Dreams can come true Campaigning for a national care service in England

UNISON is campaigning for the next government to create a national care service in England.

As part of this, the union asked the Fabian Society to draw up a detailed, independent ‘roadmap’. Support Guaranteed explains how to turn the broken care system into one that provides world-class adult social care consistently across the country.

It aims for a national care service that values and respects its workforce, provides value for money for the taxpayer and underpins the economy and, most importantly, puts those receiving care at the centre.

As a result of UNISON’s strong campaigning and this report, the Labour Party has committed to building a national care service if it is elected in the next Westminster general election.

Below, five people deeply connected to the care sector explain what it’s like now – and what a national care service would mean for them.

I’ve been a support worker for 33 years.

I started out in a youth training scheme at an adult learning centre for people with learning disabilities for two years. From then on, I knew that this is what I wanted to do with my life. I moved into working in a new innovation called supported living. It moved supporting people with learning disabilities from big hospitals into their own homes. I was a nursing assistant working with qualified nurses.

Roll on 30 years, the title has changed to support worker, but I’m doing everything those qualified nurses did and more. We don’t have qualified nurses on duty anymore – we are the qualified staff.

My work responsibilities are similar to a band 4 NHS worker giving complex care, but our pay doesn’t reflect this. Care is not recognised as the skilled profession it is and people don’t realise the level of training we have to complete to do our jobs.

What upsets me most is that we are the forgotten sector. It is a great career, a great vocation, but we have to do more to make it attractive to new people.

A national care service would be a big shake-up in health and social care, and one that is long overdue. We would be recognised as skilled professionals and our pay would reflect those skills and the demands of the job. And we would be part of a social care sector that people would be proud of and want to work for.

I took on this role in social care just before the pandemic.

During that time, I was hearing from our care members who were often left without PPE, proper testing and sick pay.

As the pandemic ended, it became clear that the government thought it could get away with pushing social care back to the sidelines. The government broke its promise to “fix social care” and that’s where this campaign came from. Personally, it means a great deal to me. I’ve had enough of our members being treated like they are numbers on a spreadsheet.

With the economy as it is, some people say we can’t afford a national care service. But investing in social care is an investment in our economic success. We need high quality social care the same way we need roads, railways and pipelines. We can’t afford not to do this.

The current system is not only underfunded and broken, but also wasteful. Too much public money ends up padding the profits of private companies and in the pockets of directors. Instead, we want to spend the money driving up standards of care, recruiting the huge number of care workers we need and, in the process, solve some of the economic problems in the country, not add to them.

The final goal is simple: a world class social care service, focussed on delivery not profit, which everyone can access and where the workforce is treated fairly.

So where does it begin? We have 18,000 care employers in England, providing care on behalf of hundreds of local authorities and until now, they’ve all set their own pay rates. The first step on the road is a Fair Pay Agreement for all care workers. Once a future government and the sector have delivered on this, I think the prospect of a national care service will seem much closer.

I was 41 when I chose to change career.

I’ve now been in this field for 15 years and would never leave, even though the pay is rubbish. Every day is different, sometimes it’s great, sometimes it is mentally challenging. You are with people through their best and worst times.

The most frustrating thing about the care sector is that there is no coming together of all the different parts. It’s hard to get an assessment from adult services, and mental health help for people is almost non-existent. You can barely get a dentist or doctor’s appointment, but people with learning disabilities and autism need face-to-face appointments and, as support staff, we have to fight to get these.

To move forward, public perception of support and care work needs to change and we need a national living wage immediately to stop people living in debt. A national care service needs to put social care under one umbrella, it needs to make accessing all the various parts quick and easy. It should never be for profit, these are human beings and no one should make money out of them.

But we also need recognition of what a difficult role it is, I have dealt with mental health breakdowns, death, seeing colleagues attacked, poor management, discovering financial abuse and much more.

A national care service makes me feel hopeful that vulnerable people can be treated in the way they deserve, that care staff can be recognised for doing one of the most difficult jobs and can be proud of their jobs.

My dad was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer in February 2021.

As his health began to deteriorate, he needed adult social care to help with his personal care and medication. Initially, carers provided by the local authority attended twice a day then increased to four times per day. This continued right the way through – until he passed away in December 2021.

The problem was, he lived in rural Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and I lived 600 miles away in South Wales. Caring for a loved one can be tough, even when you live around the corner from them, but living so far away adds so many more complications and stresses. You can’t just pop round.

At times, as the only relative, the sense of responsibility was overwhelming. I can’t even begin to think about how difficult mine and my father’s lives would have been without the care he received. I couldn’t afford to give up work and go live 600 miles aways, leaving my job and husband in Wales. It would have been impossible.

But knowing dad had people going to the house every day, taking care of his needs and just being there with him, was a godsend to me. The staff were fantastic, and they did so much more than just support his care plan. The odd pint of milk, staying past their shift to chat – the little things that showed they genuinely did care. The peace of mind this gave me was invaluable, living so far away.

By the end, they were not just carers, but friends and they came to the funeral as well. That’s the impact of good quality care.

I’ve been a carer for seven years.

The reason I went into care is because I am naturally empathetic. I always try to put myself in the other person’s position, and being a loving and caring mother, I knew this career would suit me.

What is so frustrating about the sector is that despite pouring our heart and souls into the job, we are not being rewarded with good pay. There also aren’t enough staff, meaning we find ourselves being overstretched constantly and we are exhausted.

Carers need to be paid the real living wage. Not only to recognise the skilled and incredibly difficult work that we do, but to attract people to the sector. By recruiting and retaining people in the sector and filling the vacancies, it will help care workers work the right amount of hours, with less stress and pressure, and will give us time to look after ourselves and our families.

A national care service would provide a consistent service for all users, peace of mind for families and respect for carers.

Interviews and design: Simon Jackson

Images: Marcus Rose