Social care providers have blasted the practice of “zero hours commissioning” by local authorities across North Wales.
According to Care Forum Wales, the way domiciliary care was procured and the tendering processes that were unfit for purpose meant that zero hours contracts were the only viable option in many cases.
Even so, the constant pressure by councils to drive down prices through the procurement process meant an increasing number of companies were either going out of business or having to hand the contracts back because they were not sustainable.
Chair Mario Kreft MBE was speaking as the Welsh Government announced plans to curb the use of zero-hours contracts and protect care time in the social care sector, have been unveiled by the Welsh Government.
Mr Kreft also called for an end to 15-minute calls for all but the most simple of tasks like prompting clients to take their medication.
Under proposals being put out to consultation, employers will need to offer workers in the domiciliary care sector on zero-hours contracts the choice of moving to a minimum hours contract after three months of continued employment, if there is ongoing demand for the work.
Measures to tackle ‘call-clipping’ have also been announced. The proposals would require providers of domiciliary care to differentiate clearly between travel time and care time when preparing employees’ schedules, giving due regard to issues such as the distance between visits and rush hour traffic. This would help to ensure that care time – and therefore the quality of care – is not eroded.
According to Mr Kreft, the Welsh Government had chosen the wrong starting point for reform.
He believes the way social services are commissioned needs to be fundamentally changed because it was forcing providers to use zero hours contracts.
Mr Kreft said: “The chronic problems afflicting the domiciliary care sector run far deeper than the issue of zero hours contracts.
“Domiciliary care in Wales is mired in crisis and these proposals will do nothing to address the serious issues which are resulting in companies either closing down or relinquishing contracts because they are just not viable.
“In Wrexham, one company was forced to hand back a nearly £1 million contract to the council because it was costing them money to provide a service that was totally unsustainable – but they were meeting all the criteria the Welsh Government are calling for as part of the consultation.
“The situation was made impossible because, in the event, they were offered half the hours they had tendered for and the contract included around 700 15-minute calls a week.
“We need to tackle this issue head on. There needs to be a root and branch review of the system and a fundamental change in the way services are commissioned.
“As things stand, the procurement process being used by most local authorities are driving prices and standards down. It’s the economics of the lowest common denominator where the interests of vulnerable people are being sold down the river.
“Other European countries have had the sense to exclude social care from procurement processes that are designed purely to keep prices down. That is all well and good when you’re buying widgets for the Ministry of Defence or desks for education.
“The reality is that a lot of people like the flexibility of the current arrangements because they can pick up as many hours as they want because it is so difficult to recruit people.
“The recruitment problems are largely down to the low rates of pay dictated by the commissioning process – you can get more for stacking supermarket shelves.
“In social care, we are dealing with real people who are very vulnerable and the services to look after them should be commissioned accordingly. That needs to be the starting point for everything.
“The domiciliary care workforce is one of the wonders of Wales and is greatly value by the providers but not by local government who procure the services with zero hours commissioning.
“Local authorities need to be business-friendly and work with providers to ensure the services are sustainable and that their workforce can be properly paid for the invaluable service they provide in communities across Wales.
“Meanwhile, the Welsh Government needs to look at the whole picture of how we fund domiciliary care to make it viable which is vitally important to everybody concerned, not least the vulnerable people for whom we provide social care.”