In recent weeks condemnation has followed the news that the Care Quality Commission (CQC) - who regulate health and social care services in England - have awarded three of the four contracts for their 'experts by experience' programme to Remploy. The disquiet was focused around Remploy's decision to reduce the pay of experts by experience, making it little more than the minimum wage in the long term.
For those not familiar with the role of experts by experience, they are key members of the CQC inspection team who are charged with finding out how people who receive services and their families experience care and support, and feeding that information back to inspectors to directly influence CQC's reports.
I'm on the record as someone who has worked with CQC , although not in this role. That said, I fit the criteria as an individual with direct personal experience of care services, and I know many people who have made an immense contribution to CQC's work by being part of their experts by experience programme. Indeed, I shadowed a CQC inspection of a care home last year as part of a team that included an expert by experience, and to watch her interactions with the residents was a joy.
What that lady did was to give people who don't usually have a voice a very prominent articulation of their experiences. She sat with them, asked them about their care, heard their stories of life in the care home, and made them feel valued, respected and important. Exactly how people who live in care homes should always feel.
So imagine my reaction on hearing that lady will, in the future, be paid less than half what she got on the day I shadowed her (if indeed she remains an expert by experience, since many people in this role are leaving as a result of the new terms and conditions). What does this contract say about how experts by experience are valued and respected?
I am personally extremely disappointed with this whole debacle. From working with CQC, I do genuinely believe that they are trying to put past poor performance behind them, and I am confident that the new inspection model is more robust than previous incarnations. However, vital to that robustness are experts by experience, who will become victims of a drastic pay cut while the CQC staff that they work alongside on inspections aren't, presumably because there would be a mass walk out if that was the case.
I don't want to go back to the inspection model that blighted my dad's last months in care and let us down so badly in our hour of need. Back then I never saw an expert by experience during inspections, although I would have dearly loved to. For those who don't understand how individuals receiving care services and their families feel, this might appear like a fluffy, talking shop exercise that serves no purpose. However, for me there is nothing more important during an inspection than hearing from people whose judgement of a service is based on their direct experience of it. Bear in mind too that these are the same people most affected by any action CQC may, or may not, take.
I doubt Remploy will find individuals queuing around the block to fill the inevitable vacancies that are going to be generated by their new hourly rate proposal. Even if applications are plentiful, I would be extremely concerned to be losing highly trained and proven experts by experience at a time when CQC remain under huge pressure to deliver an ambitious inspection regime and 'clean up' health and social care.
And for anyone wondering why the pay is so important, it's not about the figures so much as the bigger picture. In employment, it is a long-standing principle that people are rewarded for their worth to an organisation through their pay, with those at the bottom of the ladder paid less than the CEO. Are we now saying that the experts by experience programme is a race to the bottom? If that is the case, I fear for the credibility of future inspections, and most of all I feel deeply saddened.
Experts by experience are a precious and valuable resource, and although I have never been one in an inspection scenario I feel the disquiet of those who have, and I urge those who can do something to rectify the situation regarding these contracts to do so immediately.