Workers (Predictable Terms and Conditions) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 11:47 am on 24 March 2023.

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Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

Third Reading

Photo of Scott Benton Scott Benton Conservative, Blackpool South 11:49, 24 March 2023

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am delighted that we are here today to take a further step forward towards introducing a new right for workers to request a more predictable working pattern. Throughout the passage of the Bill I have spoken of the importance of introducing this new right to tackle one-sided flexibility. Although zero-hours contracts are an important part of the UK’s flexible labour market, the 2017 Taylor review of modern working practices found that workers on zero-hours contracts, as well as agency and temporary workers, struggle when flexibility is one-sided in an employer’s favour.

Some employers misuse flexible working arrangements by scheduling or cancelling shifts with very little notice, leading to insecurity of hours and income for workers or, in the case of temporary agency workers, dismissal at short notice. Short-notice changes to working patterns can be hugely disruptive to workers’ lives, for example when they are juggling caring or childcare responsibilities. One-sided flexibility can also create an unfair imbalance of power between workers and their employers, leaving workers afraid to ask their employer for more predictable terms and conditions, out of fear of being dismissed or denied future shifts. One-sided flexibility is particularly pressing at a time when so many workers with unpredictable working patterns are feeling the pressure of household living bills rising so acutely.

The introduction of a new right to request a predictable working pattern will empower workers to start a conversation with their employer about their working patterns. It will not only benefit zero-hours contract workers, because agency and temporary workers will also be able to take advantage of the new right. A qualifying worker will be able to make requests if their existing working pattern lacks predictability in the hours or times they work, or if it is a fixed-term contract for less than 12 months.

The Bill will not only benefit workers. On Second Reading my hon. Friend Mr Mohindra aptly described the right to request a more predictable working pattern as a “win-win” for workers and employers. The new right will boost worker satisfaction and productivity, and allow employers to retain skilled staff. It is vital that we maintain the flexibility that zero-hours contracts facilitate for businesses and workers, which is why workers will be able to choose to continue working on a zero-hours contract, or in another form of less predictable work, if that is what works best for them.

Photo of Louie French Louie French Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup

Does my hon. Friend agree that in certain cases, particularly for the likes of students, for example, it is more desirable to have greater flexibility regarding when they can work around their studies?

Photo of Scott Benton Scott Benton Conservative, Blackpool South

My hon. Friend is entirely correct. Whether it be for students who perhaps have different working patterns and ability to work shifts compared with other workers, or the rest of the general workforce, zero-hours contracts are here to stay. They are an important part of the flexible working market, and rightly so, but they have to work not only for the employer but for the worker. This positive step forward allows those who are working flexible hours to request a more predictable working pattern. As I will explain, the business or employer in question does not necessarily have to accept the request, if for example it is too burdensome on the business. The Bill is a moderate and positive step forward that works for both employer and worker.

The right to request a more predictable working pattern will function in a similar way to the right to request flexible working. For example, an employer will be able to refuse a request for a more predictable working pattern on specific statutory grounds similar to those established for flexible working. I appreciate how important it is to balance new rights for workers with their impact on businesses; these grounds will act as a safeguard, ensuring that employers do not experience disproportionate burdens. My Bill will introduce that important new right and ensure that it can be properly enforced.

The clauses set out the eligibility criteria for the new right, and ensure that as many workers as possible who have an unpredictable working pattern can benefit from it. All workers who have worked for their employer for a set period before making their application will be eligible. That period will be specified in regulations, but is expected to be 26 weeks. Given that my Bill targets workers with unpredictable working patterns, they will not be required to have worked for their employer continuously during that period.

Specific provisions will be made for agency workers, given the unique way that their working relationship with their employer functions. For example, agency workers who make applications directly to hirers will be required to have worked for their hirer for at least 12 weeks continuously during the proposed 26-week period. That replicates a provision in the Agency Workers Regulations 2010 that states that after 12 weeks’ continuous service, an agency worker will gain entitlement to the same set of employment rights that they would have had if they had been recruited directly. That ensures that workers cannot use the right to request a more predictable working pattern to circumvent the Agency Workers Regulations 2010 and gain entitlement to additional employment rights before they have worked for 12 continuous weeks.

Employers’ responsibilities are also clearly set out. That supports employers when they receive a request and ensures that workers know what they should expect from their employer. Employers must deal with requests in a reasonable manner and notify the worker of their decision within a month. My Bill details the grounds on which workers may make a complaint to an employment tribunal. That protects workers if their employer does not consider their request in a reasonable manner, wrongly treats the application as withdrawn, dismisses or treats a worker poorly because of their request, or rejects an application on the basis of incorrect facts.

Workers will be permitted to make two requests for predictable working per year. That recognises that workers’ and businesses’ circumstances can change. This mirrors the number of flexible working requests that will be allowed under the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill introduced by Yasmin Qureshi. Together, my Bill’s clauses will create an important new right to request a more predictable working pattern, and will carefully balance the needs of workers in unpredictable work and their employers.

I thank the Minister for confirming the Government’s continued support for the Bill, which of course delivers a Conservative election manifesto pledge. I am delighted to see such broad support for my Bill from across the House, and I thank all hon. Members who share my desire to ensure that the Bill proceeds to the other place, so that we can take a positive step forward for working people.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Conservative, Newbury 11:58, 24 March 2023

I rise in support of the Bill, which injects important clarity about zero-hours contracts. My hon. Friend Scott Benton is correct to say that zero-hours contracts are here to stay and occupy an important role in the British labour market. They can certainly offer a degree of flexibility to students; to older workers who want complete flexibility when it comes to their hours; and to people with caring responsibilities, particularly parents. For example, one of the advantages of the bank model in the NHS, which is effectively a zero-hours contract by another name, is that people can take school holidays without having to apply to their boss and request the time off in the usual way.

I understand why zero-hours contracts are attractive, but we have to be honest: they exist in a grey zone between full employment rights and independent contractor status. We know that they have caused particular problems, which is why the Government have already legislated to ban exclusivity clauses where they applied. Some really high-profile cases about the contested grey zone, including the Uber case and the Deliveroo case, have reached the Supreme Court: are people independent contractors or workers with basic rights?

The Bill includes an inherent requirement that there be a right to request terms in the zero-hours arrangement that give some predictability. Whatever the advantages of flexible working, we know that some employers use zero-hours contracts on a quasi-exploitative basis. I have read grim stories in the newspapers, albeit not recently, of people travelling a long way by bus only to arrive at their employer’s gates and be told that there was no work for them that day. That is clearly not an acceptable situation.

The Bill would amend the Employment Rights Act 1996. Section 1 of that Act requires that within the first two weeks of employment all employers must provide an employment contract that sets out the days workers are required to work, the rate at which they will be remunerated, what they will be paid and when, what their basic duties are and what overtime they will get. At the heart of all employment relationships is the requirement that people who come to work have a basic idea of what is expected of them, how they will be paid and what they are reasonably expected to do. Even in this grey zone, with all the flexibility that I otherwise support, it cannot be right to allow a system to exist in which people have no idea from week to week and from day to day whether they will be required to work and, if so, how much.

Another important point of employment law is that, while of course it is correct that an employer can consider what it requires its members of staff to do and that it can set their duties and working hours, it does not have the unilateral right to vary the employment contract in any other context. It therefore seems to me right that, where reasonably possible, a worker should have the right to request predictability. The burden should be on the employer either to say, “Yes, we can offer you some predictability, and here is what it looks like”—something that would come pretty close to a standard contract of employment—or to say, “Such is the nature of our work that predictability is impossible in any circumstance.” That would at least give the worker the opportunity to know whether or not they could begin to plan their life around the job. That approach is a counterpoint to some of the exploitative practices that linger at the uglier end of the zero-hours contract world. For that reason, I support it, and I support this private Member’s Bill.

Photo of Kieran Mullan Kieran Mullan Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich 12:02, 24 March 2023

I support the Bill and congratulate my hon. Friend Scott Benton on guiding its passage through the House. It is fantastic to follow my hon. Friend Laura Farris, who always does such a good job of outlining the complexities and ins and outs of employment law. She has made huge contributions to other debates and has done so again today.

The position taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South demonstrates the Conservative approach to the issue. We have heard again and again from the Labour party—I think this is still its current policy—that we must ban zero-hours contracts. Actually, as students I and many others benefited from access to zero-hours contracts and the flexibility to fit things in as we liked. We know that they are also hugely important in the NHS for people who may want to do a lot of hours one week and fewer hours the next. There is always a balance to be struck, and it may be helpful for the NHS that there is a balance between permanent staff and flexible staff.

I want to emphasise that the right way to approach things, rather than banning these contracts, is to do what we are doing: look at how we can advance the law in smaller ways to make the overall position better. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his contribution, which edges forward a situation that can be improved but certainly should not be banned.

Photo of Imran Hussain Imran Hussain Shadow Minister (Future of Work) 12:04, 24 March 2023

I also start by welcoming the Bill brought by Scott Benton. As a Member of this House representing one of the most deprived constituencies in the country, which is not unlike my own, he too will know the role that bad pay, long hours and few rights play in trapping working people in a constant cycle of poverty and deprivation and entrenching poverty in his constituency—again, not unlike many constituencies up and down the country.

I am glad this Bill to address one of the biggest challenges faced by working people is finally reaching its conclusion today. I am glad the Government have supported the Bill through its passage. Given the negligible trickle of Bills that relate to the employment rights of working people have come before the House during their more than a decade in office—unless, of course, they concern taking rights away through their anti-trade union restrictions—in contrast with the recent flood of employment rights legislation proposed from the Back Benches, it would seem that the Government have suddenly discovered the exploitation suffered by working people. But that is not the case.

At the end of 2019—well over three years ago—the Government promised to introduce an employment Bill, which many, including Labour MPs, hoped would address the exploitation of working people and would help create an economy and workforce fit for the modern day. We warned the Government years ago, long before even the 2015 general election, about the exploitation of those on zero-hours contracts and in the gig economy. Trade unions have been banging on the Government’s door urging for stronger protection for workers in a changing economy. We know full well that the Government knew of the hardships created for working people because of zero-hours contracts, so pleading ignorance is no defence for their failure to act. In fact, there is no defence at all.

Photo of Kieran Mullan Kieran Mullan Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

Forgive me if the hon. Member was going to clarify this, but is it still the Labour party’s position that it will ban zero-hours contracts?

Photo of Imran Hussain Imran Hussain Shadow Minister (Future of Work)

Yes, it absolutely is, and I will go on to clarify that in my remarks. The Government’s only excuse for their refusal to tackle the exploitation of working people before their support for this Bill is that Ministers were too busy hailing the alleged benefits of being on zero-hours contracts. The reality is that the advantages of these contracts asserted by the Government are frankly alien to people on them. What they face is no utopia of flexibility, but a prison of exploitation by bad bosses at worst or a world of uncertainty at best. As has been pointed out during the passage of the Bill, people are often compelled to accept shifts that they do not want—and so they struggle to work—because they know that if they turn them down, they may not get any hours at all in future.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Conservative, Aberconwy

I am listening carefully to what the hon. Member says, and I note his response to my hon. Friend Dr Mullan. My Aberconwy constituency is known for its tourism, hospitality and all that comes with that, including shift working. The reality for many residents in my constituency is that zero-hours contracts give them flexibility to juggle family and other commitments and to balance a range of employment. Does he accept there is some virtue of this model for some people some of the time at least?

Photo of Imran Hussain Imran Hussain Shadow Minister (Future of Work)

The hon. Gentleman’s constituency is known for the things he has said. He will appreciate there is a huge difference between shift working and zero-hours contracts. Those are two very different concepts, and I do not think anybody is arguing against shift working. Equally, nobody is saying there should be no flexibility. I accept that in a minority of situations—perhaps, for example, in the case of students, as was mentioned earlier—there may need to be that flexibility.

To answer the question from Dr Mullan—I will cover this later as well—the reality is that over the past decade we have gone from around 150,000 people on zero-hours contracts to more than 1 million, as the Minister will know. To suggest that the majority of those people somehow benefit from some flexibility in zero-hours contracts—or some of the points that the Minister may outline later—is just not true.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

The hon. Gentleman suggests that it is not true that a majority of people like that relationship, but surveys show that some 64% of people do not want more hours. He would ban zero-hours contracts, even though 64% of people want them. Where is the sense in that?

Photo of Imran Hussain Imran Hussain Shadow Minister (Future of Work)

I will refer the Minister to another survey. By far the most over-represented groups of people on zero-hours contracts are women and those from ethnic minority backgrounds. The Minister quotes statistics, but in the current market people who have a choice between zero-hours contracts or no work at all are a different case altogether.

Photo of Kieran Mullan Kieran Mullan Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

As this is obviously a strongly felt position from the Labour party, I assume that there is not a single Labour-led local authority employing people on zero-hours contracts. If the hon. Gentleman cannot confirm that, will he write to me and explain what steps he will take with his Labour local authority leadership figures to ensure that they do not make use of these contracts, which the Labour party clearly feels are immoral?

Photo of Imran Hussain Imran Hussain Shadow Minister (Future of Work)

The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is political point scoring on a very serious issue. The fact remains, and this is perhaps where he could direct his energies, that his Government ordered the Taylor review more than five years ago, the findings of which were published in their “Good Work Plan” in 2018. Where has he been for the past few years not questioning his own Government on why they are failing working people, and frankly, why they have failed those being exploited by zero-hours contracts until today? That is perhaps the question he should be asking.

People on zero-hours contracts often face having the shifts they had planned and budgeted for cancelled, leaving them unable to make their bills add up at the end of the month. They are often offered shifts at short notice, forcing them to go to great expense to arrange childcare and transport. As I set out on Second Reading, when the Conservative party came to power, just over 150,000 people were employed on zero-hours contracts. At the last count, more than 1 million were employed on them according to the Office for National Statistics.

As the Bill recognises, for a small group of people who are okay with varying shift patterns and do not face significant outgoings, the contracts may fit better, but let us not kid ourselves: the flexibility of zero-hours contracts is flexibility for the employer, not for working people. As I have mentioned, it is also not as though the Government have never had a chance to improve the rights of working people before this Bill today. They commissioned Matthew Taylor to carry out a review on modern working practices and then accepted his recommendations in full as far back as 2018, but rather than implementing the recommendations, they sat on the review instead. Many of them, including recommendation 13 to allow workers on zero-hours contracts

“a right to request a contract that better reflects the hours they work”,

have gone unfulfilled. That is, until Scott Benton introduced his Bill last year, four years on from the Taylor review.

That lack of progress in implementing the Taylor review’s recommendations almost five years later is lamentable for us, but is devastating for those working people who would be helped by the greater security at work that the recommendations would provide. It is right that the hon. Member’s Bill addresses that issue to some degree. We therefore support the Government in ensuring that this Bill and Bills like it get on to the statute book, because long overdue as it is, it is a step in the right direction towards stronger rights and better protections for an overexploited workforce. However, I cannot let the opportunity of today’s debate go by without asking whether Government support would have been quite so forthcoming had it not been for the relentless pressure they have faced from our trade unions, which have long campaigned for zero-hours contract workers to get the protections they need and deserve.

Although it has taken this Conservative Government years to take some form of action on strengthening workers’ rights by supporting the private Members’ Bills brought by several hon. Members, rather than by introducing their own employment Bill, the next Labour Government will not be so timid. As set out by the leader of the Labour party—the next Prime Minister—within the first 100 days of taking office, a Labour Government will bring legislation to the Floor of the House to begin to deliver our groundbreaking new deal for working people, which will ensure that our economy is fit for the 21st century and will transform the rights and protections afforded to ordinary working people for the better. That includes stronger protections for those on zero-hours contracts, with a ban on contracts without a minimum number of guaranteed hours and the right to a contract reflecting hours normally worked, and a requirement for employers to provide reasonable notice of shift changes, with wages paid in full to workers whose shifts are cancelled without notice, so they are no longer left to shoulder the burden and suffer the costs of unexpected last-minute changes.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) 12:16, 24 March 2023

I start by thanking my hon. Friend Scott Benton for all his work. He has been a delight to work with all the way through and I have been delighted to support his Bill through its various stages. I reiterate the Government’s support for the Bill.

It has been encouraging to observe the support for the Bill from across the House. I was pleased to hear that reflected once again in this debate, including by the shadow Minister, Imran Hussain, who represents part of the fine city of Bradford, in my county of Yorkshire.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South pointed out, zero-hours contracts are an important part of the UK’s flexible labour market, for both employers and individuals who may need to balance work around other commitments. We believe they play an important role, and 64% of people surveyed said they do not want more hours and that they are happy with the basis of their current contracts. As my hon. Friend Dr Mullan pointed out, Labour is determined to take that option away from people, which once again illustrates that the Government believe in freedom of choice while the Opposition believe in state diktat.

Around 3% of workers in the UK workforce are on zero-hours contracts and such contracts may offer many of those individuals the kind of flexibility they want, but, of course, we are determined to tackle unfair working practices used by a small minority of employers. I endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend Laura Farris, who speaks in this House with such authority on employment matters, given her background. Many of those employers take advantage of what she describes, quite rightly, as “a grey zone”. Workers may be left waiting on standby for work that never materialises, unsure whether they will receive the hours they need to pay their bills.

We have already made significant progress in bringing forward measures that support individuals on zero-hours contracts and in low-paid work. In 2015, we banned exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts; in December 2022, we extended the ban to workers who have a guaranteed weekly income equivalent to or below the lower earnings limit of £123 per week; and on 1 April, we will increase the national living wage by 9.7%, to £10.42 per hour.

Photo of Louie French Louie French Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup

In reference to the comments made by the shadow Minister, does the Minister agree with me that the Labour party’s words on sticking up for workers are rather hollow, particularly when they support the Labour Mayor of London’s ultra low emission zone expansion and tax rise, which will impact over 850,000 drivers in London and have been described as “anti-worker” by Unite the union?

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

My hon. Friend is a fine champion on that issue; I would describe the measure as anti-worker and also anti-business, particularly at a time when we are all seeing cost of living challenges. It is simply the wrong measure to take and I applaud him for his constant campaigning on it.

The Bill in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South represents a further step towards addressing one-sided flexibility, as he says. In 2018, the Government consulted on the right to request predictable working and in 2019 we committed to introducing a right to request a more predictable contract in our manifesto. That militates against the hon. Member for Bradford East’s argument that we have suddenly discovered this concern. We have always committed ourselves to legislating in this area.

The new right to request a more predictable working pattern will apply to all eligible workers, not only those on zero-hours contracts, meaning that a wide range of workers who have unpredictable working conditions will benefit, including temporary workers, agency workers and workers with non-guaranteed hours. Crucially, that is a right to request more predictable hours, not a right to insist on them, because we also need to look after the interests of businesses in this conversation.

My hon. Friend’s Bill includes a list of eight specific grounds on which any employer may decline a request, similar to those established for the existing right to request flexible working—for example, if the costs of providing a worker with a more predictable pattern would be too burdensome, or if accepting a request would have a detrimental impact on the ability to meet customer demand.

The Bill forms part of a wider package of six private Member’s Bills on employment rights that the Government are supporting. I pay tribute to the businesses and business representative groups that have supported them, despite the obvious impact on businesses—if hon. Members have read the impact assessment, they will know the additional impact on business is £16.9 million, at a difficult time for them, so we should pay tribute to businesses that are willing to take on these extra duties.

The hon. Member for Bradford East talked about a ban on zero-hours contracts. I gently ask whether he is doing that in the full and certain knowledge of the costs on business, because I have not seen a figure from Labour to say what would be the cost to business of doing that. That is a reasonable concern that businesses may have about the extra costs of doing business under a potential Labour Government.

Taken as a package, these Bills will deliver on our 2019 manifesto commitments to enhance workers’ rights and support people to stay in work. They will help new parents, unpaid carers and hospitality workers.

Before I close, I want to thank the officials who have worked on this Bill: Sasha Ward, Bex Lowe, Lizzy Blakeman, Mel Thomas, Sarah Boulton-Jones, Louis Ariss, Laura Robinson, Richard Kelly, Adrienn SzNagy, Rose Jefferies and Dan Spillman and, from my private office, Cora Sweet. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Scott Benton Scott Benton Conservative, Blackpool South 12:22, 24 March 2023

With the leave of the House, I would like to thank all hon. Members for their contributions. My hon. Friend Laura Farris, with all her knowledge and experience in this particular area, gave a characteristically compelling speech in favour of the Bill. She was entirely correct to shine a light on some of the murkier practices that I am afraid are out there on zero-hours contracts.

My hon. Friend Dr Mullan is a superb advocate for blue-collar Conservatism and articulated that, as Conservatives, we can advance workers’ rights—and rightly so—while also recognising that both the employer and the worker are often quite happy with the existing arrangements around zero-hours contracts. I was interested to hear him ask how many Labour-run councils across the country actually utilise zero-hours contracts.

I am afraid that in 2020, at the height of covid, Labour-run Blackpool Council in my own constituency dismissed dozens of zero-hours contract workers who worked in leisure centres. The circumstances around their dismissal left a particularly nasty taste in the mouth at the height of a pandemic when those families were particularly struggling. I am also interested to hear that protecting such workers remains a Labour manifesto commitment, but I suggest that Imran Hussain communicates to Labour council leaders around the country that they need to up their game and practice what they preach on this issue.

I would, however, like to thank the hon. Gentleman for his support throughout the passage of the Bill. He alluded to the fact that my constituency is particularly deprived, given its reliance on the tourism and leisure sectors. My constituency will probably benefit from the Bill more than most, given the higher number of zero-hours contracts in the tourism industry in Blackpool. I know his constituency well, having grown up very close to it, and I know that his constituents will also disproportionately benefit from the Bill due to the specific labour conditions in and around Bradford.

As ever, I would like to place on record my considerable thanks not only to the brilliant Minister, but his fantastic private office team who have been an absolute joy to work with throughout the passage of the Bill. The Minister rightly articulated that it is this Conservative Government who have taken so many steps over the last 13 years to improve workers’ rights, not least delivering on this private Member’s Bill, which, as the Minister articulated, was a manifesto commitment of this party. I am always proud to defend this Government’s record in my constituency, not least on the way we have supported working people and helped to take so many of them out of poverty since 2010. No doubt the Bill will be a further step on that journey.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to promote the Bill on Third Reading. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.