost sneered at by society”: a care worker on her stigmatised profession

Steve Doran has worked at a care home in Dartford for four years, but she believes that a concentration on abuse cases has blighted the reputation of her industry.

In early 2011, a BBC Panorama investigation into one care home on the fringes of Bristol unveiled systemic abuse. Using covert filming at the Winterbourne View residential centre, reporters uncovered how patients with severe learning difficulties and autism were being slapped and restrained under chairs, having their hair pulled and being held down as medication was forced into their mouths. Hours of graphic footage recorded during the five-week investigation showed one support worker, Wayne Rogers, telling a resident: “Do you want to get a cheese grater and grate your face off? Do you want me to turn you into a giant pepperoni?” Following the report, six care workers at the care home were given prison terms for “cruel, callous and degrading” abuse of disabled patients.

“We were all horrified,” says 28-year-old Steve Doran. “On the rare occasion when these abuses do happen, we’re more appalled than the general public and even more keen to see the abuser brought to justice,” she adds. For four years, Doran has cared for vulnerable people – particularly those with dementia – at the Priory Mews care home in Dartford as an activities coordinator. “A lot of people just assume I’m doing crossword puzzles and singalongs. I mean, there is part of that. But it’s mainly one-to-one engagement, having a conversation, speech therapy and talking through things – basically anything a resident would need to lead a happy, meaningful life.” 

She remembers one elderly lady at the Dartford care home with a particular fondness. “One of the things she said to me is that she always wanted to have a white wedding,” says Doran. “She was married to her husband just after the Second World War, and didn’t have a lot of money or time – so they just had a simple registry office wedding. They’d always said, ‘One day in the future we’ll go back and have a big white wedding.’ We knew this old lady was approaching the end of her life so our care home organised them to have this white wedding they’d always dreamed of.

“We arranged for her a proper white wedding dress, we did her hair and we got her these beautiful silk wedding slippers. Sadly, she passed away a few days later. But just after the wedding she said to me that she had never felt so young and beautiful."

But Doran believes that a concentration on odious cases of abuse in care homes have created an environment where care workers are “almost sneered at by society”, and that somewhere along the line the public has, “mentally linked the care industry with abuse.”

“We’re not saying that those things shouldn’t ever be given attention, or shouldn’t be focused on – they absolutely should,” adds Doran. “But that’s not all there is to care. The only thing you ever see on television is when there is abuse.” 

Recently the Care Quality Commission (CQC) – the independent regulator of health and social care in England – published information for service users, families and carers on the use of hidden cameras and other types of recording equipment. A document released with the CQC’s guidance notes said that while using recording equipment may help to ease families’ concerns, it may also help identify poor care or abuse. It adds: “However, you should think about how it may intrude on other people’s privacy, including other people who use the service, staff, families and visiting professionals.

It is not so much the issue of surveillance that bothers Doran, she tells me. And according to a recent survey of 2,000 members of the GMB union, three in five residential care workers feel “relaxed” about visible cameras being installed in care homes. “If there was a law saying that we’re now going to film in care homes, schools, police stations and anywhere else there are vulnerable people, I wouldn’t really have much of an issue.”

But Doran takes issue with the fact that there hasn’t been a “collective raising of eyebrows” following the CQC guidance. She believes that there’s an underlying assumption that care is a dodgy industry and that carers can’t be trusted on their own merits.

“I don’t hear anyone suggesting that we covertly film all employees of the BBC, even though we can demonstrate abuse has happened in that institution. I don’t hear anyone suggesting we covertly monitor the banks, for who tax avoidance and dodgy dealing is not so much a rare abuse as a business model. The people who work in these industries expect to be viewed as more than the failings of their colleagues – but won’t give the same credit to people working in the care industry.

“We haven’t caused the issues affecting care – as a matter of face, we’ve compensated them. We’ve continued to work long hours, on low pay, in stressful situations, under constant scrutiny, to even more ridiculous targets,” adds Doran. According to recent research from the Resolution Foundation, about 160,000 care workers are paid less than the minimum wage – meaning they miss out on £815 a year on average. But it is a job that Doran wants to dedicate her life too. She wants her profession to be viewed with the dignity and respect that it deserves, not the callous actions of a minority and of those who once worked at the Winterbourne residential centre. 

Ashley Cowburn writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2014. He tweets @ashcowburn

 

 

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The DUP scored £1bn for just ten votes – so why be optimistic about our EU deal?

By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of laws and treaties with 27 ­countries.

If Theresa May’s government negotiates with the European Union as well as it negotiated with the Democratic Unionist Party, it’s time to cross your fingers and desperately hope you have a secret ­Italian grandfather. After all, you’ll be wanting another passport when all this is over.

The Northern Irish party has played an absolute blinder, securing not only £1bn in extra funding for the region, but ensuring that the cash is handed over even if the power-sharing agreement or its Westminster confidence-and-supply arrangement fails.

At one point during the negotiations, the DUP turned their phones off for 36 hours. (Who in Westminster knew it was physically possible for a human being to do this?) Soon after, needling briefings emerged in the media that they were also talking to Labour and the Lib Dems. In the end, they’ve secured a deal where they support the government and get the Short money available only to opposition parties. I’m surprised Arlene Foster didn’t ask for a few of the nicer chairs in Downing Street on her way out.

How did this happen? When I talked to Sam McBride of the Belfast News Letter for a BBC radio programme days before the pact was announced, he pointed out that the DUP are far more used to this kind of rough and tumble than the Conservatives. Northern Irish politics is defined by deal-making, and the DUP need no reminder of what can happen to minnows in a multiparty system if they don’t convince their voters of their effectiveness.

On 8 June, the DUP and Sinn Fein squeezed out Northern Ireland’s smaller parties, such as the SDLP and the Alliance, from the region’s Westminster seats. (McBride also speculated on the possibility of trouble ahead for Sinn Fein, which ran its campaign on the premise that “abstentionism works”. What happens if an unpopular Commons vote passes that could have been defeated by its seven MPs?)

The DUP’s involvement in passing government bills, and the price the party has extracted for doing so, are truly transformative to British politics – not least for the public discussion about austerity. That turns out to be, as we suspected all along, a political rather than an economic choice. As such, it becomes much harder to defend.

Even worse for the government, southern Europe is no longer a basket case it can point to when it wants to scare us away from borrowing more. The structural problems of the eurozone haven’t gone away, but they have receded to the point where domestic voters won’t see them as a cautionary tale.

It is notable that the Conservatives barely bothered to defend their economic record during the election campaign, preferring to focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s spending plans. In doing so, they forgot that many of those who voted Leave last year – and who were confidently expected to “come home” to the Conservatives – did so because they wanted £350m a week for the NHS. The Tories dropped the Cameron-era argument of a “long-term economic plan” that necessitated short-term sacrifices. They assumed that austerity was the New Normal.

However, the £1bn the government has just found down the back of the sofa debunks that, and makes Conservative spending decisions for the rest of the parliament fraught. With such a slim majority, even a small backbench rebellion – certainly no bigger than the one that was brewing over tax-credit cuts until George Osborne relen­ted – could derail the Budget.

One of the worst points of Theresa May’s election campaign was on the BBC ­Question Time special, when she struggled to tell a nurse why her pay had risen so little since 2009. “There isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want,” the Prime Minister admonished. Except, of course, there is a magic money tree, and May has just given it a damn good shake and scrumped all the cash-apples that fell from it.

That short-term gain will store up long-term pain, if the opposition parties are canny enough to exploit it. In the 2015 election, the claim that the SNP would demand bungs from Ed Miliband to prop up his government was a powerful argument to voters in England and Wales that they should vote Conservative. Why should their hospitals and schools be left to moulder while the streets of Paisley were paved in gold?

The attack also worked because it was a proxy for concerns about Miliband’s weakness as a leader. Well, it’s hard to think of a prime minister in a weaker position than May is right now. The next election campaign will make brutal use of this.

Northern Ireland might deserve a greater wodge of redistribution than the Barnett formula already delivers – it has lower life expectancy, wages and productivity than the British average – but the squalid way the money has been delivered will haunt the Tories. It also endangers one of the Conservatives’ crucial offers to their base: that they are the custodians of “sound money” and “living within our means”.

Labour, however, has not yet quite calibrated its response to the DUP’s new-found influence. Its early attacks focused on the party’s social conservatism, pointing out that it is resolutely anti-abortion and has repeatedly blocked the extension of equal marriage through “petitions of concern” at Stormont.

This tub-thumping might have fired up Labour’s socially progressive supporters in the rest of the UK, but it alienated some in Northern Ireland who resent their politicians being seen as fundamentalist yokels. (Only they get to call the DUP that: not Londoners who, until three weeks ago, thought Arlene Foster was the judge who got sacked from Strictly Come Dancing.)

And remember: all this was to get just ten MPs onside. By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of legislation and treaties with 27 other European ­countries. Ha. Hahaha. Hahaha.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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