The government will be urged to show leadership to help secure the future of staff and residents at Southern Cross care homes as the company struggles under mounting debts.

The annual conference of the GMB union will debate an emergency motion on the “crisis”, with delegates set to call on the government to intervene.

The union will say it is time for a “fresh start” and a different social care model for looking after elderly and vulnerable.

Delegates at the conference in Brighton will demand that the government introduces a new standard of care, sufficiently funded and resourced, so that elderly and vulnerable people are cared for with dignity, respect and in safety.

Southern Cross has announced that it will underpay its rent for the next four months as it struggles with a £230m annual rental bill.

The firm, which owns over 750 care homes and employs thousands of staff in caring for 31,000 residents, will pay nearly a third less rent than it is obliged to until September in what is effectively a loan from its landlords.

Officials said there was no threat of imminent closure of any of the homes but union leaders, and families of residents, have voiced mounting concern.

The emergency motion reads: “The uncertainty over Southern Cross must be lifted immediately and Congress demands that government offers sufficient support to ensure Southern Cross does not fail, so that the worries of the 31,000 residents and their families and the 44,000 staff are eased.

“To that end the question must be answered - who has the ultimate responsibility for the 31,000 elderly and vulnerable residents and who has the power to end the uncertainty for them and their families?

“Government must immediately appoint a cabinet minister charged with ensuring a continuity of care for the 31,000 residents of Southern Cross and guarantee that no homes close and no resident is turned out or forced to move against their will.

“The 753 care homes run by Southern Cross are not factories that are failing from lack of demand but are an essential part of every community which now face ruin due to the toxic combination of privatisation and private equity greed.”