Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 40-47)

Wednesday 7 May 2003

Mr Doug Henderson, Chief Executive, Fresh Produce Consortium, examined.

  Q40  Mr Mitchell: Let me ask you about the existing operations. You have participated in Operation Gang Master. How successful has that been?

  Mr Henderson: Operation Gang Master has been helpful in a number of ways. First of all, it has been very helpful in raising awareness of this issue amongst the industry. It has been helpful in the training of the people within the industry as to how to identify people who are acting outside the law. In terms of tackling this problem, it has not been successful. It may have stemmed the tide but it has certainly not reversed it.

  Q41  Mr Mitchell: Why has it not been successful? What is the problem?

  Mr Henderson: Part of it is a resource problem. There just are not enough people on the ground to deal with the scale of the problem that exists.

  Q42  Mr Mitchell: Can this issue, given sufficient resources, be dealt with under the existing law or do we need a new legislative framework?

  Mr Henderson: This was a question that Lord Whitty asked. It is our belief that the existing law is adequate. What we require is additional legislation to register gang masters. It is the registration of these people to give them the authority to carry out their business and being strict on the way in which they operate.

  Q43  Mr Mitchell: What activity has there been? We have had cases where asylum seekers in Grimsby, no less, which is a haven of peace and security, have faced dawn raids, sudden incursions, and have been dragged from their home. Have there been raids on gangs? Have there been checks of papers on gangs?

  Mr Henderson: Yes. There has been continuous activity by Operation Gang Master in Spalding and Lincolnshire since it was established in 1998. Also, there has been a considerable amount of activity on the industry side. The major supermarkets have all held seminars with the suppliers. These codes of practice have been promulgated throughout the industry. There have been training sessions. They have involved people from the Customs and Excise and the Immigration Department. They have all cooperated in these activities. There has been a lot of work done but it is reliant on a voluntary system.

  Q44  Mr Wiggin: You want a kite mark of approval for every gang master?

  Mr Henderson: That is correct.

  Q45  Mr Wiggin: How would you pay for that? Who would effectively pick up the bill? How would the licensing be paid for?

  Mr Henderson: I think there would be two costs involved in this. The first cost would be a cost of registration to get on to the register and that would be paid by the gang master and defray the cost of running the register. Secondly, there would be the cost of an annual audit which would be an independent audit of his activities to demonstrate compliance with the code of practice. In other words, to demonstrate that he is operating within the current legislative framework. That would be a cost for the gang master. He would have two additional costs which he would pass on to his customers.

  Q46  Mr Wiggin: Am I right in thinking that essentially what you are really asking for is the law as it was in 1995 to come back again? They should have registered in 1995?

  Mr Henderson: No. We wish — and I understand we need to have primary legislation passed — to enable this scheme to be established.

  Q47  Mr Wiggin: If the government does decide to go ahead with your plan, what will you do in the interim period?

  Mr Henderson: We will continue to use our best endeavours to work with the existing codes that we have and to work with the existing voluntary scheme that we have, and to cooperate with the Agricultural Investigation Team and all the enforcement agencies that we can.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. You have given us a lot of information. You have referred frequently to the need for primary legislation. It would be quite helpful if you could send us a note saying what piece of legislation is necessary. Let us pretend that somebody on the Committee has a Private Member's Bill slot in which to do this. They may be amending existing employment law but it would be quite useful to have a note saying what actually is required in terms of legislative action if we were to go down the route of amending primary legislation. If you would get your people to look at that, it would be extremely helpful. Thank you very much indeed for giving evidence to us today.

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