Some zero hours contacts are good for employees as well as employers

Most zero hours contracts are exploitative and heavily weighted in favour of employers. The media are reporting that today Ed Miliband will use his speech to the TUC  to outline his proposals for cleaning up this murky practice.

Miliband wants to outlaw contracts which offer no guarantee of work, but which do not allow the employee to work for anyone else. He also believes that anyone who works regularly for one employer should be moved on to a proper contract, which will, of course, include holidays and other statutory benefits.

He is right, of course, and I am rather ashamed that Liberal Democrats have not led on this.

There is much confusion over how many people are on zero hours contracts in the UK.  According to a House of Commons briefing (pdf) the Office of National Statistics claims that around a 250,000 employees may be affected, while The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development puts the estimate at around one million.Unite has now published research (pdf) which seems to indicate that 5.5 million people may be on zero hours contracts. It is not clear that all these organisations are working to the same definition. The Office of National Statistics will be carrying out specific research into this in future.

To return to my headline – some zero hours contracts work to everyone’s satisfaction.

For example, schools use supply teachers to fill in for absent staff. They often like to build up a small team of teaching professionals whom they can call at very short notice when a permanent teacher is taken ill. By drawing from this pool the schools can ensure that the substitute teachers are familiar with the school’s practices, and the children are taught by people that they have come to recognise.  Teachers may offer themselves on supply to several different schools and are free to accept or turn down any request. Many take on this work because it can be fitted around other commitments, such as occasional caring duties. I have known artists who do occasional supply teaching in order to bring in some additional income, even though they do not want the commitment of regular work.

Similar schemes are often operated by hospitals, local authorities and care homes when they draw on their own banks of nurses, midwives, social workers and carers to cover for staff absences.

A problem sometimes arises when the employer has staff vacancies which is it having difficulty in filling. I can see the advantage of calling on bank staff temporarily to cover posts, but the danger arises when such arrangements become semi-permanent. There should be a point at which such contracts should be converted into ones with clear specified hours, even if only for a temporary period.

We need to find a solution that protects workers who are being exploited as well as those who are enjoying the flexibility offered by some types of contract.

Reprinted from Liberal Democrat Voice.

Update on 'Crime Prevention UK'


If you have been following my blog for some time you will know that I have taken delight in exposing a number of scams, and in warning readers about them.

One long running one started in February 2011 with this blog post: "Crime Prevention UK" scam. In brief, an unsolicited phone call starts by raising anxiety levels about local crime rates, then offers a free burglar alarm. If that sounds too good to be true, it is; the 'customer' is charged a massive annual monitoring charge for the alarm. Salespeople are very pushy and persuasive, and they seem to target the elderly.

That post has attracted 162 comments, many by readers who have themselves had similar phone calls, and some who have been taken in and lost money.

A few days after posting this I reported: Local police warn against "Crime Prevention UK". Then a month later we had some good news: 'Crime Research UK' shut down today - but will that put an end to the scam?

The Times picked up the issue and interviewed me about it. Unfortunately you have to pay to view articles on their website, but if you follow this link you catch a photo of me.

But I was right to be sceptical about whether this would mean an end to the scam. If you read down through the comments on the original post you will see that readers have claimed that the company has been resurrected under a number of other guises. Comments have been appearing right up to the present.

MoneySavingExpert has also hosted a couple of forum discussions about the same problem going back to 2009 and continuing here. Between us we have accumulated an enormous amount of information - and it is still happening.

I promised the readers of the thread that I would take the matter up with my MP. As it happens, he is a Cabinet Minister, Edward Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. He passed it on to Jo Swinson, Minister for Consumer Affairs who has written back to me. I can't reveal everything in that correspondence, but will report back on my blog as soon as I can.



The Daily Mail gets it wrong again

The Daily Mail still doesn’t ‘get’ the Liberal Democrats, although many of us take that as evidence that we must be doing something right.

According to the headline today Clegg tells new dads they must take a month off or get nothing: Deputy PM wants to follow Scandinavia’s lead to make sure fathers play a bigger role in childcare, Nick Clegg and the party have  apparently already adopted a policy that is to be debated in Glasgow next month.

So this presents us with another opportunity to explain how policy making works, or is supposed to work, in the Liberal Democrats.  A year or so ago the Federal Policy Committee set up a policy working group, chaired by the inestimable Claire Tyler, to look at work/life balance. They took evidence from a wide range of experts and organisations and have now published their policy paper entitled A Balanced Working Life: Policies for Low and Middle Income Households (pdf).

This paper contains a number of significant new proposals, including a formal mechanism for moving towards a official living wage, an increase in free childcare to cover under twos, the introduction of Carer’s Leave for workers with caring responsibilities, and a variety of proposals to help small businesses to provide family-friendly practices.

The Daily Mail, typically, ignores all these worthy ideas and focuses on the one proposal that it considers outlandish, namely:

Government should improve the affordability, quality, convenience and provision of childcare by: …

e) Introducing a use-it-or-lose-it ‘Daddy Month’ based on the Swedish model, to encourage uptake of parental leave amongst fathers.

The Mail disingenuously implies that if fathers do not take advantage of one month leave immediately after the birth of their child they will lose all entitlements to parental leave; this is not the case. As I read it, one month of the total parental leave would have to be taken by the father immediately after the birth whereas the remaining leave could still be taken flexibly.

The recommendations of the working group, including this one, will be debated in a motion on the afternoon of Saturday 14th September.  As usual,  amendments will probably be proposed and requests for separate votes on individual lines; in other words, the motion will be subjected to scrutiny and debate by the members of the party and there is no guarantee that it will be accepted in full.

I mention this simply to explain to any Daily Mail readers who may be reading this, that Nick Clegg was not directly involved in drawing up this policy paper. The Federal Policy Committee, and the policy working groups that it sets up, act independently of the Leader.

Now it is highly likely that Clegg does approve of the main proposals in the paper, since issues of child care and family life have been dear to his heart; after all he was the person who introduced shared parental leave and increased the entitlement to free child care. But as usual the devil is in the detail and there could be genuine disagreements between party members over some of the specifics.

This post was first published on Liberal Democrat Voice.

How to write to a constituent

Any of us who have been elected to public office will have received letters, emails or even phone calls that shock us into realising that not all our compatriots are liberal and fair-minded. Rascist, homophobic or simply personally offensive rants, expressed in highly charged language, remind us that we still have much work to do.

When it has happened to me I have initially been quite upset, then dealt with it by distancing myself from the contents and refusing to respond. But maybe there is another way to handle such communications.

John Leech, the MP for Manchester Withington, was sent one of those letters recently, but instead of binning it he exposed it to Pink News, together with his robust reply. The letter he received said this:


The report that you are hosting a discussion on homosexuals highlights how useless you lot are. Do you think that nonsense is a priority in football?

We are sick and tired of this political correctness in our everyday lives, now you people are trying to brainwash children and others into this perversion. You make me sick.

You and your ilk are talking to kids saying men marrying men is normal. What next, paedophilia?

Already the creeps are trying to lower the age of consent – 21-18-16 what’s next 14-12-10. It’s evil what’s going on. Porn being shown in schools in the name of sex education and you want to teach kids about homosexuality. You are sick and evil. I hope people like you get voted out at the election all stay in the gay village where you belong.

John Leech wrote back:

I was tempted to treat your letter with the contempt that it deserved, but I found myself not being prepared to ignore your ignorant, offensive and homophobic letter.

Setting aside the fact that the discussion I hosted in Parliament was about the need to tackle homophobia in football, not a “discussion on homosexuals” as you seem to claim, the vast majority of people would be greatly offended by your assertion that “we are sick and tired of this political correctness in our everyday lives”.

In fact I would go so far as to say that most people are sick and tired of a small minority of people making offensive homophobic comments like those in your letter. You are, of course, entitled to hold your offensive views, but please do not bother to waste my time, and yours, by expressing them to me.

Yours sincerely

John Leech

Well done! – a model for us all to copy.

This post was first published on Liberal Democrat Voice.

A free-for-all on school term dates?

Michael Gove has had another ‘good idea’, produced without any reference to the professionals who will have to implement it, nor to the general public who will have to work around it. This time he is keen to allow all schools to set their own term dates, in line with the freedom already granted to academies and free schools.

It sounds like a superficial change, but those of us who have examined the issue in depth know that the implications could be far greater than you might imagine.

Some eight years ago I attended a series of meetings of councillors who, like me, held education portfolios in London boroughs.  Our aim was to co-ordinate school term dates across the whole of London, and, wherever possible, with the surrounding counties, and we did achieve that.  At the same time we looked at patterns of terms, considering some quite radical alternatives, such as six or seven equal length terms, with a shorter break in the summer.

We finally agreed that we would stabilise the spring holiday so it was not dependent on the moving date of Easter. Two weeks are allocated to the spring holiday at approximately the same time each year, and if Easter fell outside that period then an extra long weekend would be taken.  Our proposals were widely accepted and became the standard practice across London.

So why were we so keen to unify holiday dates across the region? Well, any parent with children in two or even three different schools will tell you how complicated life becomes if their holiday dates vary from each other by even a few days. Teachers are parents, too, and they have to add in the extra factor of their own work commitments.

Some schools which have already established unconventional patterns of school attendance argue that the new arrangements provide a better rhythm to learning, and they may well be right about that. But if neighbouring schools follow different patterns then the window for a family holiday is greatly reduced. Indeed, a free-for-all on term dates could have the unintended consequence of parents taking children out of school during term time in order to have a family holiday at all.

If Gove’s proposal does go through, then it will not be long before schools will be lobbied by parents to co-ordinate term dates with neighbouring schools. This may be quite simple to achieve in a small country town with one secondary school and a handful of feeder primaries.

However in cities such as London, where schools are relatively close to each other and families have many options, this would be a complex operation.  Take the ward where I live – children from this small area attend at least seven different secondary schools and six primary schools (not including any independent schools), across borough and regional boundaries.  That was why, when I was actively involved as a cabinet member, we found that dates had to be co-ordinated at a regional level, not simply at borough level. That is going to be impossible in the future, and good practice that supports families will have been sacrificed for the ideology of autonomy.

First published in Liberal Democrat Voice

'Consumer Advice Bureau' has just called me. Has anyone heard of them?


It came up as an International call and was obviously from a call centre in India (which the caller later confirmed). The caller introduced herself as Ruby and told me that she wasn't selling anything but was carrying out a survey. The survey would not include any personal information.

I was intrigued, as I usually am, so allowed her to start asking me the questions. The first one was "Are you a home owner?". I told her that I considered it a personal question, and did not reply.

Whilst this was going on I was googling 'Consumer Advice Bureau'. It did not show up at all in searches, so I asked Ruby for the web address of the organisation. That threw her (odd, that) and she had to put me on hold while checking. She said that the website wasn't ready yet (!), but once again assured me that she would not be asking for personal information.

But significantly she started referring to the non-existent Consumer Advice Bureau as CAB.

At that point I told her that it was very misleading to use the initials CAB, as it stood for the well-respected Citizen's Advice Bureau. I said I guessed that the 'Consumer Advice Bureau' was a front for a company that wanted to sell me something, and said my farewells.

Has anyone actually answered their 'survey'? If so, what are they selling?

Resignation of Cllr Derek Osbourne

Sadly, as Chair of the local party, I had to circulate this press release to our members yesterday:

Council Leader shock resignation

Responding to the news that Councillor Derek Osbourne was arrested on Tuesday 11 June on suspicion of possessing indecent images of children, Councillor Liz Green, Acting Leader of Kingston Council said:

"Derek Osbourne has resigned from the Liberal Democrat Group.   We are deeply shocked by these allegations but I am unable to comment further as we must now allow the Police the time and space they need to investigate the allegations thoroughly and without prejudice."

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