It would also be fairer of the Government to be absolutely clear about who will benefit from the full amount of the scheme. An average parent tuning in and out of yesterday’s news coverage might be forgiven for

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thinking that they were going to get £2,000 a year per child for help with child care costs. In fact, the figure is nothing like that. The Government have allocated £750 million a year to the scheme; they say that 1.9 million families will benefit, although in the small print they estimate that the figure will be nearer 1.3 million. Whatever way we do the maths, even the Government’s own figures suggest that the average amount per family on the scheme is somewhere between £400 and £500 a year, which is a far cry from the £2,000 per child that the broadcasters and newspapers were reporting yesterday. Will the Minister confirm that there is no new money for the scheme since what was announced a year ago, which was £750 million, even though the scheme is being extended? Those are the main points that I ask her to cover today.

On the universal credit announcement, as other colleagues have said, we absolutely welcome the plugging of that major gap in the scheme. We have been calling for that for many months. We have to be realistic, however: families on tax credits have seen a huge reduction in their child care support, from 80% to 70% under this Government, and the increase to 85% will not come in until universal credit comes in. We do not even know when universal credit will come on stream for families; it could be 2017 or 2018, and families will have faced a seven or eight-year gap with significant reductions. Will the Minister tell us what steps are being taken to help those families who are struggling with their costs now? Does she recognise that it was a mistake to reduce the rate from 80% to 70% in the first place?

Ms Buck: We have not talked about the early intervention grant and children’s centres. On take-up and participation in the offer, certainly in my constituency, a number of parents come through the experience of children’s centres, where they learn to deal with child care, build confidence, and develop their labour market skills. The early intervention grant, however, has been cut by 49% in Westminster. The lights are on in our children’s centres, but no one is home—the tumbleweed is blowing through them, and the services have all been closed—and that is unfortunately impacting on other areas of child care.

Lucy Powell: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I suggest that she tries to secure a separate debate on that issue because of its importance. We welcome yesterday’s announcement, but it needs to be set in context. A remaining real challenge for families is to face these critical issues, which have a real impact on maternal employment rates and the gender pay gap, and that is something the Government should be worried about.

3.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this debate on an extremely important topic. The Government’s various announcements this week, from three different Departments—the Treasury, the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions—show how seriously we take this issue. We have announced

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that parents will get up to £2,000 per child towards their child care costs. Parents on low incomes will get 85% of those costs paid.

I want to challenge some of the things that have been said in the debate. Under this Government, spending on child care and early intervention has gone from £4 billion to £4.5 billion. I am happy to supply hon. Members with statistics for their local authorities. It is worth making the point that we spend as much money on this, as a proportion of GDP, as countries such as France and Germany. We have to try to get better value from the money we spend. That is the intention of a lot of the Government’s work.

Many Members have pointed out that the problem has not arisen overnight. Child care costs have been rising steadily for the past 15 years. However, this year’s Family and Childcare Trust survey showed that costs in England are starting to come down for the first time in 12 years. In England, costs of nursery care are frozen in nominal terms and have fallen once inflation is taken into account. In Wales, the cost of equivalent nursery care has gone up by 13%, and in Scotland, by 8%.

The use of child care in deprived areas has gone up by 16% in the past year. We have also seen an increase in maternal employment rates and the number of women in work. That is because the Government have made an effort to streamline the complicated child care system we inherited. Whereas there were multiple bodies inspecting child care providers, Ofsted is now the sole arbiter of quality. We have also announced a single child care register that all child care providers should be on.

The right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), who is not in his place, made an important point about older children. The Secretary of State has recently announced that for our next manifesto the Conservatives are looking at the idea of enabling and funding schools to open for longer hours to give an integrated offer to parents. The issue is not just about child care but about education.

Ms Buck: I raised the fact that councillors are being asked to support our local nurseries and nursery classes, but are being told that they have to cut places from full time to part time because of the funding pressures of the offer. Does that meet the Minister’s objective of providing longer hours of care?

Elizabeth Truss: I am about to come on to the issues that are specific to London, and will address that point then.

We are absolutely passionate about quality and improving outcomes, which we know have previously been issues. There is an 18-month vocabulary gap between children from low-income and high-income backgrounds. That is a problem for all of us, because it means that children start school in different positions. We have improved the standards for early years teachers, so that they now have to meet the same standards as primary school teachers. We have seen a 25% increase in the number of early years teachers enrolling on courses in the past year. We are also raising the standards for early years educators. This week, we announced an early years pupil premium for three and four-year-olds, which means that there will be extra money for the most disadvantaged children aged three and four.

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We have improved the Ofsted framework, so it now looks at the qualifications of staff in nurseries and is much more focused on outcomes. We have introduced Teach First for early years teaching, to make sure that we are getting the best and brightest graduates into that vital sector. Most importantly, we are working on a coherent framework for the teaching structure from the ages of two to 18, so that early years provision is not seen as an afterthought but as a core part of our education system.

I recognise that there is a greater challenge in London. That is why I launched an £8 million fund with the Mayor of London at the end of last year. That aims to unlock the £1 billion that the Department for Education spends on early years provision in London.

I very much agree with the comments on increasing flexibility. A lot of school nurseries offer parents three hours, five days a week. That does not fit with many people’s working patterns. It also does not use our school nursery resources very well. In London, 45% of early years places are in school nurseries, which are generally open only between 9 am and 3 pm. If those school nurseries were all open between 8 am and 6 pm, that would give 66% extra child care hours. It is not a question of building more facilities but of using our facilities better. Those nurseries could open for two five-hour sessions a day, offering multiple hours.

Heidi Alexander: Will the Minister give way?

Elizabeth Truss: Forgive me, but I have to keep an eye on the time to make sure that I cover all the points that hon. Members have raised. I wanted to say specifically to the hon. Lady that the figure is even higher in Lewisham—half of all early years places there are in school nurseries. In Enfield, the figure is 42%. Think of the extra places we could provide if all those school nurseries opened for the longer hours I mentioned. It is not that the children should have full-time places; it is a question of parents being able to access places flexibly. Nurseries are entirely able to charge for the extra hours parents take, so they can open to suit the timetables of working parents.

That is why we launched the scheme with the Mayor of London and are working with different London boroughs. I would welcome the support of local MPs. Our officials have been discussing the matter with officials from Enfield and Lewisham in particular, as well as with officials from the three boroughs concerned. I hope that those discussions will help to address some of the issues. At the moment, we have fantastic resources, particularly in London, but we are not using them to full effect. That is a microcosm of the overall problem in child care and early years education: are we getting the best out of the facilities that we have?

If we look at the proportion of places that are in school nurseries, which is up 50% in some boroughs, and the fact that children’s centres provide 4% of child

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care, there is a much bigger issue to explore with regard to how we best use our school nurseries. In the Children and Families Act 2014, we have legislated for school nurseries to be able to take two-year-olds without having to register separately.

Heidi Alexander: We probably share the same aspirations, but the Minister talks about enabling schools to do things, whereas I am interested in how she is going to make them happen. Some of the time, schools do not want to do those kinds of things, and neither the Government nor local authorities have the power to get us to the position that we all want to get to.

Elizabeth Truss: We are instituting a school-led system, and it is important that head teachers and other teachers buy into that. We are making things easier by removing a lot of bureaucratic hurdles for schools. It is in a school’s interest to have high-quality nursery education and child care in the school, to help children start school ready to learn, able to communicate and with the right vocabulary. We need to change the culture in education to embrace early years provision more, and move away from having rigid barriers.

We are looking at how admissions policy can affect these issues, particularly for the most deprived children, so that schools have an incentive to take children on. There is a massive opportunity in that area. Some school nurseries across the country have made those changes. They offer very affordable places for children and help their school to do better. That is why we are working with boroughs such as Lewisham and Enfield. We are producing case studies, getting the data together and encouraging schools. The right first step is to make things simpler and easier for schools. I welcome the support of hon. Members in championing this issue in various areas. We can get much better value for money from what we are doing.

I want the overall child care landscape to be understood, as there is a lot of confusion about exactly what proportion of children are in which type of place. In London, a high proportion of children are in school nurseries at age three and four. We are piloting more places for two-year-olds in schools. A high proportion of children are in private and voluntary sector nurseries. I am working with organisations such as the National Day Nurseries Association so that non-school nurseries can link better to schools, the private sector can learn from the public sector and vice versa, and there is less of a divide between them. That is how we will get positive professional practice in the early years sector—by encouraging more inter-working.

On the use of money and the example of Australia, the key point is that we need to make sure that we expand supply. I agree with the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) that if we do not, but simply push more cash in, there will be inflation. That is why the Government are making it easier to expand.

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Zero-hours Contracts

4 pm

Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to open this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. My contribution will not be terribly lengthy, which will enable other hon. Members to intervene or contribute, and to hear the Minister. I would like to start by referring to an e-mail that was sent to me recently. Knowing that I had secured this debate, quite a number of people got in touch with and wrote to me, as they feel so strongly about zero-hours contracts.

One gentleman who got in touch explained his life, saying that he lives to work and enjoys work, and wants to feel good about himself and perhaps own a house one day. He is signed up with an agency and has had various problems. Anyway, the agency felt that it could get him a job as a refuse collector. He has written me a long e-mail, explaining how he has turned up for work only to be turned away. He has had the odd day here and there, and he feels that the situation is like something from many years ago, where someone turns up not knowing whether he will be given work. He said that, when it started, he was “a little annoyed”, but “confused more than anything”. He said there were

“about 50 lads in that day and only 40 had work.”

He continued:

“It just carries on like this. I have been here two months now, and only ever had one full week; to cover a holiday, it looks like. And you daren’t take a sick day; not like I would anyway if it could be helped…you would just lose your place and start at the bottom of the pile.”

Reading that, as I did last night, brought it all back to me as to why my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) and I started a campaign and a discussion on zero-hours contracts last summer. I will go on to talk about the numbers of people whom we do not know are on zero-hours contracts.

The issue is about people who are facing a difficulty in the workplace. It is about how that makes them feel. The indignity of feeling useless through unemployment is very bad, and we must never let up on our passion to get people into work and see the difference. However, it is no better to feel the indignity of turning up for work and being turned away. Zero-hours contracts can be used to make people feel as if their efforts are for no good at all and that they are not wanted. The issue is not just a fact of economics, but a moral question about how people are made to feel by certain features of our labour market. That is why we need real action. I want to say a couple of things about understanding the phenomenon of zero-hours contracts; about what the Government are or are not doing, and what they might be doing; and about such contracts as a symptom of other developments in the labour market.

Regarding counting, the Office for National Statistics said that the most recent labour force survey suggests that there are close to 600,000 people—I think the exact figure is 582,000—on zero-hours contracts in the United Kingdom. That is up from its previous estimate earlier this year of around 250,000. We knew that there was a problem with the survey’s counting of zero-hours contracts, because in a parliamentary response to me, the Minister of State, Department of Health, who has responsibility

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for care, explained that a national survey of care workers estimated that more than 300,000 people working in social care were on zero-hours contracts. There cannot be 300,000 people on zero-hours contracts in the care sector when there are only 250,000 nationally across all sectors. Therefore we knew that there was a problem, and now the ONS has said that there is.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important issue to Westminster Hall. Does she agree that the recent figure of 500,000 zero-hours contracts is quite conservative? Other analysis suggests that there are more than 1 million people on such contracts. For those 1 million people, there is no production or wages, and they have no economic input whatever. If we have 1 million-plus people on zero-hours contracts, is that not a way of fiddling the employment or unemployment statistics that we are currently being fed by the Government?

Alison McGovern: My hon. Friend has pre-empted exactly what I am going to say. It is interesting that a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Minister will respond to the debate, but we could do with having the Health Minister here, given how rampant zero-hours contracts are in the care sector. We could also do with the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), who has responsibility for employment, because I want to know exactly how many people we have forced to take jobs with zero-hours contracts to get them off the claimant count.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I join the congratulations to my hon. Friend on securing this enormously important debate. On the care sector, does she agree that such vulnerable contracts are exactly the opposite of what we need to build the status, training and career structure of care workers? Is it not a scandal that care workers are often not paid for travelling between one job and another, and are therefore being paid below the minimum wage for the hours they are working? Does Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs not need to start enforcing that?

Alison McGovern: My right hon. Friend has hit the nail right on the head. There is no better word for that than “scandal”. I will come on to say a few things about the care sector. He and I are as one in thinking that we need to develop the skills of our care work force.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. It strikes me that we are going back to a 19th century approach with zero-hours contracts. Going back to the ’30s, or even before the first world war, dockers or miners would turn up at the gates of a factory or the docks, a tallyman would throw something in the middle of them, and whoever was lucky enough to pick it up got a job. Whoever did not get it did not get a job. Zero-hours contracts are a 19th century approach. I was disappointed that nothing was said in today’s Budget to address zero-hours contracts and the cost of living. People on zero-hours contracts are badly affected by the cost of living.

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Alison McGovern: I agree with my hon. Friend. Given the plethora of things that found attention in today’s Budget, it was a surprise that the Chancellor did not want to talk about zero-hours contracts, which seem to be at the heart of the Government’s approach to economic recovery.

I want to return briefly to the numbers. If the Minister has not yet clocked the problem, she ought to. The ONS has effectively said that previously it was undercounting due to the definitions in the labour force survey and/or a problem with people’s awareness that they are on zero-hours contracts. We now cannot tell what the trend is. The latest statistics may or may not represent a massive spike in the use of zero-hours contracts—I do not know. We cannot tell whether the statistics show a rise or a fall, because it is clear that the ONS has been undercounting previously. I would therefore like to know what further research DBIS has commissioned. As policy makers, we are in an awful situation—there is a phenomenon in the labour market, but we do not know what is happening. What further research has been or will be commissioned by DBIS, because unless we know whether the phenomenon is radically and exponentially increasing, how can we know what measures should be taken to tackle it?

Secondly, I would like to know what the Government are doing. The Minister will probably stand up and say that they have talked about preventing exclusivity clauses, which is okay and fine, but there is a raft of other ways in which the Government need to tackle the phenomenon, not least the one mentioned by one of my hon. Friends in relation to the Work programme and jobcentres. For example, are jobs on zero-hours contracts routinely being advertised through Jobcentre Plus and are claimants then sanctioned if they do not take them? I am afraid that it will not be enough for me to know whether a policy document exists. I would like to know whether the Minister believes that people are routinely being sanctioned for not taking jobs on zero-hours contracts, because it would be terribly serious if that were the case.

I have always said that if a small business offers opportunities on a zero-hours basis, as and when, and the person taking that job is in no way penalised if they turn down the hours—either they are a student or they just want to keep their hand in with a job but do not want lots of hours—that would be okay in my book. However, the problem is that we are in a world in which Jobcentre Plus is being directed to get the claimant count down, and we know that there are significant problems in the DWP and in that organisation. I am very worried about the idea that my constituents and others are being forced into employment on a basis that they do not really want or feel comfortable with because of current policy decisions.

I stand in this Westminster Hall debate today, proud of Wirral council, the local authority in which I am a Member of Parliament, because it has tried to adopt Unison’s ethical care charter. The council has said—to respond to the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith)—that in its commissioning, it wants to adhere to standards to ensure that, in the very important work of looking after older people or those who are vulnerable and need a bit of help, it is not participating in a race to the bottom. That involves moving away from zero-hours contracts, paying properly for travel time, trying to get to the living wage and ending 15-minute appointments.

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Without going deeply into the care sector, we need to look at the role of central and local Government in preventing zero-hours contracts, in both their commissioning and procuring roles. We can try to lead from the front. I would like to know what conversations the Minister has had across DBIS on procurement and commissioning, and across the Government on moving away from zero-hours contracts and saying, “In general terms in our economy, it is not a hugely helpful phenomenon to have people with unpredictable levels of income at the end of each month.” Will the Government lead the way in trying to set the standard in the labour market? What conversations has the Minister had about that?

This issue has been mentioned, but I would also like to know what the Government are doing to enforce the minimum wage properly. It seems to me that there is a group of—not universally, but broadly—women in society who are at risk of not being paid the minimum wage. They are in a workplace in which they are not necessarily powerful, and they often have child care or other caring responsibilities alongside their job, and cannot be expected to expend the time and effort to take their cases forward. It falls as a duty on us in this House and on the Government to ensure that we stand up for those people and ensure that they get the minimum wage.

Without focusing universally on the care sector, there was further new evidence this week that it is becoming more difficult to have a predictable or the same carer all the time. Part of that is about the use of zero-hours contracts and their unpredictability. I repeat my question to the Minister: what cross-Government conversations has she had to find out what actions DBIS needs to take to lead in response to the phenomenon?

I do not know whether the Minister is aware, but zero-hours contracts are not the only problem in this sphere. Often, they go alongside the use of agencies and other ways in which people find loopholes to get around their responsibilities. I would not want us to bear down on the use of zero-hours contracts only to see the problem pop up in another guise. The Minister should be aware of that problem as we move forward. It should not be about closing down one way of getting around employers’ responsibilities, only for the problem to raise its head under another definition. The Minister needs to think carefully about that.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Before my hon. Friend concludes, I want to congratulate her not only on today’s debate, but on the significant work she has done over the past two years. She has concentrated to a certain extent on the care sector, but may I point her towards the fast food industry? With the bakers’ union, we have just launched a campaign in the fast food sector not only for the living wage, but to oppose the imposition of zero-hours contracts, because they are used by managers to intimidate workers. For example, if a worker seeks to join the union or seeks to exercise or make representations about their rights, they will be denied work under zero-hours contracts for the following week. We are seeing them being used as an intimidatory tool, as well as one of exploitation.

Alison McGovern: My hon. Friend is right. One of the worst things about zero-hours contracts is what I call “zero-hours contracts as a management tool”. People have brought cases to me where, for whatever reason,

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somebody’s face did not fit and they did not end up getting any hours. That is no replacement for the usual practices of good management and all the rest of it, so it is something that we absolutely need to be aware of.

Another thing that employers can practically do to help us to deal with the situation is encourage people to join a trade union—I would say that, being a Labour MP. People will not always have the capacity to raise such issues themselves, but with workplace representation, they can, and we can help on low-paid work issues, such as getting people skills and boosting their abilities. I am sorry to be so predictable—being a Labour MP and supporting people joining a trade union—but there is a reason for joining a union. A union is a practical bit of infrastructure that can help businesses to give their workers a sense of being involved in the leadership, and help to tackle some of these problems. I think good employers would agree with me on that.

I want to take the opportunity to thank parliamentary colleagues who have taken the time to come along to today’s debate. Most importantly, however, I thank every single person who has been in touch with me over the past week or so since I was awarded the debate. I also thank all the people who have been in touch with me over the past six months to share their experience. I felt the experiences of people working on that basis were totally hidden. They are not hidden now. The question is: what can we do about it?

4.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jenny Willott): I thank the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for securing this debate. It is a very important issue, which has been widely discussed in the media, online and in both Houses of Parliament. She raised some important points.

The term “zero-hours contract” encompasses many different forms of employment relationship, in which the employer does not guarantee any work and the individual does not have to accept it when offered. Such contracts can be direct contracts of employment or can cover people working for agencies and so on, so they include a wide variety of different models of employment. The Government, and indeed most people now, believe that zero-hours contracts have a place in today’s labour market, but we need to make sure that people get a fair deal when they are employed on such a contract. The Government have always been clear that we will crack down on any exploitation of individuals in the workplace and the zero-hours contract consultation that has just closed is an important part of the process.

As the hon. Lady highlighted, there has been some inconsistency in the statistics on zero-hours contracts. The picture has been very mixed. That is primarily because there is no legal definition of a zero-hours contract, so it has been difficult to gather good statistics. The labour force survey, as a survey of individuals, provides an estimate of the number of people who identify as being on zero-hours contracts. The greater media coverage in 2013 is likely to have increased awareness of zero-hours contracts. The Office for National Statistics believes that that has led to the estimate rising from 250,000 people in the final quarter of 2012 to more than 500,000 people in the final quarter of 2013; in other

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words, it more than doubled. We do need to gather information and analyse it sensibly if we are to know exactly what is going on and to achieve the right balance between the opportunities and the risks that zero-hours contracts provide. The hon. Member for Wirral South asked what is being done on that. The Office for National Statistics has been looking at the issue and will release the results of its new survey in April. That will, I hope, give us more clarity about the current figures and the number of people working in this way.

Let me put the issue in a little bit of context. Zero-hours contracts can give growing companies the opportunity to grow in a relatively safe way and can be used to increase flexibility in the range of services that businesses are able to give their customers or clients—for example, by employing people in specialist roles and in different geographical locations that a permanent staffing model could not provide for.

The contracts are sometimes portrayed as simply a way for businesses to try to reduce labour costs, to the detriment of the people who work for them, but we have also heard in evidence that we have received that the contracts sometimes offer positive work opportunities to people who would find it difficult to take regular work at fixed times. For example, one quarter of all zero-hours contracts are taken up by students, who cannot necessarily commit to a fixed working pattern, as their timetables change. The contracts can allow them, for example, to be more flexible around exams and so on. Zero-hours contracts offer them an opportunity to gain useful work experience and to progress on to other forms of employment when they wish to do so. That is also true of many other people with responsibilities outside work—in particular, caring responsibilities. The additional flexibility that zero-hours contracts can provide can be greatly valued.

Having said that, we must be clear that although zero-hours contracts suit some people, they do not suit everyone and there are people on zero-hours contracts who would prefer to be in full-time, permanent work. I am sure that, as constituency MPs, we have all seen people in that situation.

Ian Lavery: Does the Minister agree with the comments from Lord Oakeshott, the Liberal Democrat peer, who said:

“A zero-hours Britain is a zero-rights Britain in the workplace—Beecroft by the back door. Being at the boss’s beck and call is no way to build a skilled, committed, loyal labour force”?

Jenny Willott: As I said, zero-hours contracts can have a place in the labour market. They can suit some people—students, people with caring responsibilities and others—but clearly they are not appropriate for everyone. Anecdotal evidence, including that highlighted by the hon. Member for Wirral South and by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), suggests that some individuals are being pressured into working when it does not suit them and have the implied threat hanging over them of being denied future work, which removes the flexibility for those individuals.

John McDonnell: I will give hon. Members just one example. The bakers’ union convened a meeting of fast-food workers a month ago, and a Costa worker turned up. Because he had not smiled enough that day,

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he was not going to get any work for the following week. These contracts are used as an intimidatory tool by managers, and we all have to condemn that, do we not?

Jenny Willott: I completely agree. The behaviour that the hon. Gentleman describes is not right and is not appropriate for a responsible employer. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House completely agree with that.

Some individuals have been working regular hours for long periods only to find that they are “zeroed-down”—their hours are brought down—when demand falls, perhaps due to the loss of an order. Clearly, that dramatic change in working hours and the resultant income loss will have a significant impact on the individual, especially if they are the only person working in the household. When individuals have their income supplemented by benefits, an increase or decrease in hours and income can have quite a significant impact on their benefits, which can be very difficult to manage in terms of household income.

Hon. Members raised issues about the link between jobseeker’s allowance and zero-hours contracts. Clearly, the Government’s priority is to help people on benefits to move off them and into work as soon as possible. However, as the hon. Member for Wirral South highlighted, some media reports suggest that people claiming jobseeker’s allowance are being told that they must apply for vacancies that are advertised as zero-hours contracts. I must stress that that is not the case. In such cases, someone’s benefit would not be sanctioned. DWP decision makers cannot mandate claimants to apply for zero-hours contracts, although they are obviously free to apply for such a job if it would suit them. The uncertainty about the hours of work offered by the employer and about the amount earned and so on can present difficulties for individuals, so someone would not be sanctioned for not applying for one of those jobs.

It is very important that individuals make informed choices when applying for or accepting work, and employers must ensure that both job adverts and employment contracts are transparent. People have the right to know up front that a contract does not guarantee work, if it is a zero-hours contract, so that they know what they are signing up to. The evidence that we have received in the Department is that that certainly is not the case for everyone on a zero-hours contract, and that needs to be resolved.

Hon. Members have also raised issues about the care sector and the entitlement to payment for the time spent travelling between jobs. I want to be clear that employers must ensure that their workers are paid at least the national minimum wage for the hours that they work. Time spent travelling on business, including between house calls, counts as time worked for minimum wage purposes. Where the travelling time is time for which the minimum wage should be paid, any associated expenditure

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incurred by the worker in respect of that travelling is classified as being in connection with the employment. A worker who is paid at minimum wage rates would therefore need to be reimbursed the expenses for the travelling in order for the employer to be in compliance with minimum wage legislation.

Mr Andrew Smith: What will the Government do to ensure that HMRC’s enforcement unit steps up enforcement in this area of the minimum wage, because it is being abused?

Jenny Willott: I was about to come to exactly that point. We are aware that low pay is an issue for workers, particularly in the care sector, as hon. Members have highlighted. As the right hon. Gentleman just pointed out, HMRC enforces the minimum wage on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and it has been conducting enforcement activity in that sector. In November, it published a social care evaluation, which highlighted a very worrying level of non-compliance. In 51% of the cases that it inquired into, the minimum wage was not complied with, and it identified more than £400,000 of pay arrears.

The Government are trying to improve compliance partly by significantly increasing the penalties so that they act as a more effective deterrent, and HMRC is currently targeting enforcement activity on the care sector in particular. We have also revised the naming-and-shaming scheme—the most recent batch of names was published a couple of weeks ago—and it is now much simpler to name and shame employers that break national minimum wage law. We are trying to ensure that we are taking more targeted action, but also that the penalties are greater, both financially and in terms of naming and shaming, so that they will act as a more effective deterrent.

The hon. Member for Wirral South asked about working across Government on the issue of zero-hours contracts and procurement. Officials have spoken with the Cabinet Office in relation to Government contracts, procurement and zero-hours contracts. We are also working with the Department of Health regarding the use of zero-hours contracts in social care. The discussions are ongoing, and the information gathered during them is also being fed into our consultation response. This is a very complicated issue and, as hon. Members have highlighted, it is of great importance to tens of thousands of people throughout the country. We had more than 36,000 responses to the zero-hours contracts consultation, which closed last week, so people clearly feel very strongly about the issue. We are looking at the responses to the consultation and will publish our response very shortly. I hope that that will respond more broadly to some of the issues highlighted by hon. Members today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South on securing the debate, because it is a very important issue. We all have constituents who have it right at the top of their agenda, and the Government are working on it.

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Newspaper Supply Chain

4.29 pm

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this debate. I commend the Minister because this is her second debate in a row.

The issue of the newspaper supply chain and independent newsagents is covered by two Government Departments, so it is important that independent newsagents know which Minister and Department they can go to. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister is responding this afternoon. I would be grateful if, in her response, she told us whether there are plans for one Minister to take the lead on this issue and oversee the policies that affect independent retailers.

Independent newspapers have been an integral part of many communities for decades. I am the daughter of former shopkeepers, and I spent more than 35 years living above a shop. My parents would go downstairs at the crack of dawn to open the shop, mark up newspapers and deal with the many challenges of the newspaper supply chain, so I have first-hand experience of the benefits to local communities of independent newsagents and the challenges of the newspaper supply chain.

Today is Budget day, so we should remember that our economy benefits from having prosperous, dynamic, independent newsagents; it is an important sector. Whether it is a friendly face at the counter who knows exactly what each customer comes in to buy, or a paper boy earning money for the first time and getting work experience—I have plenty of experience of delivering newspapers—independent newsagents offer high-quality, personalised services. As much as we welcome choice in where we shop, we all recognise that large supermarkets and online platforms do not do that.

Conservative Ministers deserve credit for taking action to support the sector. In particular, they have cut the small profits rate of corporation tax, increased the cap on business rates—that is an important step—cut fuel duty by more than Labour planned, reduced the burden on employers of national insurance contributions, and cut red tape, which has made a significant difference. The announcements in today’s Budget, apart from the usual increase in tobacco duty, with which we would not argue, also give independent newsagents a helping hand.

However, it is clear that over a number of years independent newsagents have faced difficult challenges that have forced many out of business. New tobacco controls have harmed responsible independent retailers. They have also driven many customers into the arms of illicit traders and smugglers, but that is a subject for another debate. The expansion of supermarkets brought more challenges. Changes to the newspaper and magazine market, including the expansion of existing newspapers’ online media platforms, new entrants to the market and the growth of free newspapers, have led to a decline in newspaper sales. The terms and conditions imposed on independent retailers by wholesalers are a part of the challenge they face.

I want to concentrate on the relationship between newspaper and magazine wholesalers and independent newspapers. The underlying trends and changes in how consumers digest newspapers and the news is highly relevant, because it has led to change in the marketplace.

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Since the turn of the millennium, independent newsagents have suffered a fall in sales caused by the emergence of free newspapers—we all pick them up—that target the commuter market. The Metro and the Evening Standard, which are available in railway and underground stations, are two prominent examples. However, newsagents have also felt the impact of technological changes; more and more content is available online. All the main newspapers now invest heavily in their online platforms, which are updated minute by minute, particularly on Budget day. The growth in the use of smartphones and tablets has enabled news groups to provide news in a much more user-friendly way. Consumers are able to seek out and read news stories on other platforms, such as blogs. As a result, hard copy sales are falling. In the past two years alone—between March 2012 and February 2014—sales declined by 16% from 18.3 million to 15.4 million.

Despite the challenges that those changes pose to the traditional ways of selling newspapers, there are still some positive features for independent newsagents. Many people still go to their newsagent on the way to work and value the service they receive, and national news groups still see a role for print editions, which is important for independent newsagents. Few of us would find fault in news groups’ entrepreneurial and commercial decisions to use new technologies—we have all got to embrace new technology—or the cost-effective ways in which consumers digest news.

However, an issue that needs to be addressed, which places independent newsagents at a disadvantage and hampers their ability to compete and respond, is the wholesalers’ control of the newspaper supply chain and their vice-like grip on independent newsagents. The Minister is aware of the campaign that the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, the Association of Convenience Stores and many others in the sector ran to raise awareness about the lack of competition in the wholesale market. The are only two main wholesalers that operate in Great Britain: Smiths News and Menzies Distribution. They operate in what can be described only as a near monopoly, or near duopoly. National publishers of newspapers and magazines sign exclusive distribution rights deals with those wholesalers. Prices are set and there is no scope for independent newsagents to get involved in the negotiations, so their voices are not heard. A third wholesaler, Dawson Holdings, ended its magazine and newspaper distribution activities in 2009 after losing out on contracts with publishers.

Smaller independent wholesalers that traditionally operate at a local or regional level have been squeezed out as publishers have concentrated their contracts with Smiths and Menzies. As a result, if a newsagent wishes to trade in newspapers, they are effectively at the mercy of the wholesaler when it comes to terms and conditions, the quality of service—which many newsagents would question—and charges.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I commend the hon. Lady for raising this issue. Like her, I have been contacted by constituents and small newsagents who are penalised by Menzies and other wholesalers, and have had their contract conditions changed without negotiation or consultation. Will the Minister respond to that issue? If an independent newsagent has a contract, how can they be charged extra money without consultation? There is no thought for the independent newsagent, who makes little money as it is.

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Priti Patel: I completely agree. That is the reality of what we are dealing with. It is not a new problem; it has been going on for decades. There is a lack of negotiation, and newsagents are just a second thought. Any newsagent will be able to wax lyrical about the poor service they receive. From my experience in my parents’ shop, I have seen the supermarket down the road getting its newspapers first. When the newspapers are taken off the lorry, the independent newsagent is bypassed completely. That is simply not acceptable, but the wholesalers operate a virtual monopoly.

It is astounding that despite the monopoly conditions to which independent retailers are subjected, the Office of Fair Trading decided in 2009 and 2012 against referring the matter to the Competition Commission for further investigation. There is a strong case for opening up the sector and looking at the way those organisations are governed. That outcome is grossly unfair to the tens of thousands of independent newsagents who, as I know, are up at 4 am—before dawn—to serve the public. They work long hours to deliver a service for their customers, but they are forced to accept declining margins, higher charges and appalling service.

In my capacity as chair of the all-party small shops group, I am frequently contacted about this issue. I receive regular communications from newsagents across the country about the problems they encounter as a result of the lack of competition in the wholesale market. If a newsagent is dissatisfied with the products they sell and the terms and conditions they receive, they are hemmed in, because there are not many places for them to go. When it comes to general products, an independent newsagent can go to many cash and carries—of course they can, because there is competition in the marketplace—but they are limited as to where they can go for newspapers and magazines. There is simply no other avenue, which is why so many newsagents feel aggrieved. The market is stacked, rigged against them, and the Minister must review that.

The consequences of a lack of competition in the wholesale market and the dominance of the relationship between the publishers and wholesalers over independent retailers are profound. Notably, the margins that newsagents receive on newspapers are declining, and fast. Just as the cover prices of newspapers are set by the publishers, so too are the margins that retailers receive. When prices increase, the share that the retailer receives does not always follow. Some newspapers, such as The Telegraph and the Express, have accompanied their recent price increases with a pro rata rise in the amount received by the retailer, so that the margin remains the same. Many others, however, have not done so. The Mirror, for example, did not pass on a pro rata rate when prices increased from 70p to 80p in January, with the percentage received by retailers being slashed from 22% to 21%. In Scotland, the equivalent margin fell from 23% to 21%. Since January, it has been reported that one particular publisher has cut the margins received by retailers for 65 out of 138 titles.

It is understandable that publishers and wholesalers are looking for savings and efficiencies; I understand that the marketplace is changing. However, the arbitrary nature of decisions to cut retailers’ margins seems harsh—it is a blunt instrument—and the effect on profitability is pretty stark for independent retailers. I hope that the Minister will look into that aspect of the relationship between wholesalers and publishers.

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On top of the fact that margins are being eroded, newsagents face higher costs from what are known as carriage charges, imposed by wholesalers. Originally introduced after the first world war to protect the universal availability of newspapers and their distribution to remote areas, carriage charges have soared over the past 20 to 25 years. I know that because my dad always used to complain about them. Despite the falling volume of newspapers and magazines being sold and distributed, carriage charges are rising and now represent the primary source of profit for wholesalers.

It says something about the effect of carriage charges in recent years when an increase of 2% announced by Smiths last summer was welcomed by some newsagents. That puts the figures into context. The fact that the steep rise in carriage charges has coincided with the signing of exclusive distribution deals between publishers and wholesalers, and with the collapse of competition among wholesalers, adds to the injustice that independent retailers feel—it is the icing on the cake—with a duopoly in place and the OFT failing to take action.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I think the hon. Lady’s dad was right. We debated this issue in this Chamber 10 years ago, when there were more wholesale distributors. We are now down to two, but they have cut their nose off to spite their face; they have forced the costs on to retailers, and now corner shops are going out of business and circulation is declining. Short-term profit-making is significantly undermining the entire industry in the long term.

Priti Patel: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The shops that we are talking about are the lifeblood of many communities. I have seen, over 35 years, a massive change; there is no doubt that we have seen many big changes. Increases in carriage charges are relevant not only to Great Britain but to Northern Ireland. Newsagents there have faced huge increases in the past 12 months alone. I would be interested to hear from the Minister about where there is scope to review the changes to carriage charges.

Jim Shannon: On that subject, the costs in Northern Ireland are exorbitant—I believe they are greater than here on the UK mainland. Independent newsagents have informed me and other elected representatives that it is getting to the point where they will have to decide whether to carry newspapers at all, because the margins are so tight. At the end of the day, it does not add up. Let us be honest: small shops are selling perhaps 100 newspapers, or 200 at the very most—there is no profit in that.

Priti Patel: The hon. Gentleman makes a really interesting point. I make it my business to visit many independent shops, particularly newsagents, and I always ask about the number of newspapers they are selling. The figures are staggering, because they are declining at such a rate. I remember, when I was a child, the bundles of our Sunday newspapers being enormous—we were dealing with hundreds and hundreds of newspapers on a weekend alone. That landscape really has changed completely.

Along with all the additional costs, independent retailers are frustrated by the appalling service that they receive from wholesalers. Of course, that has a knock-on effect

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on their business and the quality of service that they can offer to their customers. When their newspapers are delivered late, people stop going to those shops. I hear many reports from newsagents about late paper deliveries. Other newsagents find that the wholesaler has given them the wrong order or the wrong number of newspapers, or that the supplier has gone to the supermarket down the road, and not to their shop.

Although there is a process by which a newsagent can complain, it does not change a thing. It just adds to the stress and frustration of running a business. Newsagents feel increasingly powerless to get redress for their situation. With the latest promotion by one supermarket chain—it gives away free newspapers to customers spending more than £5—the squeeze is being felt even more. Will the Minister update us on what action the Government are taking to investigate possible abuses in the supply chain and to ensure that independent retailers are not unfairly disadvantaged?

In conclusion, independent newsagents, some of which are dependent for 75% of their business on newspaper sales, deserve to be treated with fairness—the debate is all about fairness in the supply chain. Unless changes are made to boost competition and give them a fair deal, including involvement in negotiations and decision making, more and more newsagents will struggle to compete. We will see more withdraw from the marketplace because they will not be able to survive, and our communities will be much poorer as a result. One newsagent put it clearly:

“the big point that needs to be made is that falling sales, shrinking margins and disproportionately high carriage charges will before long drive many smaller news retailers out of the market, to the detriment of consumers—notably the elderly who may not be tech-savvy and digitally aware of the alternatives to print editions.”

I hope that the Minister will give due consideration to the points I have made, and will help us to see what can be done to support the future of independent newsagents. These are small and micro-businesses, and the Government are doing great things for similarly sized companies. The issue should be reviewed by the Competition and Markets Authority, and the Government should work with newsagents to assess the reforms that are long overdue. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): I call the Minister to speak in her second debate this afternoon.

4.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jenny Willott): Thank you very much, Mr Dobbin—from one subject to another.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) for securing this debate on such an important issue, albeit one that is not raised as often in the House as the subject of the previous debate. I am present to address my hon. Friend’s concerns as the Minister with responsibility for competition, but I will ensure that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who has responsibility for retail and small shops—indeed, shops of any size—is aware of the debate as well, because it is an important issue.

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My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that independent newsagents are an important part of local communities—they can be crucial—and of the UK economy more generally. I was therefore delighted to see figures from the Office for National Statistics—I have said that about five times today—that show that small stores are seeing annual growth of 8%, whereas larger stores are seeing growth of 2.6%. That shows that small stores have an important place in communities, and that their position is quite resilient.

The public’s ability to access a wide range of news, views and information about the world in which we live is absolutely central to the health of our democracy and society. Even in an increasingly digital world, access to a range of newspapers is a critical part of ensuring a healthy and vibrant democracy. It is important, therefore, that the market in the supply and retail of newspapers continues to operate in the best interests of consumers.

Newspaper publishers in the UK operate in a two-sided market, generating income from both advertising and sales. Publishers therefore take into account how circulation affects the revenue generated from both the cover price and advertising. On the other hand, wholesalers and retailers exist in a more traditional, one-sided market, so they are more likely to be interested in how changes to cover prices or delivery charges affect their sales volumes and profit margins. Although different elements of the supply chain clearly have different objectives, it is in their best interests to co-operate to promote effective newspaper sales, particularly in the face of changing consumer behaviour. As part of that, ensuring an efficient, cost-effective method of providing retailers and consumers with newspapers is important.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about competition in the market. Whenever the Government look at competition issues in sectors, they take into account assessments made by the UK’s independent competition authorities. In the case of newspaper supply, the Office of Fair Trading considered the market in a broad and detailed way over several years and, as part of those investigations, consulted widely and collected much evidence. In 2008, the OFT published competition guidance to the newspaper wholesale sector. It did not give the sector a clean bill of health on competition, but said that the industry should assess its distribution agreements against that guidance and make any necessary changes.

In 2012, the OFT looked at whether it needed to carry out a follow-up review, but decided it was unnecessary. As my hon. Friend said, the Association of Convenience Stores and the National Federation of Retail Newsagents appealed that decision to the Competition Appeal Tribunal, but the tribunal supported the OFT’s decision and said that it was right to consider that the likely consumer benefit did not justify undertaking a review.

That does not mean, however, that the UK competition authorities will not consider the issue again in the future. The new Competition and Markets Authority will launch on 1 April and take on the OFT’s and Competition Commission’s competition responsibilities. In the strategic steer to the CMA issued by the Government last October, we asked it to

“consider potential competition concerns in business-to-business markets, including the effects of differences in bargaining power between firms in a supply chain.”

This issue is therefore quite clearly in its remit.

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The CMA’s draft annual plan showed that it is aware of the risks posed in particular by the current economic climate. If my hon. Friend has new evidence that anti-competitive practices in newspaper supply are causing detriment either to consumers or to businesses in the supply chain, I encourage her to submit that to the CMA for consideration.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised concerns about contracts being changed without consultation and negotiation. That is clearly wrong: contracts should not be able to be changed unilaterally. If he is aware of evidence of such behaviour, I encourage him to provide that to the CMA because it will have strong powers to take action against anti-competitive behaviour by businesses.

My hon. Friend also raised concerns about the impact on small retailers of supermarket chains offering discounted or free newspapers. I know that that issue has been raised with several Members by their constituents; it is a concern. Large stores can benefit from economies of scale and in this very competitive marketplace they look for inventive ways to increase their market share. That can make it extremely difficult for smaller shops to compete with them; smaller shops simply do not have the same capacity to provide such offers. I have already said this to some Members, but if small retailers believe that local supermarkets are behaving anti-competitively, I encourage them to raise their concerns with the CMA, because it is within its powers to look at this area. The CMA will have wide-ranging powers from 1 April to tackle such behaviour, and I will write to it with a transcript of this debate to highlight the concerns that have been raised today and to make sure that they are on its radar.

Looking more broadly than at the supply of newspapers, the Government are aware of the need to support small retailers, to help to drive sustained growth. My hon. Friend highlighted some of the things that the Government have done. For example, the autumn statement announced the biggest business rate support package for 20 years, to try to support small businesses, with measures including extending the doubling of the small business rate relief; giving a discount of £1,000 for smaller retail premises; and introducing the option to pay bills over 12 months rather than 10. We are keen to support small businesses, particularly as we come out of the difficult financial circumstances that we have been in recently.

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Alongside that, in December last year the Government announced the town centre support package, which builds on a range of other measures that have been taken to help high streets. That package could be particularly helpful to independent retailers, many of which are in high streets. They are not out-of-town businesses—I have not seen a small, independent out-of-town newsagent—so that sort of policy can benefit small retailers as well.

In addition, the Government published, “Small business: GREAT ambition”, in December last year, which sets out our commitment to make it easier for small businesses to grow. It was published on small business Saturday, which I know a number of Members across the House took part in. That event gave everyone the opportunity to celebrate small firms and it is important that we do so; often, small firms get crowded out and it is difficult for them to have the opportunity to raise awareness of what they do and the part they play in our communities. One of the businesses that I visited in my constituency on that day is a fabulous newsagent and sweet shop. It is called the Royal sweet shop and it has now been in existence in Cardiff in the same place in the Royal Arcade for—I think—103 years. It has the most amazing display of sweets that I have ever seen—I think people’s teeth practically rot as they walk in. It was very nice to have the opportunity to support the important small businesses that add vibrancy to our town centres and our communities. They have an important role to play, not only at an economic level but in supporting our communities.

I repeat my thanks to my hon. Friend for the opportunity to debate this issue today. I hope that I have managed to make it clear that the Government and the competition authorities are concerned about this issue; it is an important issue that we take seriously. I appreciate the difficulties currently being faced by independent retailers; it is not an easy time for them. I hope that, as the economy slowly starts to return to health, small retailers will be able to take advantage of the opportunities that exist for them, and I encourage hon. Members to raise their concerns with the CMA. As I said, I will write to the CMA myself, to ensure that it takes on board the concerns that have been raised today.

Question put and agreed to.

4.57 pm

Sitting adjourned.