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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 83-99)

Wednesday 7 May 2003

Mr Michael Paske, Mr Bob Fiddaman, and Mr David Brown

  Q83  Chairman: Mr Michael Paske, you are the Vice President of the NFU. Would you like to identify your co-conspirators.

  Mr Paske: I certainly would, Mr Chairman. On my right, can I introduce Bob Fiddaman who is the Chairman of our Employment and Education Committee at the National Farmers' Union, and, on my left, I have David Brown who is our Chief Horticultural Adviser.

  Q84  Chairman: Could I put a seditious thought to you first, that here we have got a problem which everybody knows about with very significant dimensions and everybody is saying that it is all terribly, terribly awful and something ought to be done, but I have not really identified, except perhaps the legitimate gang masters, who has got a real interest in doing something about it. The Government perhaps because it is losing tax revenue, the farmers who, we have heard, may find it convenient from time to time to avail themselves of these opportunities, the packing houses who appear to be in the same situation, the supermarkets who say that they at least appear not to be asking questions when one might expect them to ask questions of the people doing their supplying, and even the poor old illegal immigrant perhaps is getting a few bob which he would not get otherwise through the system, so is there not a sort of curious conspiracy of complaisance right through the industry where everyone thinks it is awful and nobody quite gets round to thinking that it is urgent or awful enough to do anything about?

  Mr Paske: Well, I hope in our evidence, Mr Chairman, we will be able to show you that we are very much in favour of doing something about this issue because we represent what we hope are responsible employers and we do want to make sure that any illegal activity which is going on is stamped out and stamped out hard because the sort of things you have been hearing about this afternoon, they are the sort of things which, as far as we are concerned as responsible employers, we just do not want to see happening. So I hope in our evidence we will be able to show you that we are prepared to make a stand on this issue and make sure that proper enforcement is put in place and also ask you to use your influence to have a statutory system put into place as quickly as possible.

  Q85  Chairman: We think of these problems notably in terms of the horticultural industry. Are there other sectors of agriculture where either they are penetrating or you fear that these practices, if they are unchecked, might start to make their appearance?

  Mr Paske: Certainly horticulture is the biggest employer of casual labour in that sense, so obviously it is an area which is of great concern to us horticulturalists. Can I make it clear, Chairman, as I think you are aware, that I am an asparagus grower and a horticulturalist and I have first-hand experience of employing gang labour, but I think there are other areas now where temporary labour is being taken on and we certainly would like to see the same regulation being applied to that labour as we are going to have in horticulture as well.

  Q86  Diana Organ: I will probably upset a lot of people, but I think asparagus is the only decent English vegetable that we produce and the only one worth eating. Can I make the point that my colleague pointed out to us when Mrs Day left, that we found her extremely refreshing and the reason why was that there she was as an employer who was prepared to take the responsibility. She wanted the responsibility and welcomed the responsibility of being given the onus of the people that she employed and tracing them and where they are from. Does the NFU have that same view because you have mentioned in the comment back to the Chairman that you were hoping that the Committee would so something in the regulatory framework as soon as possible to stop this iniquitous system, but how much are your farmers prepared to take on the same responsibility that Mrs Day wanted?

  Mr Paske: We are prepared to take on that responsibility and indeed do so already. As an employer of horticultural labour, I can tell you that I have had codes of practice involved in my business for the last 15 to 20 years and the NFU has actually been pushing to have statutory legislation brought in to be able to get some sort of proper system in place for gang masters for many years, and I would like to ask David Brown to actually give you some details of how long we have been pushing for that particular issue.

  Mr Brown: Certainly I have been employed in the horticultural side of the NFU for 15 years now and in those 15 years, we have consistently been asking for a statutory register, a licensing system to underpin what we are trying to do on a voluntary basis. We feel that MAFF, as was, in the economic evaluation of Operation Gang master, slated what we produced as a code of practice as having no teeth. By the nature of a voluntary code of practice, it is unlikely to have teeth. The NFU has no power to discipline, that is a rule of law, so for 15 years we have been asking for this underpinning legislation.

  Q87  Diana Organ: If you are saying that the NFU does want to take responsibility and you want to be responsible employers and that you are concerned about the problem which is obviously getting worse and is obviously more widespread than it was 15 years ago, we have more and more people caught up in this illegal system, is it just farmers that are members of the NFU then that are carrying this out? How much are you asking your membership if they are using gang masters and their dreadful practices?

  Mr Paske: To answer your question, we are very, very strict in terms of the fact that whenever we hear of any illegal activities, we come down as hard as we can and make sure that that is publicised because it does us no good at all to hear of illegal practices going on, so we do come down very hard on that. I come back to the fact that it is a question of being responsible employers. Now, as I say, my company introduced practices some 15 years ago or more to make sure that the gang masters that we were using were complying with the law. Now, it is up to every single employer in that situation to do the same thing and what I am talking about there is doing regular checks with the companies that they are using to supply them with their labour to make sure that, first of all, the people are being paid the right rates, to make sure that the people that are employed are employable and they are not perhaps illegal immigrants or indeed on social services or whatever it might be, but the fact is that it is up to each individual. Now, you were talking earlier on in your session this afternoon about the supermarkets. Now, I supply 99% of the product that I produce to the supermarkets and all of the supermarkets that I work for take a very great interest in the way that we employ labour, so in fact they are doing the checks and balances as well as I, so it is in my interest to make sure that I have got everything in my house in order so that when my customers, the supermarkets, come along and check, they can see that we are doing all the necessary checks that we are supposed to do.

  Q88  Diana Organ: So if the NFU is checking it and if your supermarkets are asking very pertinent questions about the people employed, how come it is getting worse? How come we do have so many people who are cooped up in horrendous housing, who are not being paid anything like the national minimum wage, who are illegal and should not be there, who are being exploited, who are very vulnerable people who are frightened and we have got a massive illegal system going on? It seems to me that you are painting the picture that everybody is being responsible and everybody is doing the checks, so where is it happening? What evidence have you got of people who might be frightened to come forward and tell about what is going on on the next-door farm or in the next-door packing house?

  Mr Paske: By the nature of what you are suggesting, I think it is very, very difficult to find out where there is illegal activity, but certainly from our point of view where we are encouraging people to do all the checks that they are supposed to do, if there is anything that is going on which is illegal, we are very quick to find out about it and we would never use those gangs again. I do not know, Bob, if you want to add anything on that because you have had some experience of this yourself, I think.

  Mr Fiddaman: Well, mainly from the point of view, Chairman, that there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to say that there are problems with gang masters who might be using illegal labour and the sheer problem of the fact that you are not going to get overt evidence because of the fact that it is illegal, so the people involved in the sense that they are there because they are often in the country without the right work permit are in a position where they cannot respond. A comment was made by the previous lady from Farmforce about the potential abuse of the SAWS scheme and I was particularly concerned about that because it is not of a similar scheme to gang masters. It is under a very limited operational activity and there are only seven operators, of which two are multiples, and the others are individual growers and they only get and retain their licence having satisfied the Department of Work and Pensions or the Home Office that they have fulfilled the contract that they have pursued. I am, therefore, concerned to think that there is a perception that those students are being misused. They come over on a very limited timescale, on a very organised work permit, and there was an agreement this year that the area of work that they could go into should be enlarged from some of the traditional areas like soft-fruit picking and areas like that where they were often likely to be used. As you are probably aware, there is the intention that the time period should be extended so that some sectors of the industry that cannot currently get hold of short-term labour for their particular industry, and obviously the poultry industry is one that I consider as the Christmas trade market where there is a great problem in the Christmas trade market, so that the fresh market is suitably supported in labour. These students are well organised and regulated through the current mechanism. Now, that does not mean that someone might not attempt to abuse. If there is an abuse of the system, then an employer who had booked for X number of SAWS students and then is found to be abusing that right because they are responsible for them in their business, they do not have the right, unless they are a registered operator, to pass them on to any other employer and it has to be done through one of the two multiple operators that we currently have so that they are properly followed and there is this very good return rate. It is not 100% and we recognise that there is a slippage of one or two people who still manage not to go back under the work permit, but, in principle, it is a very robust system which is why the NFU fully supported the fact that these operators should be kept to a minimum and should be fully monitored and licensed. Now, licensing is to come back to the point we are making about the gang master. The operators are licensed and they can be traced and followed and if we have the same solidity about the licensing of the gang master system, then you will not remove every single one abuse, certainly not in the early days, but you will certainly put pressure on its reduction and if you start doing that, then the opportunity to continue improving it must be, therefore, better. That is why I support what has already been said, that we do need a really robust licence which means that that gang master will be no longer licensed and, therefore, our own producers will have full recommendation from the NFU, "You will not use this gang master because they are unlicensed". In that way, you actually strengthen the system.

  Q89  Diana Organ: I am a little bit confused here because the message you are giving us about responsibilities, informing on one another, the student system, the supermarkets and all of that, that sounds to me like the problem that was or is there is being tackled and is diminishing, but other people are giving us evidence to say that the problem is getting worse and is more widespread. The picture you have just painted in the last few minutes is that there is not really an awful problem and a little bit of licensing will solve it completely. Do you think the problem is getting worse? Is it more widespread than it was ten years ago and what evidence have you got of some horrors that are going on?

  Mr Paske: Well, perhaps I can answer first and I can give you my own practical experience because I think that is the best way. I have been employing labour since about 1962 and some of that has been gang labour. In the early days when I started employing gang labour, I knew that there were abuses going on, so that is why, as I said to you earlier on, I put checks and balances in place. As soon as I discovered that any of the labour I was employing was illegal or whatever it might be, I stopped dealing immediately with that source of labour, that gang master, in other words. I now have two gang masters that I use some 30 odd years later and I know from the experience that I have had with working with those companies for a number of years that I do have a reliable service, so in my own experience, the problem has in fact receded in that sense and I am very happy with the arrangements that I have with the two companies that I use. I am afraid I have no real experience in terms of what is happening in the rest of the country, but that is, I think, a very good indication of what is happening in Lincolnshire which is the area where I am operating. David, you have got experience obviously of Kent and other parts of the country, so perhaps you might tell the Committee.

  Mr Brown: In response to the direct question as to what evidence do we have that things are getting worse or not, perhaps by the nature of it because we are talking about abuse and illegalities, the information we have is not evidential, but anecdotal. However, I am sure, as a committee, you will probably be taking evidence from some of the enforcement agencies and certainly in discussions with them we have been told of an increasing use of forged documentation which is becoming extremely skilled and they suspect and suggest there is quite serious criminal money behind what is going on, which actually makes it very difficult for growers who are still trying to run their business as well to spot forgeries; they are not trained as immigration officials. Anecdotally, we suspect it is getting worse and the fact that the enforcement authorities are spending so much time, effort and resource to raid farms, raid pack-houses and stop minibuses would suggest to me that the enforcement authorities are also not happy with the level of illegal activity, so although numerically it is getting worse, I cannot prove it.

  Q90  Mrs Shephard: And yet in the written evidence you have given the Committee, you do say that the problem has been getting worse and that there are more illegalities. Now, I assume that you have based your evidence on something, some facts, and it is not entirely anecdotal, I assume, but that is what you say unequivocally. You give a great list of the evidence that can be produced which, as you say, suggests a system in which abusive, evasive and fraudulent activities are frequent. That is what you say in your written submission to the Committee.

  Mr Brown: We do say that hard evidence is difficult to come by. These areas are areas where there have been prosecutions and, therefore, you can guarantee that there has been illegal activity in those areas. I have no statistical data. I serve as part of the Ethical Trading Initiative Working Group also looking into gang masters and through that group we have consistently been asking for regular updates on Operation Gang master, statistical information, so that should become quantified, whether our suspicions are right.

  Q91  Mrs Shephard: Can I ask you why it is that we are now seeing many more people, foreign workers, whether here legally or illegally, involved in the sorts of work for which only 15 years ago in an area like mine they employed local people or relatively local people or people from within the county. What has happened?

  Mr Paske: It is reluctance basically for those people that you are describing to take on the sorts of work that we can offer, which is surprising in some ways because we have heard a lot this afternoon about exploitation, but a great many of the gang workers that are employed are actually employed on a piece-work basis where in fact there are substantial rewards for people who work very hard, but unfortunately the days are gone when people liked being out in the field in all weathers harvesting crops, so that is why we are now finding that we are getting more and more people coming in from overseas and indeed why we have asked to extend the number of SAWS students that we have available to us to be able to carry out that sort of harvesting activity.

  Q92  Mrs Shephard: I do not think it is a matter just of taste, is it, or preference? It seems to me that changing patterns of unemployment in rural areas is something to do with it and that people, as you say, certainly now are choosing to do indoor jobs, but there are plenty of indoor jobs. The next conundrum is how many of the workers we now see employed on farms come from elsewhere? Is it possible to know? I will not hold you to account if you get it wrong.

  Mr Paske: You are talking about gang masters, are you, now?

  Q93  Mrs Shephard: Yes. Does anybody know?

  Mr Paske: I do not think we do know the answer to that, I am afraid, no.

  Q94  Mrs Shephard: Now, this is a question, this is an issue which in a sense we cannot discuss because we do not know the size of it. I think most people would agree that the exploitation which we have had described to us this afternoon very sadly is mostly found affecting those people who do come from overseas and yet because nobody has the numbers, there is no way of finding out what they are, it is almost impossible to discuss the problem and certainly its extent. You cannot throw any light on all of this?

  Mr Paske: No, but, David, I wonder if you can help on this.

  Mr Fiddaman: If I can pursue that issue with you because having just completed a round of wage negotiations on behalf of the employers through the Wages Board, it has been one of the issues that we have been discussing over the last two or three years in some depth because the census data is one day in a year, as you are well aware, which is a June date and within that terminology of the way the census is taken, it says, "casual is anybody who is not a member of your regular workforce", so it picks up a number. That number does not reflect, if you like, the sort of casual worker that we might consider in the piece-rate mechanism where they are harvesting soft fruit and crops like that where that is a real casual because they will only be there while the harvest activity is in action. In fact this year's negotiation has specifically developed a mechanism to recognise that worker and any other worker is, therefore, of a standard provider and, therefore, guaranteed a higher rate of pay at a standard hourly rate because the piece-rate mechanism will often allow the harvest worker to earn as much if not more. The figures we have been trying to look at, we cannot and we have not been able, through all DEFRA's best endeavours, to have anything other than a gentle stab at what the issue is about. Now they are collecting at last quarterly data to see how the hours and earnings system relate, but it is still not actually picking up the sorts of numbers of people that you are obviously talking about. Quite frankly, it is something that we would all benefit from having a better understanding of, not least because then the industry can actually promote itself in the potential possibilities because if you do not have an idea because the figures are not there, then you cannot promote yourself as a potential useful employment service which we wish to see the industry survive.

  Q95  Mrs Shephard: So clearly you would welcome more information and your view would be shared by those who flout the provision of public services, where there are large numbers, say, of workers whose numbers cannot be quantified exactly, but who are using the Health Service, are being housed and do need help in all kinds of ways, but because their numbers are an official mystery, the help cannot be provided because it cannot be planned for?

  Mr Paske: Can I add to that please by pointing out that pack-house labour very often does not even fall within the agricultural census because they are not employed as agricultural workers. Again the gang masters provide a lot of labour to pack-houses, as you are I am sure aware.

  Mrs Shephard: Yes, and of course although here we are concerned with agricultural employment, there is no question that there is extensive employment of people from elsewhere in other kinds of manual jobs and manufacturing of all sorts.

  Q96  Mr Jack: Just to follow up Mrs Shephard's line of enquiry, I got the impression certainly from the early part of your evidence that there is a certain element of turning a blind eye to what was going on because, Mr Paske, you know the horticulture industry intimately and I guess that if I asked you to draw up a list of the people who are most likely to need seasonal labour of one sort or another, you could very quickly put a list together.

  Mr Paske: Yes.

  Q97  Mr Jack: And I suspect that if you picked up the telephone to some of the people who would be on your list, you might get a lot of the evidence which we are getting the impression at the moment is not available about the extent of the use of questionable gang master labour. Is this not because it is a necessity of life that people have got to get the labour wherever they can and, therefore, they do turn a blind eye to some of the practices that we have heard about this afternoon?

  Mr Paske: No, and I will tell you why I say that, Mr Jack, with some confidence. It is because where people have built up a relationship with their gang master, as I say, they know them and they can trust them. What happens, however, under those circumstances you have just described is that there is some sub-contracting that goes on and I think that that is an area which obviously needs to be looked at very carefully, and again in my own business I do that and in fact I will not accept any sub-contracted labour unless we have done the same checks that we do with our main contractor.

  Q98  Mr Jack: But it is quite clear that some people, therefore, are not as legitimate or as scrupulous as clearly you are, but—

  Mr Paske: But that is an opportunity of how that does happen and I can see that, so I hope that answers your question.

  Q99  Mr Jack: I hear that, but I just wonder how much pressure there is from within the membership of the NFU to sort this problem out because you, as the officers or office-holders, are taking a very legitimate and very responsible view. Now, it is interesting just how quickly the NFU can get its act together, for example, when a threat of product-dumping comes along. You are out of the blocks like an Olympic sprinter. You have got all the evidence, you are in to see the Minister, saying, "Stop this abuse. Our livelihoods are threatened". You are there and you have got all the facts, all the ducks lined up, bang, bang, bang, and the poor, hapless Minister has got to do something. Now, on this, the evidence says, "Well, we have been working at it for years and we don't know what's going on", so I do not get the impression that there is real pressure from within the Union to get this job sorted out.

  Mr Paske: Mr Jack, there is huge pressure, but dare I turn the tables and say that politicians are constantly telling me that there is not sufficient time in Parliament to put the necessary statutory powers in place and that is the excuse that I get on that side.

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