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Insecure Work

Volume 656: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2019

The best way to support people is to make sure that they have a job. Today it was announced that more people are employed in our country than ever before. Unemployment has fallen to 3.9%, its lowest since 1975. Our pay rose in real terms over the past year by 1.3%, and over the past year 96% of those new jobs have been full time.

Too often, workers have eight or 10-hour contracts, but are then expected to work up to 60 hours when their employer demands it, with no flexibility in return. One concrete step that the Government could take to protect these insecure workers is to ensure that contracts reflect the hours that people normally work. Will the Minister commit to legislating for this?

I am slightly surprised to hear that from the hon. Lady because she knows that we have taken measures to give workers the right to request that stable contract. She will know that in her own area Bradford Council is a very good exponent of that. It was advertising last night for casual commis chefs, saying that hours are offered on a “casual basis” and may be withdrawn by either party, giving a minimum of two hours’ notice. If she wants those rights to be extended, I suggest that she talk to Bradford Council first.

Can the Business Secretary confirm that there are more people in our nation in secure employment than ever before in our history and that the number of people on zero- hours contracts has fallen by 100,000 in the past year alone?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Obviously, it is a great source of confidence to people that they can obtain a job. It is the case that employers across the country value the flexibility that having a flexible workforce gives. In fact, again, the Labour leader of Gateshead Council said that

“many zero-hours contracts employees”

on the council

“don’t want to be full time employees and prefer to consider themselves as self-employed”,

so this is a practice that is pursued right across the country.

Some 1.6 million workers are paid exactly the national living wage of £7.83 an hour, and a further 3 million people are paid within 50 pence of it. In the spring statement last week, the Chancellor said that the ultimate objective of this Government was

“ending low pay in the UK”—[Official Report, 13 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 349.]

The usual definition of a national living wage is 66% of median earnings, but the remit of the Low Pay Commission is only to get to 60%. Are the Government now committing to end low pay? If so, when?

The hon. Lady should recognise the commitment to 60% and the progress that has been made towards that, which meant a very big pay increase for many of the lowest paid workers in the country. She will remember that the Chancellor announced a review in his statement last week to look into where we go beyond that, using international best practice to inform such a decision. I hope that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, which the hon. Lady chairs, will want to contribute to that review.

Matthew Taylor’s recent review of modern working practices indicated that a blanket ban on zero-hours contracts would create more cliff edges for employers and workers. Does my right hon. Friend agree with that analysis?

I do agree with that analysis and with what my hon. Friend has said. The conclusion of the panel in that completely independent report was:

“To ban zero hours contracts…would negatively impact many more people than it helped.”

It is right to ensure that there is an ability to request a stable contract and that people are not banned from working for different employers, but to remove these contracts all together would be against the practice of many employers, including councils.

16. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers continues to receive evidence of seafarer pay as low as £3.60 an hour, including on UK-registered vessels. Employers in the ferry sector are continuing to reflag their ships. When will the Government take action to ensure that the national minimum wage provides a basic safety net for seafarers’ pay, including on international routes? (909880)

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. In the last few weeks, I have been discussing with the trade unions how any loopholes that might be being exploited should be closed. It is the intention of everyone across the House that the law should be obeyed and that workers should be paid a fair rate for their work.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is often the UK, not the EU, that has led the way on workers’ rights, and does he expect this to continue?

I do indeed expect this to continue. Many of the rights that we have introduced—including, for example, the right to request a stable contract—were pioneered in this country, and are only now being taken up by other European countries.

A couple of weeks ago, Labour colleagues and I crossed the road to Parliament Square to talk to outsourced Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy workers from the Public and Commercial Services Union and the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, who were demanding equal terms and conditions with directly employed staff. They were disappointed that no Minister from the Department came to talk to them. If anyone had, they would have heard how people’s status as contracted-out workers is a fundamental cause of their insecurity.

We have heard fine words from the Secretary of State about workers’ rights recently, yet here is an example of workers being forced into precarious contracts under his very nose. Will he outline what he is doing to put his own house in order to help resolve this dispute? In the process, will he learn the lesson that outsourcing is the cause of insecurity and poverty pay?

I value very highly the work of all the staff in my Department. I met some of the staff she has mentioned, who were affected. I asked my officials to review the comparable levels of pay that such staff receive, and those pay rates have been increased as a result. It was a good and constructive discussion with my much valued colleagues.