Opposition Day — [7th Allotted Day] — Zero-hours Contracts

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:16 pm on 16th October 2013.

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Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills 1:16 pm, 16th October 2013

We very much welcome this opportunity to debate this issue. It has had a lot of media coverage, and we have already had several debates on it in the House. I am happy to engage with it. I realise that the purpose of Opposition day debates is to generate opposition, but the truth is that there is quite a lot of common ground on this issue. None of us wants to see employers abusing their employees.

The thrust of the motion seems to be to ask me to do what I am already doing. I made it clear a month ago that we were going to have a consultation on this matter, and I can tell Mr Umunna that we are aiming to clear the process through government by mid-November in order to launch the consultation formally. There is no disagreement about that.

There are elements in the motion that I could pick holes in and disagree with. There is a call for evidence, but also, slightly oddly, a series of concrete action points that have been put forward regardless of any evidence that might emerge. That seems to be making slightly odd use of evidence-based decision making. That is a quibble, but I do not have an enormous problem with the basic thrust of the motion. I guess the hon. Gentleman has to criticise the Government, however, as this is an Opposition day debate, and I will take head-on the three specific points that he has made.

First, he talked about our failure to act, but the problem has been around for many years, as my right hon. Friend Simon Hughes has pointed out. The trade unions repeatedly told the last Labour Government that there was a problem in this area. The 1998 White Paper drew attention to it and suggested possible courses of action, but no action was ever taken. I know that several of my Labour predecessors looked into the matter, because concern had been expressed, and while acknowledging that there was abuse in some areas, they broadly took the view that the benefits outweighed the costs.

The second criticism was that I did not mobilise a small army of civil servants to look at the problem earlier this summer, but what would be the point of mobilising the civil service to reinvent the wheel? A lot of sensible research has already been done. We have talked to 10 trade unions, all of which have done quite a lot of in-house work. We have also talked to several think-tanks, including the Resolution Foundation and the Work Foundation, both of which have done good work in this area. We did not need to reinvent anything; the evidence and the anecdotes are there and we are drawing on them. That is the direction in which we are proceeding.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman criticised the statistics. The problem is that we have one basic official set of statistics from the Office for National Statistics, suggesting that there are about 200,000 zero-hours contracts. That statistic is drawn from the labour force survey, and the hon. Gentleman was right to say that this is quite a narrow definition. The Chartered Institute of Personnel Development came out with a figure of 1 million, using a different measure—in other words, what employers judge the number of zero-hours contracts to be—while the union Unite has come up with a figure of 5 million. Different people are obviously measuring this in different ways. What I have done is write to the head of the Office for National Statistics, asking him to take this problem on board. We have a very serious problem of definition and numbers, so I have asked the head to pull together the relevant people so that, from now on, we can have a proper database on the basis of which to make rational decisions.