What do the Tories make of Vince Cable’s crackdown on zero hours contracts? The Business Secretary’s review has been long-known, but yesterday he announced that he would ‘act against abusive practices in zero hours contracts, like exclusivity arrangements which prevent workers seeking alternatives’. Some read this as an overture to Labour, but from conversations that I’ve had recently with senior Conservatives, I’m not so sure.
The Tories haven’t given us many clues on what they do make of zero hours contracts, largely allowing the debate to be framed by Labour, and then leaving Cable to talk about them. But Conservative ministers are not unhappy with tackling exclusivity arrangements, whereby a worker cannot take on another job and must be contracted solely to that employer , even if they are given few or no hours each week. One told me recently that he didn’t think that was a very free market arrangement at all.
But if Cable oversteps the mark and tries to crack down on the contracts in general, then he’ll find colleagues on the other side of the Coalition giving him short shrift. They are aware of the role these flexible arrangements have played in keeping companies going and workers off the dole. Even Labour accepts that, which is why Ed Miliband has not said he will ban them as some of his colleagues wish he would. Interestingly, one of the questions at yesterday’s leader Q&A session was from a delegate who was desperate for the government to keep these contracts to help young people move in and out of employment. So it’s not fair to say that this is a Lib Dem vs Tory issue, either.