Today
Mon 29 November 2021

The effect of care workers reluctant to come from abroad, and a shortfall of those joining the profession in the UK, is being unsurprisingly ignored, says Penny Pepper

Eva was in her mid-20s. She looked younger, with her clear skin and bright eyes which darted constantly.

She came from the Czech Republic on a student visa and then sought permission to work in the UK. This was in 2002. She was one of the first care workers I employed directly as a disabled person on the once revolutionary Direct Payment scheme.

Implemented in 1996-97, this programme took aspects of the now closed Independent Living Fund to allow disabled people to manage their own funding for their care needs and beyond. It grew under the banner of choice and control, and personalisation – words which have since been commandeered by the Government for use against us.  

After Eva, there were many others – Svetlana, Dafinka, several Anyas. The overriding qualities of these young women far from home was politeness, eagerness and a strong work ethic. When look for care workers, these women from the broad spread of eastern Europe were often more skilled and more respectful than homegrown applicants, and they applied in greater numbers.

As a disabled person who needs so-called ‘care support’ (although activists and proponents of the ‘social model of disability’ prefer to refer to it as ‘independent living support’), I’ve had every type of worker you can imagine from every type of agency, even while I prefer to recruit privately, which is one of the key tenets of the Direct Payment scheme.

And here we are now, many years since my nervous beginnings on Direct Payment, facing what the care watchdog, the Quality Care Commission, has called “a tsunami of carer shortages”. 

There are multiple factors behind this. Brexit is a key culprit because, even if many care workers like the ones I employed in the early years now have settled status, many others are sick of the cultural shift against them and the fears of what this means in reality. Unsurprisingly, their preference is to now remain in their own countries rather than come to Brexit Britain.

There is also the reality that, despite gestures – usually hollow – attempting to show a caring approach, the Government does not want to face up to the value of care staff across the spectrum. Equally important are the insulting rates of pay that many carers are offered. Workers from the UK perhaps realise how bad the rates of pay are compared to other areas. At present, working as a barista can pay more than social care funding allows. 

The Disabled People Against Cuts group recently echoed these concerns. “Changes to border policies mean lots of personal assistants and live-in social care worker staff, that disabled people rely upon for everyday care and support needs, cannot come into the country and work any more,” it said.

The organisation issues a call-out for statements to present to the Home Office’s Migration Advisory Committee on the impact of Brexit, highlighting these fears over freedom of movement for workers. My statement was submitted based on my long years of experience of these issues and also as a board member of Independent Living Alternatives – one of the rare, user-led and user-controlled agencies of live-in PA and care staff in the UK, run by and for disabled people.

While lorry drivers abroad are supposedly receiving fast-tracked visas to come to the UK and plug the shortfall in this profession, carers living abroad have hardly come up for any discussion. One need should not surpass the other – stacking shelves with food is essential and so is having the support in place for your elderly mother so that she does not have to sit for hours in her own faeces.

This is an urgent debate that we should all be having – including about the choices we make and how they balance these disparate needs. But, surely, society must put compassion, equality and dignity at its heart.  

I am fond of all my personal care assistants. They truly enable me and facilitate every aspect of my life. One worked with me for 22 years. I train them to be specialists in me – again, one of the key aspects of independent living.

When disabled activists took the Government to court over the closure of the Independent Living Fund in 2015 it was suggested that we were privileged and that the money used on the scheme should be “shared out”. The agenda seemed clear: that we should be fed and watered and not much more. I fear that this is the way in which care support is going in general. And everyone should be alarmed by this. It is your future, whether it’s you or your loved ones, because disability and old age is within the broader context of the human experience.

Perhaps it is hypocrisy that is most outrageous – support a granny, give to charity for granddad, but don’t dare think about ways to afford their ongoing care with safety and dignity. Support Children In Need, pay off liberal guilt, but moan at the thought of more contributions to pay for suitable respite for such kids.

As the focus continues on shortages of HGV drivers and the impending chaos of empty shelves at Christmas, I wonder when all of us – any of us – will face up our responsibilities to everyone in society and answer these hard questions.

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