Social care is in crisis: everyone knows that. And everyone knows that if nothing is done about the long-term sustainability of the sector, then the crisis will only get worse. But less well-known is that there is a short-term crisis looming that could threaten the sector very quickly, too.
Over the past few years, the sector has been trying to work out the implications of a court ruling that carers who stay overnight are entitled to the minimum wage for their sleep-in shifts, rather than a flat rate fee for a ‘sleep-in’ shift. This has been made rather more difficult by the government issuing guidance on the ruling which didn’t actually clarify the matter at all, only for ministers to announce a scheme last week which gives the sector 15 months to foot the bill for this backpay. The problem is that, along with the delay in working out what to do about the backpay, the bill itself is rather big. A conservative estimate has it at around £400 million: a figure that is hard to come by at the best of times, but even less so when you don’t have any money to spare and are desperate for a long-term settlement.
Charities such as Mencap say the back pay bill is immensely unfair, not just to providers but to those with disabilities who are given a personalised budget to spend on their care, as they too could be liable to pay tens of thousands of pounds. MPs across the spectrum are worried about this, too: they fear that the size of the bill coupled with no plans for government support for providers to be able to pay it could lead to some providers collapsing. Tory MPs such as Sarah Wollaston and Nicky Morgan are calling on ministers to ensure that there is some kind of funding announced in the Budget, while Labour wants a financial package from central government to stop providers exiting the sector and councils being forced to fill the gaps that are left.
There is no imminent likelihood of a provider going under: the Care Quality Commission has a duty to notify local authorities when larger providers are at risk of collapsing, and so far it has not had to do so. But aside from the delays from government on this specific matter, the fact that it is such a threat to the sector as a whole shows quite how precarious things are overall.