There is lots of discussion at the moment about self-employment, exploitative employment and the ‘gig economy’. Lots of people love being self-employed: it can (and should) mean being able to choose when and where to work, or with whom, and working with lots of autonomy, rather than with close supervision by a manager. You don’t get the continuity, pension, holiday pay and other benefits of being an employee, but you get more freedom. There are workers such as Uber drivers and Deliveroo couriers who are designated as self-employed, but who have claimed that they are really employees, who have to work when and where they are told, at a rate fixed by the organisation they work for, with penalties if they turn work down. Meanwhile, some care workers have claimed that they are not being paid for all the work they do, particularly if they are required to be ‘on call’ or to sleep at a service they work at, without being paid an hourly rate for that. And some foster carers, with an unclear self-employment-like status, are demanding employment rights, because, again, they feel that their work is controlled, not autonomous and some feel that they are underpaid for what can be demanding roles which demand long hours of hands-on care, with little redress if they feel unfairly treated.
These disputes and court cases will no doubt run and run and I’m not going to try to give any opinions on them, but we’ve watched with great interest and some anxiety, because Shared Lives carers are self-employed workers, whose employment status is often compared to that of foster carers. Shared Lives carers go through a three to six month approval process before being matched with adults who need support so that they can share home and family life. The individual moves in with the Shared Lives carer or visits them regularly, either way being treated as ‘part of the family’.
In some ways, the focus on bogus self-employment feels helpful to our sector. When Shared Lives is done properly, Shared Lives carers choose who they work with, they always use their own home (even if only as a base for day support) and they work with a high degree of autonomy, not according to rigid timetables, for instance. All of these factors are indicators of genuine self-employment. In some areas, the model has come under pressure due to cuts, which has led to the local scheme being asked to cut corners or ignore parts of the regulated model:
- Despite an ombudsman’s judgement to the contrary, some commissioners want to regard Shared Lives as a 24/7 model of care, which would entail the Shared Lives carer potentially ‘working’ 24 hours a day. Where someone needs round the clock hands on care, they should be offered separate day support and in some cases, several Shared Lives carers work together to meet high support needs whilst everyone still feels that they are part of family life, not a traditional service.
- Some areas are under pressure to shortcut the matching processes, which would result in less choice for both individual and Shared Lives carer.
- One area recently raised the idea that Shared Lives carers should only be paid for the hours they are actively providing care whereas our good practice guidance suggests that Shared Lives is not paid by the hour and should involve at least four weeks’ paid breaks a year to be sustainable.
- Many schemes constantly have to fight against a creeping tick box culture, which would replace the autonomy of Shared Lives households as they pursue ‘ordinary family life’, with a service mentality of closely-supervised staff and constant paper trails.
These pressures on the integrity of the model are based on a false economy: Shared Lives is an average of £26,000 lower cost per person per year when it is done properly, with all costs taken into account. The saving, which doesn’t even include savings which might be associated with better outcomes, is based on Shared Lives carers and their families choosing to contribute far more to people’s lives than they could be obliged to by a contract in relationships which can be lifelong if well set up.
Despite the complexity of the law, there is a useful simplicity at the heart of these questions: any of the above actions which undermine the Shared Lives ethos would also undermine the self-employment status.
The message to our sector – and perhaps others – is clear: don’t try to have it both ways. If you treat Shared Lives carers at times as self-employed and at others, as low status employees, expect expensive court cases along with all the other risks of the model not being valued and followed. On the other hand, spend what are usually modest amounts of time and money choosing, valuing and supporting households, and rewards multiply, as people live happy, low maintenance lives for decades.
The legal arguments will always be complex (to address that, we are working with legal firm Clarion to produce new guidance for our members), but you don’t need expensive experts to tell you how to avoid calamity: just do the right thing.