Leaders of social care organisations have won the backing of members of the former Assembly Health Committee as they battle to save the sector from collapse because of staff shortages.

Five organisations – Positive Futures, Praxis, Camphill Community, Inspire Wellbeing and the Cedar Foundation – reported a catalogue of problems caused by underfunding, including difficulties recruiting and retaining staff and the need to hire agency workers at increasing expense.

They met MLAs at Parliament Buildings as members of ARC NI (Association for Real Change), which is the umbrella body for social care providers. Participating MLAs Colm Gildernew (SF), Deborah Erskine (DUP), Colin McGrath (SDLP) and Danny Donnelly (Alliance), together with a representative for Alan Chambers (UUP) agreed to assist with a series of measures designed to address the issues.

The care providers will produce a paper outlining the situation, which the MLAs have agreed to raise with Health Minister Robin Swann. They also agreed to put the care providers’ concerns to Health Trusts in meetings already arranged. And the providers will produce costings for aligning basic salaries in the sector with those in the statutory sector. This does not include other benefits enjoyed by workers in that sector.

Dr Agnes Lunny, Chief Executive of Positive Futures, said: “Some of the organisations are experiencing vacancy rates as high as 58% in some services. Staff are reporting burnout from working extra hours, and this results in further shortages through sickness absence. Despite increased demand for our services, many organisations are not in a position to accept new referrals. In some cases, existing services are being handed back to Health & Social Care Trusts.

“Despite digging into our own reserves to improve salaries, people are still able to walk out of a social care organisation and enjoy an immediate pay rise by taking a job in a supermarket.”

Sinn Fein MLA Colm Gildernew, Chair of the former Health Committee, said: “I was delighted to facilitate this meeting given the crucial role of the organisations we met. The social care workforce is absolutely key to health and social care delivery here and this must be recognised and valued appropriately. It is vital that this sector can continue to deliver care to some of the most vulnerable people in our community.”