A privately-run jail is using the controversial zero hours contracts to plug gaps in its workforce, a debate in the House of Commons has heard.
HMP Northumberland, which has been described by prison officers as “like a tinderbox”, is using the contracts after cuts stripped away its staff from 441 to 270 from 2010 to 2013.
Labour MP for Wansbeck Ian Lavery described the measure at the Sodexo-run Category C jail as an “outrage” during a debate on a bill aimed at abolishing the contracts.
He said: “Is my honourable friend aware of the situation at HMP Northumberland, where Sodexo, a French catering company, has privatised the prison and sacked or made redundant more than a third of the work force?
“It does not have enough people to make the prison safe, but it is bringing in people on banked-hours and zero-hours contracts. That is an outrage.”
It comes after a riot at the jail in March and a stash of Class A drugs worth in excess of £100,000 were found last month.
The private members bill, brought by Gateshead MP Ian Mearns, is aimed at abolishing zero hours contracts and the debate will continue next week.
MPs heard use of the contracts is rife in the care and hospitality sectors with the average wage of a zero hours worker is £236, - and that this is a figure £246 less than the average worker.
Mr Mearns said: “Today, I am fighting for the same thing that people of every generation have fought for: the right to decent and secure conditions and terms of employment.
“It is not a great ask. A well-paid and steady job is the bedrock on which people build their lives. It is the starting point for planning for the future, and the platform of stability needed to pay the bills, meet the rent, pay the mortgage and start a family.
“Those are not extravagances, but the minimum that should be available to any person who is prepared to work to pay their way in a wealthy nation such as ours.
“Yet that stability and security is denied to millions of workers in this country. Increasingly, people are finding themselves plagued by job insecurity, not knowing from one day to the next whether they will be working or earning.”
The bill has strong support from North East Labour MPs.
Catherine McKinnell, MP for Newcastle North, said: “A constituent who came to see me highlighted just how little economic sense zero-hours contracts make for the taxpayer as well.
“From one week to the next, he may or may not be able to pay his rent and may need housing benefit support.
“That creates a total mess for the support systems that have to provide support to these people on very insecure work contracts. The cost to the taxpayer of sorting out that mess is adding to the problem. Employers need to step up to the mark.”
Conservatives, however, accused Labour MPs of using zero hours contracts themselves.
Grahame Morris, Labour MP for Easington, denied he was among them, but said Labour-led councils need to do more.
He said: “I absolutely do not use zero-hours contracts. I think part of the problem is that many local authorities do not have tight enough procedures with subcontractors; I would encourage them so to do.”