As the debate over zero hours contracts has intensified, the question of how many councils are employing people on such contracts has arisen – largely thanks to an article in the Evening Standard which claimed to expose a number of Labour-run councils for using such contracts.
Here in Brighton and Hove the debate has taken a slightly different turn. The Green administration is claiming that no Brighton and Hove council staff are on zero-hours. The unions are taking a different line – and even some Conservatives have waded into the debate, claiming that it is a good thing that such flexible contracts are on offer.
The confusion is unsurprising. There is no clear definition of a zero-hours contract and they can take many different forms. The shorthand term “zero hours” is actually misleading – although it applies to some contracts, “variable hours” would be better. The point is that the employer is able to cut the employee’s working hours – and hence pay – at short notice without compensation. So for example I was talking the other day to someone who works for a private sector employer on a part-time contract that offers the employee week-to-week control over their working hours, subject to a contractual minimum. Not zero hours at all, you might have thought – a contract that offers considerable flexibility. But the contract also gives the employer an absolute right, without notice or explanation, to cancel shifts. So in effect it’s a zero hours culture even if that power is never used. My acquaintance was somewhat shocked to discover she was on a zero-hours contract but, nevertheless, accepted that this was where the logic led.
So what does this mean for Brighton and Hove Council? The speed with which its response was delivered was impressive – but I wonder how deeply the issue has been considered. I would be astonished if there was no Brighton and Hove Council employee who had a provision in the contract allowing the employer to cancel work at short notice without compensation – if that’s true I think I want to join their unions. Moreover, in these days of outsourcing the boundary between who works and who does not work for the council can be blurred.
So the issue comes down to asking the right question. I’ve just submitted the following FOI request:
Pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 I should be grateful if you could provide all information held relating to the number of (a) directly employed council staff, (b) staff employed by contractors carrying out statutory functions and (c) staff employed by contractors carrying out non-statutory functions, whose contracts of employment permit the employer to vary their hours worked without prior notice and, in the case of a reduction in the number of hours, without being paid for the hours that have been worked. Please provide the information for the current financial year, for 2010-11, and for 2006-7.
I’m not confident of getting the historical information, but the point is that for the council to be able confidently to assert that no current staff are on zero hours contracts it must have this information for the current financial year easily to hand. If it can’t answer this question, then its assurance means nothing.
I will update when I have an answer