Here at WLLG we occasionally receive guest posts. Some are funny, others angry, but sometimes, just sometimes, we get one which hits us hard and makes us sit up and take notice. This is one of those posts. It was sent in anonymously and will stay that way, but that doesn’t mean it is anything other than very real.
Rachel looked after my wife’s gran when she was dying. She works for a private sector care agency and mainly supports people with significant dementia in their homes. She is compassionate, sensitive, incredibly hard working and skint. In the winter she can’t afford to fill her oil tank. She worries about how much her son will spend on his phone each month; margins are tight in all respects. Rachel comes and cleans for me for two hours a week. She does this because the care agency that employs her has changed her full time contract to a “zero hours” contract. This is now the industry norm due to decreasing income from private fee payers and public sector bodies. When the work is there she gets paid. When it isn’t she has to find alternative means of earning. Assuming a typical 20 hour week, I estimate she earns somewhere in the region of £8k per annum, with no holiday pay and only statutory sick pay. Her hours are variable, often late nights and weekend shifts are necessary. Rachel (with no hint of complaint) told me that she supports a widower with dementia to go shopping. His needs have become more complex and a shopping trip (his only time out of the house each week) takes two hours instead of one. She referred this to her care agency; that in turn referred it to social services who confirmed it is not part of the essential needs identified in her care plan. Net result she delivers the second hour of care and support in her own time for no pay.
“If I leave him inside he gets more frustrated and it doesn’t help his pressure sores.”
I am a senior manager in Local Government. I earn c. £70-75k per annum, receive 35 days annual leave a year and have a pension that I pay 7.2% of my earnings into and my employer matches my contribution. Like Rachel I work long hours; typically a 60 hour week; sometimes more. I do not receive overtime pay but the gulf between my pay and working conditions and Rachel’s is vast. The Local Authority I work for offer care and support for people with substantial and critical needs. We have to ration the number of people we support each week as over £20m has been removed from our operating budget over the past four years. Just as much will need to come out again over the next four years (up to 45% of the budget in all will have evaporated.)
There are hundreds of stories like Rachel’s and the people she cares for that I don’t even know about. I constantly ask myself whether my work matters anywhere near as much as hers and feel shame that she doesn’t earn a fair living wage. Organisations such as the care provider she works for and the Local Authority are responsible due to available finance and terms and conditions of contract. MPs, who are familiar with financial constraints facing Councils, have recently expressed “concern” about zero hours contracts. Locally we have yet to identify a single penny to enable me to ban the Council from contracting with organisations that use them. I would love nothing more, for Rachel, for every Care Worker working in our area who deserve so much more, as do the people they support.
One of the key people in my own life was Pop, my paternal grandfather. Raised in a pub, he started working at the age of 11; he also raised his sister who had learning disabilities. She died aged 12. Pop was so distraught by her loss that after the funeral he never spoke about her again. Pop was a big man, people loved him- he had an ease and unassuming nature about him; a cracking smile and a big heart. He looked like Tommy Cooper and disarmed people just as quickly. He was a product of a rigid class system and believed those higher up were his betters. He built a successful building company and then his own home. He became well off but he always doffed his cap; physically and mentally, to people with more elaborate and honed accents. In his eulogy his friend said he always put others and service ahead of himself (it reduces me to tears writing this; I haven’t come to terms with his loss several years on). I am the proud product of a police officer and a teacher. This did little for playground popularity but instilled the need for service in a different way….
I started my working life as a care worker. I remember the pressure of delivering care against the clock whilst trying to care for someone at their pace. I remember the good times when enabling someone to rediscover a lost skill; calming someone on the verge of self-harming; building confidence with people who had none. I enjoyed seeing the direct impact of work on a day to day basis. I also remember being poor (though coming from a middle class family I can never claim to have been truly poor), working ridiculous hours, not having time on weekends for friends and family. On bad days also remember feeling like I was a vessel. Hands and feet for people who couldn’t use their own anymore; conversations on a permanent loop; endless pills of different colours, shapes and sizes and the stench of vomit, shit and the fug of urine clinging to the walls in residential homes. From time to time I look back and wish I was able to spend more time caring; most of the time when I see Rachel I feel guilt, and shame, and relief.
I remember reading a post online by a woman living locally. Her husband had Alzheimer’s. The local Alzheimer’s cafe served as her respite for two hours a week. It was closed due to cuts in grant funding. She commented:
“My lifeline has gone; I am alone. No-one has explained why the cafe has shut. Doubtless some suit I will never meet will write a strategy to tell me what I need. I know the cafe isn’t coming back.”
I am the person that writes strategies like that. I am the person who will have to decide where to find the savings from. I am The Suit. I constantly try and apply the so-what test to everything I do. I am my own greatest critic. I encourage Officers to spend time in communities, understand the real issues and see what positive difference we can make. None of this matters to the lady who lost her cafe.
When you work in Local Government you have to accept constant criticism: from politicians, from families, from carers, the media, the voluntary sector, disability rights organisations, the list goes on and on. You have to learn the value of criticism and you have to be open and honest about what you can and can’t do. As resilient as any individual can be; criticism can have a cumulative effect. It can cause isolation, persecution complexes and institutional behaviour. We can all hide behind process and forms and hierarchy. The national media obsesses about social care when there is a high profile case of abuse; when the system fails; when things fall apart. Social workers take children away, are disproportionate about risk. Someone suffers… no-one cares the subtext is always the same. Rachel’s story and the work of thousands like her matters jack shit to them. This angers me intensely and then you read that Daniel Pelka died weighing 1.5 stone and you understand the need for the story to be told. It also makes me want to scream until my throat bleeds. I suppose most of us feel that way.
I couldn’t be a children’s social worker. The truth is most of us couldn’t. It is a no-win job and everyone despises you. You take someone out of harms reach and put them in an institutional setting that will probably ruin life-chances and instil hatred that takes years to shift. I have seen many things that have reduced me to tears in social care; human beings that do the most appalling things to one another; broken people and shattered lives. I can’t cope with kids “too near the bone and it’s too close to home.” (Morrissey.)
There is much we can do better. Local Gov is great at new initiatives and poor at stopping stuff. We are irrational bureaucracies and we overcomplicate things. We can lose sight of what really matters to communities without ever intending to. The weight of offering hope as a leader is challenging. To be credible you can’t overpromise but you have to expect more. You expect more from people who can feel despised and unloved by the world at large, who generally don’t earn much and constantly fear loss of work. This is true for any care organisation (and beyond) at present.
I draw great inspiration from the The Spirit of ’45. The most visionary people of the past 70 years in British politics. From 1945 to 1950 they were the creators of the welfare state, NHS, national rail infrastructure. The list goes on. Bound by a sense of the collective they created and delivered a different, fairer version of society and made the country a better place by any measure. I am so proud my grandparents were part of building it and love them all the more for it. In 1945 they created wonderful things with the country in a heap of rubble on the floor with no money knocking around. “You don’t need eyes to see, you need vision.” (Maxi Jazz)
Where does this leave me? Well I refuse to give in, despite the frankly ridiculous challenges, and I will encourage people to fight with me. And yes fight does feel like the right bloody word.
What drives me absolutely insane is the unfairness in all of this. People gambling with money they didn’t own brings the economy to its knees. We have no credible political vision. We will ride this slump out until fracking or trident or god-knows-what picks the economy up. We will rely on markets again; banks are bigger than governments and we will be back here again. The opposition can’t articulate an alternative. I am not calling for violent revolution. I just feel the lack of leadership politically; the lack of vision; the lack of fairness; decency and equality. I want something to sign up to and be driven by. I want the same hope I am trying to offer others. I want someone to tell Rachel she matters, she is valued and she is going to get paid properly. I want to hear about her great holiday; I want the bumper to be fitted back on her car. Above all I want the work that I do to matter and make a difference to people’s lives; only then will the internal critic of self-doubt and guilt quieten down for a while. I want us all to be operating according to the principles of serving others before self.
Courtesy of a guest blogger at We Love Local Government