THE Enquirer was recently contacted by a “whistle-blower” with a series of allegations about Thurrock Council’s adult social care service, prompting Editor Neil Speight to seek answers from the top.
Last week he met director of community well-being, Lorna Payne, for a full and frank discussion about the allegations. He found there some truth in the allegations of what had happened – but the Council is confident incidents had been dealt with appropriately.
For example, the whistle-blower told the Enquirer about a vulnerable resident who was paying his carer for sex. He felt she wasn’t giving value for money so he rang the Council to complain.
It’s an anecdote that raises an eyebrow and it wasn’t denied by Lorna Payne, who explained that an investigation revelled how the “complaint” came after the arrangement was ended.
The staff member involved was sacked.
Lorna Payne sits in one of the hottest seats at Thurrock Council.
Most of us have at least one relative in our family that requires special care. Lorna and her team have to deal with thousands.
At a time when cash is tough to find but the number of people needing help is rising fast it’s an equation that is difficult to manage.
And Ms Payne concedes things haven’t been helped by a number of unsavoury incidents reported to the Enquirer.
Not least was the instance of the resident who was paying for sex.
“This situation was intolerable and the person involved was dismissed promptly. It was unacceptable and I have never come across anything comparable in my career.,” said the department boss.
Somewhat more common within the service across the country are instances of care workers taking advantage of vulnerable people who have lost the ability to function independently.
Thurrock has not escaped the problem and the Enquirer was told of examples where money became an issue between the cared for and carer.
In one, an acting manager was taking money from an elderly person. We were told that when the issue came to light the worker was initially suspended and then allowed the leave the service on a pledge on that the money was paid back.
That is an allegation refuted by Ms Payne.
“We are duty bound to hold an investigation in instances like this and, of course, to do it effectively and thoroughly it’s going to take some time. The person involved was suspended immediately and once it was found to be true the person was sacked.
“As this person was working in a position of trust we could not allow this staff member to remain employed with us and we dealt with the matter effectively and properly.”
In the second, theft wasn’t involved but again someone took advantage of an older person’s confusion over money. Again it ended in dismissal.
Questions were asked of the Enquirer why the police had not been involved, with the allegation that the Council were ‘covering up’. The same question was put to Ms Payne.
She said: “There are times when we do ask the police to be involved and there are times when we do not. It’s always in line with our safeguarding procedures.
In one of these instances the police carried out an investigation which concluded there was not sufficient evidence for a criminal case. We had to wait until that was completed before we could carry out our own investigation.
Aside from staffing issues, managing the budget of the adult social care service in these difficult times is a challenge.
The whistle-blower alleged that favouritism has been shown to certain managers, who have been switched to “lesser” jobs but kept their management salaries.
Ms Payne agreed that some officers had switched jobs, including moving from management into direct social care, but the changes have all been with good reason and in line with established policies. Not only does it actually offer a saving to the authority and ensure it retains committed staff with local knowledge, there are also pay-protection policies in place.
“Yes there are some staff currently working but being paid above that post’s pay band. However, this is not permanent and is constantly under review. It is not long term arrangement.
“It happens because as we have to make reduce the numbers of some non frontline posts we are obliged under the terms of pay and conditions to offer people alternative jobs where possible. Where people switch to a lower pay band, for an interim period of time they will remain on their existing pay band but that is not permanent.
“It does offer a better financial solution for the authority because otherwise we might be paying out considerable sums in redundancy and pension top-ups plus the costs of advertising externally and waiting for posts to be filled.
“It makes more sense overall to work with the people involved and ensure continuity of employment within the financial parameters available to the authority.
“Of course, it also prevents someone being thrown out of work.”
She added: “But it’s not just an issue of money. It’s an effective way of utilising people who are committed to the borough. They are retrained and offer us stability and continuity, in many ways in these difficult times it’s a win-win situation both for the people involved, the council itself, and for those people in need of quality, committed, caring social care staff.
“It’s easy to criticise but I am confident that we are managing our resources and our people effectively. Ms Payne also responded to the accusation that her department is involved in covering up problems. “We don’t cover-up,” she said, “but I’ll admit we don’t proactively advertise staffing issues – that wouldn’t be good for the council or the individuals involved.”
She added: “The overwhelming majority of adult social care staff are hard-working, trust-worthy and dedicated. That is proved by our improved ratings and the way other authorities come to us to see how we work.
“We endeavour to fit people into the jobs that suit them best; to encourage them to better themselves personally and professionally; and to support them in every way possible.
“To go into social care, in the first place, shows your heart is in the right place; you want to ‘do good’ in a practical way. Sometimes, rarely but sometimes, that gets sidetracked.”