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Insecure Work

Volume 654: debated on Tuesday 12 February 2019

Britain has a very strong record in this area, with the highest level of employment in our history, combined with some of the strongest rights for workers in Europe. Last month, I announced new measures to counter discrimination at work against women returning from maternity leave, and we are one of the first countries in Europe so to do.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but may I remind him that unemployment in my constituency is up by almost 1,000 on the same period last year, to 2,860? May I also tell him that a fire at Country Style Foods in Peterlee in my constituency has left a number of people looking for work, including one temporary worker employed through an agency? She had worked for the same company for seven years on a zero-hours contract, but a short break in her employment has stopped her accessing contributions-based benefits. In most zero-hours contracts, this “flexibility” is illusory. When would he consider that zero-hours contracts are inappropriate?

Two thirds of workers on zero-hours contracts say that they do not want any more hours and that they are content. On the break in service, the hon. Gentleman will know that that relates to one of the recommendations of the Taylor review that we have committed to implementing.

It has been almost two months since the Minister announced that workers on zero-hours contracts would get the right to request a stable contract. There are 65,000 people in the east midlands whose main job is on a zero-hours contract; our region has the highest percentage of people on these contracts, according to the Office for National Statistics. That means tens of thousands of people vulnerable to unfair treatment at work, uncertain about whether they can afford to get through the next week, let alone plan for the future. In this HeartUnions Week, the TUC is rightly calling for a ban on exploitative zero-hours contracts. When will the Government act to tackle insecurity in the workplace, rather than just tell workers to ask nicely for a permanent contract?

The Taylor report, and indeed the Select Committee, considered the recommendation that has come from some sources to ban zero-hours contracts. The Taylor report concluded that banning zero-hours contracts

“would negatively impact many more people than it helped.”

The joint report by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee found that people on zero-hours contracts preferred to have that flexibility, for the most part—[Interruption.] That was the evidence given to the Committee. The hon. Lady will know that we have committed to bringing in the right to request a stable-hours contract.

I refer colleagues to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Last week, the GMB and Hermes struck a landmark deal that proved that secure work is compatible with new and emerging industries. Today, I am writing to DPD, which has a depot in my constituency, to ask it to meet the unions and follow suit. Will the Secretary of State say today that it is important that we establish good laws in this country, but companies can get on with it now? They can get around the table with their unions and secure the jobs for their people in their workplace.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I met Tim Roache, the head of the GMB, last week and congratulated him and Hermes on having come to their agreement. It shows that good employers can work with their employees to agree what is the best for them mutually, and it is a very good example of that.

According to the TUC, 3.8 million people are working in insecure jobs with no guarantee of hours, which represents a 36% increase since 2010. One of my constituents in Lincoln, Dan, is struggling to break out of the cycle of precarious work. He told me:

“You cannot support a family”—

and he is doing his best—

“if every morning you’re turning up for a job that might not exist.”

Does the Minister agree that the unacceptable increase in insecure work fundamentally undermines the UK’s high employment levels?

I am glad the hon. Lady mentions our high employment levels—she is right to do so—because for people to have the best opportunities for prosperity we have to ensure that there are jobs available. She will know that we have more jobs and more vacancies in this country than we ever have had. The number of workers on zero-hours contracts is just 2.4% of all employees, and that is falling, as it happens. As I say, two thirds of them prefer that flexibility. The right approach, in line with the recommendations of the Taylor review, is to give workers the opportunity to request a stable, fixed contract, but to allow flexibility for those who want it.

My right hon. Friend is right to recognise that zero-hours contracts give flexibility to particular groups of people, many of whom have caring responsibilities and peripatetic work patterns. Without those contracts, they would not be able to enter the world of work and benefit themselves. Does he recall that it was the last Labour Government that had these contracts as exclusive and that we got rid of that abuse?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We made that change, and it was of great benefit. We should be proud of the increase in employment that has taken place. According to the Resolution Foundation, the biggest gainers principally have been women, ethnic minorities, single parents and disabled people. That is something we should be proud of.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that with the creation of 3 million brand-new jobs since 2010, more people in our country are in secure employment than ever before in our nation’s history?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, the number is 3.25 million more jobs since 2010, and 80% of those have been full-time. The number of zero-hours contracts has actually fallen.

Rugby has the second highest rate of people in work in the west midlands, and one reason for that is the flexibility in the local labour market, especially in the growing logistics sector. Does the Secretary of State agree that for many people, the ability to choose the hours they work is important to them?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Taylor report called for two-sided flexibility, so that employers and employees can make a choice as to what the best arrangements are for them both.

The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) says that the east midlands has the highest proportion of people on zero-hours contracts, but she failed to add that we also have the highest economic growth outside of London and the south-east. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best guarantees of improving workers’ rights, conditions and wages are a strong demand for labour, a growing economy and the control of unskilled migration, which is something we will be able to do after Brexit?

I agree with my hon. Friend that having jobs and vacancies available is the best source of security for people in this country. We have a proud record of having secured that over the past eight years.

Last week, it was reported that the Government plan to bring forward legislation to commit to guaranteeing workers’ rights outside the EU. Will the Secretary of State confirm that no Government can bind their successors? As easily as legislation can be passed, a future Tory Government could take those rights away, just as this Government have done by introducing tribunal fees, passing the draconian Trade Union Act 2016 and failing to crack down on bogus self-employment. Why would Members on the Opposition Benches trust anything that the Government say about ensuring workers’ rights in law?

The record of this Government has been to extend workers’ rights way beyond what the European Union has offered. In the UK, we have 52 weeks of maternity leave, for example, compared with a requirement of 14 weeks in the EU. This House has chosen to give rights of paternity leave and pay to fathers and partners that are not yet available in the EU. The measures that the hon. Lady knows we are about to introduce for people returning from maternity leave makes us a leader in Europe on the issue. She should be confident in the ability of this House to promote and protect workers’ rights.