I thank Alison McGovern for securing this debate. It is a very important issue, which has been widely discussed in the media, online and in both Houses of Parliament. She raised some important points.
The term “zero-hours contract” encompasses many different forms of employment relationship, in which the employer does not guarantee any work and the individual does not have to accept it when offered. Such contracts can be direct contracts of employment or can cover people working for agencies and so on, so they include a wide variety of different models of employment. The Government, and indeed most people now, believe that zero-hours contracts have a place in today’s labour market, but we need to make sure that people get a fair deal when they are employed on such a contract. The Government have always been clear that we will crack down on any exploitation of individuals in the workplace and the zero-hours contract consultation that has just closed is an important part of the process.
As the hon. Lady highlighted, there has been some inconsistency in the statistics on zero-hours contracts. The picture has been very mixed. That is primarily because there is no legal definition of a zero-hours contract, so it has been difficult to gather good statistics. The labour force survey, as a survey of individuals, provides an estimate of the number of people who identify as being on zero-hours contracts. The greater media coverage in 2013 is likely to have increased awareness of zero-hours contracts. The Office for National Statistics believes that that has led to the estimate rising from 250,000 people in the final quarter of 2012 to more than
500,000 people in the final quarter of 2013; in other words, it more than doubled. We do need to gather information and analyse it sensibly if we are to know exactly what is going on and to achieve the right balance between the opportunities and the risks that zero-hours contracts provide. The hon. Member for Wirral South asked what is being done on that. The Office for National Statistics has been looking at the issue and will release the results of its new survey in April. That will, I hope, give us more clarity about the current figures and the number of people working in this way.
Let me put the issue in a little bit of context. Zero-hours contracts can give growing companies the opportunity to grow in a relatively safe way and can be used to increase flexibility in the range of services that businesses are able to give their customers or clients—for example, by employing people in specialist roles and in different geographical locations that a permanent staffing model could not provide for.
The contracts are sometimes portrayed as simply a way for businesses to try to reduce labour costs, to the detriment of the people who work for them, but we have also heard in evidence that we have received that the contracts sometimes offer positive work opportunities to people who would find it difficult to take regular work at fixed times. For example, one quarter of all zero-hours contracts are taken up by students, who cannot necessarily commit to a fixed working pattern, as their timetables change. The contracts can allow them, for example, to be more flexible around exams and so on. Zero-hours contracts offer them an opportunity to gain useful work experience and to progress on to other forms of employment when they wish to do so. That is also true of many other people with responsibilities outside work—in particular, caring responsibilities. The additional flexibility that zero-hours contracts can provide can be greatly valued.
Having said that, we must be clear that although zero-hours contracts suit some people, they do not suit everyone and there are people on zero-hours contracts who would prefer to be in full-time, permanent work. I am sure that, as constituency MPs, we have all seen people in that situation.