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

Yes, and I hope that happens. I have made it clear to the Low Pay Commission that we want to look at the minimum wage in a somewhat more holistic way than has been the case in the past. Of course I cannot guarantee what the commission will conclude; that is not my job.

Before considering the advantages and disadvantages of zero-hours contracts, let me make a basic point that will probably explain why my Labour predecessors did not deal with the problem: it is intrinsically tricky. There is an issue about what zero-hours contracts actually are; they are not clearly defined. As Mr Redwood said a few moments ago, we do not have a definition of exploitation, and we do not even have a definition of what a zero-hours contract is. There are a whole lot of contractual arrangements, which have two basic conditions attached to them. One is that there is no guarantee of work and no requirement under British employment law for an employer to provide a minimum number of hours. Equally, however, an individual is not required to accept an offer of work. Those are the two defining characteristics of a zero-hours contract.

A wide spectrum of practices has come out of that. At one end of the scale, we have casualisation of different forms—we have heard about the history of the docks and other similar traditions, many of which were highly undesirable. Equally, at the other end of the scale, however, there are large numbers of traditional systems of freelance-type employment—in the creative industries and education, for example. When I started thinking about this subject, I realised that my late wife spent much of her working career on a zero-hours contract working for a further education college. She taught music to sixth formers, depending on how many turned up for their classes. It was effectively a zero-hours contract. Many people in FE and adult education worked on the same basis, and this is established practice in many other industries. In these cases, it has not been viewed as a problem before.

I make that point to stress that the definition of a zero-hours contract is not precise. Hundreds of thousands of people—and if we believe the shadow Secretary of State, millions—are on these contracts, which vary enormously. Some people carry the rights attached to being a worker—[Interruption.] Well, Unite think it is 5 million people. Some people in these contracts have basic employee statutory rights attached to them as well. They are enormously varied.