It is a pleasure to open this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. My contribution will not be terribly lengthy, which will enable other hon. Members to intervene or contribute, and to hear the Minister. I would like to start by referring to an e-mail that was sent to me recently. Knowing that I had secured this debate, quite a number of people got in touch with and wrote to me, as they feel so strongly about zero-hours contracts.
One gentleman who got in touch explained his life, saying that he lives to work and enjoys work, and wants to feel good about himself and perhaps own a house one day. He is signed up with an agency and has had various problems. Anyway, the agency felt that it could get him a job as a refuse collector. He has written me a long e-mail, explaining how he has turned up for work only to be turned away. He has had the odd day here and there, and he feels that the situation is like something from many years ago, where someone turns up not knowing whether he will be given work. He said that, when it started, he was “a little annoyed”, but “confused more than anything”. He said there were
“about 50 lads in that day and only 40 had work.”
“It just carries on like this. I have been here two months now, and only ever had one full week; to cover a holiday, it looks like. And you daren’t take a sick day; not like I would anyway if it could be helped…you would just lose your place and start at the bottom of the pile.”
Reading that, as I did last night, brought it all back to me as to why my hon. Friend Luciana Berger, my right hon. Friend Mr Howarth and I started a campaign and a discussion on zero-hours contracts last summer. I will go on to talk about the numbers of people whom we do not know are on zero-hours contracts.
The issue is about people who are facing a difficulty in the workplace. It is about how that makes them feel. The indignity of feeling useless through unemployment is very bad, and we must never let up on our passion to get people into work and see the difference. However, it is no better to feel the indignity of turning up for work and being turned away. Zero-hours contracts can be used to make people feel as if their efforts are for no good at all and that they are not wanted. The issue is not just a fact of economics, but a moral question about how people are made to feel by certain features of our labour market. That is why we need real action. I want to say a couple of things about understanding the phenomenon of zero-hours contracts; about what the Government are or are not doing, and what they might be doing; and about such contracts as a symptom of other developments in the labour market.
Regarding counting, the Office for National Statistics said that the most recent labour force survey suggests that there are close to 600,000 people—I think the exact figure is 582,000—on zero-hours contracts in the United Kingdom. That is up from its previous estimate earlier this year of around 250,000. We knew that there was a problem with the survey’s counting of zero-hours contracts, because in a parliamentary response to me, the Minister of State, Department of Health, who has responsibility for care, explained that a national survey of care workers estimated that more than 300,000 people working in social care were on zero-hours contracts. There cannot be 300,000 people on zero-hours contracts in the care sector when there are only 250,000 nationally across all sectors. Therefore we knew that there was a problem, and now the ONS has said that there is.