Last week Cllr Michelle Collins from Wakefield wrote a prescient piece here about the underlying sense of insecurity people face in Britain today. She is absolutely right – the reality is that David Cameron’s country is a more insecure Britain.
For over 2.5 million people struggling to find work, Government initiatives are failing to help. Three years into this government nearly 9 out of 10 people on their flagship Work Programme have been let down. Their Youth Contract has been a failure and is on course to miss its target by more than 92%.
For others in work, they are earning £1,477 less a year on average than they were in 2010. Furthermore, analysis of Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts by the House of Commons library shows that people will on average have lost a total of £6,660 in real terms by 2015 under the Tory led Government.
But, little commented on is the fact that those in work now feel less secure and more pressured at work than at any time in the past 20 years according to the most recent UK Skills & Employment Survey. The ballooning of the use of zero hours contracts is symptomatic of this.
Zero-hours contracts do not oblige employers to offer guaranteed hours of work to their workers. Some chose the arrangement because they like the flexibility but for many it leaves you subject to the whim and demands of your employer to work at short notice, which promotes insecurity and makes family life impossible to plan.
The Shadow Business Innovation and Skills Team – Ian Murray in particular – has been looking at zero-hours contracts in the context of Labour’s policy review for several months now. Based on what we have learnt from stakeholders and others, we are clear: there is strong anecdotal evidence that these contracts – which should be the exception to the rule – are becoming the norm in far too many sectors and are being abused.
There is little firm data on the extent of the use of zero-hours contracts but over the summer months, the ONS produced revised figures putting the figures at over 250,000. This is likely to be a severe underestimate given that in the care sector alone others have estimated there are now over 300,000 employees on such contracts. This culminated in the CIPD releasing figures this month put estimates on the numbers on these contracts at up to a million people. Consequently, I have written to the chair of the UK Statistics Authority asking the ONS to clarify the data and publish new figures in light of the evidence that has arisen. Getting a clearer sense of the reality of their use is a must.
My Labour parliamentary colleagues from Merseyside – Luciana Berger, George Howarth and Alison McGovern – also produced an excellent report detailing their use in the Liverpool area in June. And Julie Elliot held a Westminster Hall debate last month on this issue. 17 Labour MPs made contributions in Julie’s debate but not one Government backbencher spoke save for Nadine Dorries (but she doesn’t count as she was chairing the debate!). Is it any wonder that Ministers are perceived as “out of touch” when their party shows such little interest in the job insecurities that working people face.
But, never mind their backbenchers, what about the Government’s Ministerial team? Under pressure, Vince Cable announced a “review” into the issue but it is wholly insufficient. Usually the Government would conduct a full and proper consultation with a call for evidence – that is what should happen here. Instead, as has been revealed in answer to Parliamentary Questions I tabled, 3 officials within his department are spending “part of their time” researching how zero-hours contracts are being used by businesses – this does not afford the issue the attention it deserves.
So, further to the work we have carried out to date, we have convened a summit today including over 20 different organisations representing employers, employees, legal experts and workers currently on zero-hours contracts to consider what action should be taken to clamp down on the abuse of these arrangements. When the House returns we will follow this up with a debate in the House of Commons. David Cameron might choose to turn a blind eye to growing insecurity for hard-working families and individuals under his watch – we won’t sit idly by whilst that happens.
Chuka Umunna MP is Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary – @ChukaUmunna