The head of Scotland's publicly funded courts and tribunal service has been told to stop 'flouting' a Scottish Government agreement banning the use of zero hour contracts which critics have condemned as "exploitative".

The independent Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, which is covered by the Scottish Government's pay policies has been criticised by unions and fair work activists as it continues to employ staff and recruit people on zero hour contracts.

Now Katy Clark, Scottish Labour's spokesman for community safety has written to Eric McQueen, chief executive of the SCTS calling on him to “honour” its “obligations” and cease its practice of placing staff on zero hour contracts.

The Herald revealed that the latest SCTS annually published information seen by the Herald for 2021/22 there were 26 members of staff on zero hours contracts. The service says that there are now currently 16.

In November, 2018, a fair work agreement made by Scottish ministers and unions which sought to "recognise that security of employment, work and income are important foundations of a successful life" stated that zero hours contracts (that is, contracts which compel staff to make themselves available for work offered) will not be used..."

Among the bodies listed was the SCTS, which in 2015/16 had 34 people on zero hours contracts.

According to analysis of SCTS staffing levels the agency had reviewed its policy and said it offered a transfer to a part time contract to all zero hours staff and those remaining on such contracts "have exercised their right to do so".

It said zero hours contracts are entitled to benefits such as sick pay and holiday pay and "we are clear zero hours contracts must only be used for ad hoc provision where it would not be feasible to have a permanent employee to provide cover..."

READ MORE: Scotland becomes UK capital for 'exploitative' zero-hours jobs

In March, the SCTS advertised for legal advisers on zero hours contracts to serve in the Justice of the Peace courts in Lothian and Borders.

Information given to applicants stated that the contracts meant that there was "no obligation to offer work at any time or entitle individuals to a minimum number of hours per day, week or year".

SCTS stated that it was "working closely with our recognised union, the PCS, on this matter".

But the PCS has said that the continued use of zero hours contracts was a continuing breach of the agreement.

Zero hour contracts have been criticised by workers' rights groups as they offer no guarantee of regular working hours, create insecurity for workers and are used by employers to undercut wages. The row over zero hours contracts hit the national consciousness when it emerged ten years ago that billionaire Mike Ashley's Sports Direct's entire 20,000 part-time workforce were on zero-hour contracts.

The Herald:

Ms Clark, a life peer who is a member of the Scottish Parliament's Criminal Justice Committee told Mr McQueen, who is responsible for the day to day management of the service:  "I would strongly urge the SCTS to strictly abide by its obligations in this area. It must ensure existing employees are placed on permanent contractual arrangements and that zero hour contracts are not offered to new applicants. I would appreciate any update on what steps are being taken to ensure progress on this issue including engagement with the relevant trade unions."

She added: "I believe it is incumbent on all independent public bodies to follow best practice and uphold workers’ rights."

The Scottish Government fair work agreement states that it was drafted on the basis of how "ministers expect employee and industrial relations to be carried out..."

It says that all relevant bodies were "expected to comply with the principles set out in this agreement as a matter of consistency, fairness, equality and good practice..."

The Scottish Government's 2018 working conditions agreement states it was made in line with the principles of the Fair Work Convention's Framework which "aspires to make Scotland a world leading nation in fair work."

The Herald:

There has been growing concern about the rise in what are considered insecure jobs in Scotland as it emerged that the numbers on zero-hours contracts has soared to 109,000 this summer - nearly double the numbers recorded in January to March, 2021.

Scotland has the highest percentage of people amongst the four UK nations on the contracts at 4.1%. In England it is 3.6%, in Wales it is 3.2% and in Northern Ireland it is 1.5%.

Ms Clark, a West Scotland region MSP and long-term former MP for North Ayrshire and Arran commented: “Despite the Scottish Government’s rhetoric around fair work, Scotland has the highest use of zero hours contracts of all the UK nations, public contracts are still handed out to firms that use them, and, most alarmingly, we now know that public bodies are openly flouting a directive not to use them.

“The SCTS has said that these contracts are only offered in ‘exceptional circumstances’. That is not acceptable. The Fair Work Agreement, signed and ratified by Scottish ministers, is not an optional document. It was agreed in good faith by civil service unions only five years ago. The lack of progress is therefore deeply disappointing."

Critics have also raised concerns over how the rise of zero-hours contracts is having an impact on workplace bullying. It is felt the relative job security afforded by permanent contracts can make it easier for victims to come forward and lodge complaints.

SCTS has said zero hour contracts are only offered in exceptional circumstances.

It said that employees may be offered work on an ad hoc basis when they have exceptional resourcing needs, often in remote areas to enable it to provide services.

They say that in line with the Fair Working Agreement, employees on zero hours contracts are free to accept or decline any work offers.

And they say they monitor and regularly review the application of zero hour contracts.

In 2013, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government launched a review of zero-hours contracts because of “a steady rise” in the practice.

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Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, noted “anecdotal evidence of abuse by certain employers – including in the public sector – of some vulnerable workers at the margins of the labour market”.

At the time, there were 46,000 workers with zero-hours contracts, but this total has mushroomed as of the end of 2022, according to Office for National Statistics data.

The Scottish Government has previously stated that it "firmly opposes the inappropriate use of zero hours contracts and other types of employment that offer workers minimal job or financial security". But they say they do not have the power to take action to limit their use, saying that employment law is reserved to the UK Government.

An SCTS spokesman said: “In line with the Fair Work Agreement, SCTS zero hours contracts of employment do not compel employees to make themselves available for work.

“Under SCTS zero hours contracts, employees are offered work on a flexible basis and are free to accept or decline any work offers. The employees are recruited in line with the Civil Service Recruitment principles and are employed on permanent contracts of employment with statutory entitlements and eligibility for employee benefits.

“SCTS currently employs 16 zero hours contract employees. The use of zero hour contracts are appropriately offered in exceptional circumstances, often in remote areas where the services required are not predictable.”