Zero-hours Contracts

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 19th March 2014.

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Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (International Development) 4:00 pm, 19th March 2014

I agree with my hon. Friend. Given the plethora of things that found attention in today’s Budget, it was a surprise that the Chancellor did not want to talk about zero-hours contracts, which seem to be at the heart of the Government’s approach to economic recovery.

I want to return briefly to the numbers. If the Minister has not yet clocked the problem, she ought to. The ONS has effectively said that previously it was undercounting due to the definitions in the labour force survey and/or a problem with people’s awareness that they are on zero-hours contracts. We now cannot tell what the trend is. The latest statistics may or may not represent a massive spike in the use of zero-hours contracts—I do not know. We cannot tell whether the statistics show a rise or a fall, because it is clear that the ONS has been undercounting previously. I would therefore like to know what further research DBIS has commissioned. As policy makers, we are in an awful situation—there is a phenomenon in the labour market, but we do not know what is happening. What further research has been or will be commissioned by DBIS, because unless we know whether the phenomenon is radically and exponentially increasing, how can we know what measures should be taken to tackle it?

Secondly, I would like to know what the Government are doing. The Minister will probably stand up and say that they have talked about preventing exclusivity clauses, which is okay and fine, but there is a raft of other ways in which the Government need to tackle the phenomenon, not least the one mentioned by one of my hon. Friends in relation to the Work programme and jobcentres. For example, are jobs on zero-hours contracts routinely being advertised through Jobcentre Plus and are claimants then sanctioned if they do not take them? I am afraid that it will not be enough for me to know whether a policy document exists. I would like to know whether the Minister believes that people are routinely being sanctioned for not taking jobs on zero-hours contracts, because it would be terribly serious if that were the case.

I have always said that if a small business offers opportunities on a zero-hours basis, as and when, and the person taking that job is in no way penalised if they turn down the hours—either they are a student or they just want to keep their hand in with a job but do not want lots of hours—that would be okay in my book. However, the problem is that we are in a world in which Jobcentre Plus is being directed to get the claimant count down, and we know that there are significant problems in the DWP and in that organisation. I am very worried about the idea that my constituents and others are being forced into employment on a basis that they do not really want or feel comfortable with because of current policy decisions.

I stand in this Westminster Hall debate today, proud of Wirral council, the local authority in which I am a Member of Parliament, because it has tried to adopt Unison’s ethical care charter. The council has said—to respond to the points made by my right hon. Friend Mr Smith—that in its commissioning, it wants to adhere to standards to ensure that, in the very important work of looking after older people or those who are vulnerable and need a bit of help, it is not participating in a race to the bottom. That involves moving away from zero-hours contracts, paying properly for travel time, trying to get to the living wage and ending 15-minute appointments.

Without going deeply into the care sector, we need to look at the role of central and local Government in preventing zero-hours contracts, in both their commissioning and procuring roles. We can try to lead from the front. I would like to know what conversations the Minister has had across DBIS on procurement and commissioning, and across the Government on moving away from zero-hours contracts and saying, “In general terms in our economy, it is not a hugely helpful phenomenon to have people with unpredictable levels of income at the end of each month.” Will the Government lead the way in trying to set the standard in the labour market? What conversations has the Minister had about that?

This issue has been mentioned, but I would also like to know what the Government are doing to enforce the minimum wage properly. It seems to me that there is a group of—not universally, but broadly—women in society who are at risk of not being paid the minimum wage. They are in a workplace in which they are not necessarily powerful, and they often have child care or other caring responsibilities alongside their job, and cannot be expected to expend the time and effort to take their cases forward. It falls as a duty on us in this House and on the Government to ensure that we stand up for those people and ensure that they get the minimum wage.

Without focusing universally on the care sector, there was further new evidence this week that it is becoming more difficult to have a predictable or the same carer all the time. Part of that is about the use of zero-hours contracts and their unpredictability. I repeat my question to the Minister: what cross-Government conversations has she had to find out what actions DBIS needs to take to lead in response to the phenomenon?

I do not know whether the Minister is aware, but zero-hours contracts are not the only problem in this sphere. Often, they go alongside the use of agencies and other ways in which people find loopholes to get around their responsibilities. I would not want us to bear down on the use of zero-hours contracts only to see the problem pop up in another guise. The Minister should be aware of that problem as we move forward. It should not be about closing down one way of getting around employers’ responsibilities, only for the problem to raise its head under another definition. The Minister needs to think carefully about that.