I think most policy wonks would agree that ‘Private Member’s Bill’ and ‘useful contribution to policy debate’ are phrases not often found nestling together in the same sentence. But this week the Labour MP for Corby & East Northamptonshire, Andy Sawford, tabled not one but two PMBs, each of which provides a timely opportunity to focus much-needed political attention on an increasingly urgent policy question.
Had it any chance of making it to the statue book, Mr Sawford’s Zero Hours Contract Bill would ban the use of such contracts, which has risen sharply over the past decade (though official figures put the number of workers employed on such contracts in 2012 at just 208,000, or 0.7 per cent of the workforce). In recent months, the resultant insecurity for invariably low paid workers has generated a significant amount of policy debate and expressions of concern, but much less in the way of possible policy solutions.
The conventional consensus has long been against an outright ban, as it is undisputed that many workers benefit from and value the flexibility that such contracts provide to them as well as their employer. But growing evidence of the use and exploitative misuse of such contracts has led some – including the union Unite – to shift towards favouring a ban.
These cracks in the consensus were well in evidence on Tuesday, at a thought-provoking Resolution Foundation seminar to launch the think tank’s new report A matter of time: the rise of zero-hours contracts (PDF). Somewhat to my surprise, however, I found myself agreeing with Matthew Oakley of Policy Exchange – a think tank at the other end of the political spectrum to both me and the seminar’s host – when he argued that a ban would simply lead to the ‘problem’ popping up in another form.
However, to my mind James Lazou of Unite hit the nail on the head when he suggested that zero-hours contracts are just part of ‘a much bigger issue’: the emergence of a multi-tier employment status with the most insecure workers facing the greatest risk of exploitation and, with the ‘dismantling’ of access to the employment tribunal system, the most restricted access to justice.
And Matthew Pennycook of the Resolution Foundation noted that ‘short of a ban, there are measures that could be taken to avoid the most egregious consequences’. Hopefully, the governmental review announced by Business Secretary Vince Cable earlier this month will identify some such measures.
Andy Sawford’s second PMB – The Gangmasters Licensing Authority (Extension of Powers) Bill – is arguably more on the button in providing for an extension of the remit of the GLA to all employment agencies in the economy. It has never made any sense that agencies in a small number of sectors are regulated by the high-profile, energetic and evidently effective GLA whilst the far greater number of agencies in the rest of the economy are policed by the almost invisible Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate. You’d think a cost-saving and efficacy-enhancing merger of the two bodies would be right up the Coalition Government’s street, and it certainly should be on any incoming Labour government’s ‘to do’ list.
Who knows, maybe with this one Mr Sawford will find himself joining that elite band of MPs whose PMB made it all the way to the statute book.
Richard Dunstan is a policy wonk who has worked for Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.