The decision to increase wages was a moral obligation that one council decided it could not duck
Despite its media image and our proximity to the wealth of the City, Islington is one of the poorest boroughs in the country – 42% of children live below the breadline, hundreds of pensioners live in fuel poverty, and unemployment remains stubbornly high.
We also have high health inequality. Many residents are disabled through chronic pulmonary disease, cancer and age-related illnesses.
More than 1,200 residents are receiving care support at home, 16,000 residents identified themselves as carers in the 2011 Census, and 800 are paid agency home carers.
Islington is one of only four London boroughs and one of 19 in England, to maintain moderate needs care support, despite experiencing heavy cuts.
With local authority budgets axed under central government austerity measures, it might seem like a curious time to increase wage costs.
But, in Islington, the decision to banish poverty wages for homecare workers was a moral obligation we felt we should not duck. However harsh these times are for local government, they are undoubtedly harsher for those working in our lowest paid but vital profession – caring.
Cost of living crisis
The cost of living crisis has hit Islington hard, with some of the highest rents in the capital but many workers in low-paid or part-time jobs. We believe low pay should not be the business model that employers rely on to make a profit.
So last year, when we were retendering our homecare contracts, we stipulated successful bidders would have to pay the London living wage, currently £8.80 per hour.
From June, 800 home carers in Islington will enjoy the London living wage – some for the first time – joining all of the council’s employees and 98% of those who are employed under our contracts.
At the same time, Islington social services are increasing personal budget allowances, so service users can pay the London living wage to the homecare staff or personal assistants they employ directly.
We’ve put aside nearly £600,000 to make this commitment at a time when the government has cut £27m from our budget.
Our new care contracts include improvements to the quality and continuity of homecare and allow service users more flexibility in how they use their care hours through personalised support plans.
Paying a fair day’s pay for a hard day’s work helps to drive standards higher among those looking after our older relatives, affording them some dignity and independence in their own homes.
Making a commitment to decent employment conditions for care workers will improve the quality of life for the people they care for. A living wage and secure employment help dedicated care workers to stay in the job and focus on giving the best possible care.
Banning 15-minute care visits
In December, Islington council co-signed Unison’s ethical care charter, becoming the first council to do all of the following for homecare staff and service users:
• ban poverty wages and zero-hours contracts for staff
• axe 15-minute care visits for service users
• provide more personalised care, giving service users more individual control
• support service users to negotiate with their care provider how and when they want their care to be delivered.
The charter sets minimum standards to protect the dignity and quality of life for people who need homecare. It commits councils to buying homecare only from providers who give workers enough time, training and a living wage so they can care properly, leading to better quality care for thousands of service users who rely on it.
In addition to paying the London living wage, Islington also supports carers through our carers’ hub, celebrating excellence through our Dignity in Care awards and supporting local charities – including Centre 404.
Homecare workers are often the unsung heroes of local authority social services. It is right that we recognise the value of the work they do.
Janet Burgess is Islington council‘s executive member for health and wellbeing