The government is not doing enough to support social care workers or address growing demand for their sevices, according to a watchdog.
The National Audit Office says employees are underpaid, do not feel valued and face tough day-to-day working conditions - which in turn puts people off joining the sector.
About 65% of social care providers’ incomes come from local authority budgets - but councils have warned they face a funding gap of billions in the coming years, thanks to huge hikes in demand and central government cuts.
Ministers are due to publish a green paper on reforming care for elderly people in the summer - but the NAO wants the Department of Health and Social Care to do more to ensure care workers are better paid and given more opportunities to improve their professional skills.
Its head, Amyas Morse, said: “Social care cannot continue as a Cinderella service – without a valued and rewarded workforce, adult social care cannot fulfil its crucial role of supporting elderly and vulnerable people in society.
“Pressures and demands on the health and social care systems are increasing, so the department needs to respond quickly to this challenge by giving the sector the attention it deserves and needs, instead of falling short and not delivering value for money.”
The turnover rate of care staff has been increasing since the 2012/13 financial year, and in 2016/17 it reached 27.8%. Vacancy rates for jobs in social care are around 6.6% - well above the national average of 2.5%.
The NAO said the government is unable to demonstrate that the sector is properly funded and has “no national strategy” to address its challenges.
Shadow social care secretary Barbara Keeley said: “The National Audit Office’s message is clear; Tory cuts to local authority funding since 2010 have led to an increasingly unsustainable and fragmented social care workforce.
“Cuts to social care budgets will reach £6.3bn by March this year, which means worse pay and conditions for overstretched care staff, whose numbers are not keeping up with ever increasing demand for care from older people and vulnerable working age people.
“Yet the social care workforce remains an afterthought for this complacent Tory government, which did not even acknowledge the care staff workforce in the single departmental plan of the re-titled Department of Health and Social Care.
“The Tories need to increase funding urgently for social care to support care staff to provide the best quality care.”
She said Labour would invest £8bn across the current Parliament, with £1bn upfront in 2018.
Christina McAnea, assistant general secretary of UNISON - which represents the majority of care workers - said many councils had signed the union’s care charters, committing them to better pay and conditions due to a “total absence of leadership” from the government.
“This damning report exposes the government’s lamentable approach to social care, which is letting down elderly and disabled people, as well as the dedicated staff looking after them,” she added.
“Years of underfunding mean local councils can no longer put enough money into care to meet the needs of an ageing population. Elderly and disabled residents, care staff and the NHS are all losing out as a result. Without urgent ministerial action, the sector will continue its slow motion collapse.
“Care staff work long hours, doing difficult jobs for pay that’s barely above the minimum wage. Many actually take home an illegal wage because some employers don’t include travel time as part of the working day.
“It’s time ministers took their heads out of the sand, spent less time hypnotised by their Brexit dilemmas and started to address one of the most pressing issues of our time.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Everyone is entitled to good quality care and we recognise there are challenges - that’s why we will shortly publish a health and care workforce strategy to address these issues.
“We’ve provided an extra £2bn funding to the sector and this week announced a further £150 million for next year - in the summer we will outline plans to reform social care to ensure it is sustainable for the future.”