careSeventeen care workers are suing a council contractor for failing to pay them the minimum wage in a case which their union says involves the worst breaches of wage law that it’s ever seen.

The employees’ wage slips appear to show that they are being paid £3.27 an hour – less than half the national minimum wage of £7.20.  The contractor, Sevacare, maintains that they are in fact paid £7.85 an hour – and says the £3.27 figure is a quirk of the payroll system.

I’m not going to go into the details of the tribunal case.  It is on-going for a start.  Suffice to say it seems to hinge on whether the carers were being paid across all 24 hours of the day even when they were sleeping (theirs was a live-in job, looking after an elderly woman with dementia) or whether (as Sevacare says) they were being paid for 10 hours work a day.

But let’s face it, even if the tribunal rules that Sevacare is right and it has indeed paid its employees £7.85 an hour, is this what one would expect those looking after the frailest and most vulnerable in our society to be paid?

The whole sorry story has reminded me of a Thunderer piece that I wrote for the Times a few years ago on the scandalously low wages paid to care workers.  The subs headlined it: “Who’s really at fault over care for the elderly?  We are”.  When I first saw those words in black and white even I was shocked.  But it was true; I still stand by it, and you can read the column here.

In it I said that we, as a society, look on (and frequently moan about poor standards) while those who care for our relatives do so on hourly rates that were lower than my then 16-year-old daughter earned babysitting for neighbours.

Radio 4’s flagship current affairs Today programme ran at least three separate items on the Sevacare story – this is good: the low pay levels of those who work in care deserve publicity.

In one of the items, interviewer John Humphrys asked former Health Minister Alistair Burt whether, given his ministerial experience, he felt that we as a society were prepared to be more tolerant of relatively poor care than we would be of any other aspect of health services and social welfare.

Alistair Burt’s answer revealed that in the three years since I wrote my Thunderer column we are still no closer to finding solutions or, dare I say it, facing up to the inescapable truth that, as a society – and I’m not talking about the scores of individuals I’ve met since starting my blog who devote their lives to looking after others – but as a society we don’t pay those who work in social care enough, nor do we accord them enough respect for what they do.

Burt said, “I formed a judgement – and said so in a debate in the House of Commons before I left – that in terms of mental health and adult social care there was a sort of tolerance for standards which would not be acceptable, or be seen to be acceptable, in acute hospitals.

He said that while strides were being made to improve this situation, much was still to be done, and he continued: “As a society more broadly, are we all prepared for ageing society and its costs?  I don’t think we are.  People reach a stage where they think that something will magically be covered by the state as whole.  We can’t afford to do this and we haven’t really got the costs of adult social care and the costs of individuals, as well as the state, sorted out”.

I’m afraid, sadly, I would have to agree.

imagesX4M6PF7XBut to end on a positive note, the same Today programme included a piece about Anniversary, a production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (which seems to be a brilliantly innovative place – last year I wrote about its dementia-friendly production of White Christmas) which combines dance and story-telling by performers (both professional and non-professional) aged between 50 and 90.

Its director Alan Lyddiard, who is 67, said that he used older performers because people of his age felt a bit forgotten.  “But why dance?” asked Humphrys, in characteristically bullish form.  Why not something more suited to older people?

“There is something very beautiful about an older body – the way it moves, controls itself and extends itself gently,” said Lyddiard.  “It doesn’t try to be athletic; it tries to instil a kind of quiet beauty that emerges out of the movement of an older body.”

As a woman with an older body (who happened to do ballet for 15 years), I like that.

And as a dementia blogger (or just as a person, actually), I like the fact that there will be a dementia-friendly performance of Anniversary at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on Saturday 17 September at 1.30pm.