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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)

Wednesday 7 May 2003

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

  Q100  Mr Jack: All right, but just explain this: I am the recipient, like many of us are, of some of your extremely good, well-prepared briefs, and since I stopped being an Agriculture Minister, I cannot remember when I have had a brief from the NFU asking for some action or representations to be made on this. Why not?

  Mr Paske: Well, perhaps that is because you have changed your role within your party. However, I will check and find out for you.

  Q101  Mr Jack: No, I am on the NFU mailing list and I get everything from nitrate vulnerable zones to the whole lot and no stone is ever left unturned, and Mr Holbeche is paid to send us this information, so the question I am asking is if you have really got the bit between your teeth on this, why have I not had a piece of paper from Mr Holbeche telling me that you want something doing about it?

  Mr Paske: Take it from me, I will make sure you do get something, Mr Jack.

  Q102  Mr Jack: My point is that if only now we have these exchanges, it makes me question just how strong the desire is because within rural communities, if there are all these people who have all the problems listed in here, the grapevine will supply this information. People talk, people gather in pubs, and you do not need to be a genius in a rural community to find out what is going on, but somehow, in spite of all this information swirling around, it ain't being plugged into.

  Mr Paske: Well, I am sure that the ACU have the same leads as I would have under those circumstances and if that was the case, I cannot understand why there are not more prosecutions.

  Q103  Mr Wiggin: Following on from that line of questioning, one of the subjects that we do get endless letters about, certainly as constituency MPs, is polytunnels and of course the problem with gang master labour is that a lot of that is used in the picking of soft fruits. At the moment that is quite a profitable sector and that is why the proliferation of Spanish tunnels and polytunnels has been going on. What concerns me is that if this type of labour continues to be demanded in the way that it clearly is at the moment, this will effectively ruin the market in the longer term because you cannot have high-value crops if there is a glut. Now, what is the NFU going to do about this? Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty now are being covered in polytunnels and this is entirely dependent on this cheap labour and this is a real problem in terms of people's sympathy towards the farming community as well. I do not know if you are getting that sort of vibe.

  Mr Paske: Well, I understand the problem and of course planning regulations are such that they allow these tunnels to be put up, so it is covering a demand and, you are quite right, it is an increasing demand. Certainly that would require an additional amount of labour, but at the present moment we are asking for additional SAWS workers to be able to cover that because at least with the SAWS system we are very happy with the way that that is regulated.

  Q104  Mr Wiggin: Yes, I take your point. I was lucky enough to meet horticulturalists and growers the other day and they are now talking about having lights in their tunnels because they can then produce for a longer season. They are making a lot of money and it is going very well for them, but this is not necessarily something which is actually sustainable and that is my concern.

  Mr Paske: Well, horticulturalists are used to changing their operations to meet the market conditions that are prevailing, so I am quite sure—

  Q105  Mr Wiggin: We are going to end up with the potato cycle all over again, are we not, where everybody grows potatoes until the market collapses?

  Mr Paske: Well, it is an unsupported sector, as you will appreciate, and so you have to be profitable to remain in business.

  Q106  Mr Borrow: My patch includes part of the Lancashire clay, so I have a lot of growers in my patch and I have got to say that I remember incidents in the press when rag took place on gangs working for four growers who were found to be illegal, so gang masters are obviously operating and there are problems, but in six years as an MP, I have not had any member of the horticultural community in my constituency write to me or raise with me the problems of the regulation of gang masters, so I was very interested to learn that the NFU have been lobbying for 15 years for the regulation of gang masters. I assume, however, from what has been said that the regulation of the gang masters that you want is statutory—

  Mr Paske: Yes.

  Q107  Mr Borrow: — and not voluntary and you accept, therefore, that any sort of voluntary scheme that is plucked out of the air is something that is not really worth the paper it is printed on?

  Mr Paske: Well, it helps, but, as my colleague has already said, we are not in a position to enforce a voluntary code, except by using as much influence as we can, but the strength of the law is obviously a greater deterrent in that sense.

  Q108  Mr Borrow: We have heard in previous evidence from Mrs Day that probably a voluntary scheme might impact on 50% of your membership who would go along with it and want to see it implemented, but the odds are that the other 50% would carry on.

  Mr Paske: Well, I was interested to hear that statistic and I do not know where the statistic comes from, so I could not really comment on the 50:50 as she did.

  Q109  Mr Borrow: So from your angle obviously as an office-holder within the NFU and, therefore, someone who has got a big incentive both morally and in terms of your position in the NFU to make sure that everything is done above board, it would be to your advantage as an individual grower to see a statutory scheme which ensured that all of your competitors were producing crops using the same rigour and implementing the same regulations as strongly as you do?

  Mr Paske: Yes, it would.

  Q110  Mr Borrow: On the question of SAWS which we have touched on a little bit, the NFU is seeking to expand the scheme and increase the numbers. How effective do you think the Home Office is in actually ensuring that that scheme is regulated properly?

  Mr Fiddaman: I would have said exceptionally well because, as I indicated a bit earlier, it is recognised that it is not 100% proof, and there are one or two people who seem to be able to lose themselves within the UK employment system somewhere and fail to return under the work permit that is there, but it is because it has been at that very low level that the Home Office has felt that there has not been a need to do anything specifically about it because it is probably as tight as you can get it. The operators themselves do not want to see that sort of slippage because it then impugns their own ability to run the scheme, and they have a licence and that licence can be removed. Now, I know it has not been removed from the seven that we have got, but it is because they have been so robust in the way they have run the mechanism. The issue has been, and it has been sort of touched on earlier, that the whole of the employment cycle in the UK has improved to the point where there is certainly in large parts of the country very low unemployment, and thank goodness for that. Having said that, it then equally means that there is not the ability for the industry to pick up short-term employment requirements when there are peaks of demand which obviously harvesting particularly produces. Therefore, there has to be, for those businesses to expand and improve, a mechanism which can be relied on to give them that form of flexible labour force. It was mentioned just earlier on about how the strawberry industry has gone into polytunnels and they have these regular figures, but it is through the SAWS scheme that they have been able to do that because they have expanded their picking season now to some 20 to 26 weeks in the year. What they are doing through that is actually competing against the Californian, the Israeli produce and so on which come in to fulfill the market if we do not produce, so it is not as though the strawberries would not be there, but they would come from somewhere else, and that is, if you like, one of the issues which, within the Ethical Trading Initiative which I also am on the working group of along with David Brown, we have discussed before. For example, if we negotiate, as we have, a higher pay rise for the workers in the sector and, therefore, it is going to cost our growers more to produce each unit, are the supermarkets going to recognise that in what they will then offer for the end price? Their fallback answer is, "Well, we can't agree on anything together because we are immediately under the suspicion of the OFT because it is a trading restriction", as they play it. Now, the issue is that because we have quality standards and most big businesses now are plugged into assurance schemes which are determined to show the consumer the quality of the product both in the sense of the fruit or the vegetable itself and the mechanisms by which it is grown. To do that, therefore, we need to be able to show that we are trying to produce the right mechanisms. This is the problem and I think that is where the strength of the SAWS system is, that we can actually show that it is a well-run system. I will not guarantee that there are not potential abuses and, if there are, I am well aware that that will mean that those operators will no longer service those employers who end up abusing that privilege, because it is a privilege because they have to ask for and are then given a quota which they may have of this number of SAWS students and they are monitored. Now, they will not necessarily be with a given employer for the whole of the season because that employer might well only have a narrow harvest season when he or she requires that labour and it is right, therefore, that that labour should move to another employer who then needs that activity, albeit in a different product. That is what has been so successful about the SAWS scheme and why we have been so keen to see it expanded in time length because of the way the seasons are being lengthened by all sorts of mechanisms because of consumer demand, therefore, we want to try and see that there is the right labour to fulfill it. Equally, there have been sectors of the industry which have not been able to use it because the students are unavailable. Now, the proposal is that it is now a 12-month scheme on a sort of six-month provision basis with a return position after that. I feel in this instance that the Home Office is trying to avoid the other thing which we asked for which was a Green Card scheme to actually provide a further resource of labour because the students are students and there must be a limited number which will wish to be involved and it has already been mentioned how the current students, some of them are certainly coming from what will be the enlargement countries, so given another 18 months in fact from now, and certainly in the documentation we are seeing, the Government recognise that they will have free access to the UK labour market, so obviously they cannot be treated any differently from anybody else within the EU, and that is quite right. So yes, some of the SAWS students we have currently got will no longer fit the old definition, but it does not necessarily mean that they might not want to use the ability of, if you like, the employment service by booking through an operator because they know that when they get to this country, they are going to be guaranteed a place of residence, because that is part of the SAWS scheme, that it is up to a standard which the operators are there to maintain even if it is on a multiple-employer system so that the minimum standards are at least attempted to be protected, though you can never guarantee it, but there is a very strong element of guarantee in the mechanism, and also they know the right rates of pay and what they are entitled to. As many of the best ways of running the scheme are in place and it is right that they should be multiplied and made the best use of. If you like, the debate that we are having about the gang master system is because there is not any means of slapping down misusers of the scheme and, therefore, if there is, if you like, an illegal gang master or illegal labour within the use of a gang master there is no means of even starting to attempt to try and correct whatever level that might actually be. You are quite right, we do not have physical evidence of the numbers. Certainly from the workers' side they give us anecdotal evidence that they have a number of people involved and we have always supported their view that the statutory licensing of the gang master is the right way to remove that abuse, or at least to start removing it because you will not remove it overnight necessarily. If you have got a mechanism, and that is what the SAWS scheme is, it is a mechanism of which we have evidential proof of how successful it is because it is licensed, because that licence can be taken away, because the number of work permits can be reduced or removed it is a real incentive to see that the operators behave correctly. It is, if you like, a copy of that that needs to be seen within the gang master system.

  Q111  Mr Borrow: I am not quite sure whether you are saying that in terms of the effective administration of the scheme by the Home Office there is proof that that is effective because very few people overstay and disappear at the end of their visa period, and that is a sign of it, or are you actually saying that the Home Office police the scheme well because there is no abuse by employers in using SAWS labour in inappropriate circumstances or subcontracting that labour on, which is one of the things we heard earlier this afternoon?

  Mr Fiddaman: Certainly it is that the Home Office does do that, they monitor the operators to see that they fulfil the contract they have got with the Home Office. I have not heard of it being a heavy-handed approach because it has got the longevity of evidence of proof. In other words, the operators have shown by their standard of running their operations that they can be trusted to do what the Home Office set out to be the rules of the scheme. It was one reason why the NFU in particular, amongst others, was very reluctant to see any additional operators easily added to the list until there was some fairly strong mechanism for seeing that one could monitor their ability to maintain the standards that we recognise as being very good and something that we are proud to see is actively working well. That has been a very strong stance of ours and that is why initially we said no extra operators. Now we are aware that for competitive reasons the opportunity must be there for others to bid in but they are going to have to show they are as good as the current ones. We would fully endorse the Home Office taking the ability they have then to use their powers to remove that licence.

  Q112  Alan Simpson: Can I just come back to your evidence to the Committee. You did say that the existing framework of guidance and industry codes worked to some degree. How do you know?

  Mr Paske: Because we can check that quite clearly from the feedback that we have from our members.

  Q113  Alan Simpson: Presumably those are the members who would choose to give you the feedback. I am not sure how many would give you feedback that said "No, we are scamming the system".

  Mr Paske: I think our systems are such that we would be able to weed out those sorts of responses. Certainly we would get those responses.

  Q114  Alan Simpson: Can you just give me an example of any action that you have taken against one of your members who was seen to be engaging gang masters involved in illegal employment practices?

  Mr Paske: It is very difficult for us to take any action against any of our members. What we would do under those circumstances is we would be very happy to publicise—and have—those situations to the detriment of a member because we are not supporting illegal activities by our members.

  Q115  Alan Simpson: Is this not the dilemma that we face at the moment? I do not have any reason to doubt the probity of employment practices that you three operate because it seems to me it would be highly unlikely that the NFU would send three representatives to this Committee who said "We are a bunch of scallies, you have caught us red-handed, we throw ourselves at the mercy of the Committee". The reality is that from everywhere else we are seeing evidence both anecdotal or just from the sheer volume of people who are coming in complaining about this that there is a serious problem here that the NFU systematically have not addressed and one of the reasons for that may be that in truth you are hand in glove with that process. We have had evidence about the extent to which, irrespective of whether the labour is legal or not, the accommodation on farms that people are squeezed into is horrendous and it is almost akin to rural Rachmanism at times.

  Mr Paske: Can I just be clear. With gang masters it is very unlikely that accommodation is being provided by the employer.

  Q116  Alan Simpson: There are two things. One is the gang masters may park people in caravans or stuff people in caravans down the lane.

  Mr Paske: That is where responsible employers, with respect, will check that out. If there are irresponsible employers out there I am certainly not going to try and defend them as members of mine, I am certainly not going to defend them. What I want to see is the regulations that are in place and the codes of practice that are in place being enforced fairly.

  Q117  Alan Simpson: Is not the problem here though the one that was identified by Mrs Day which is that the competition that is going on is to a least cost competitive base and on that basis your own members have a vested interest in not asking questions about people's legality?

  Mr Paske: No, I am sorry, I cannot accept that because, as I say, my experience, and I can only talk about my own experience and my contacts within the area where I operate, which is in Lincolnshire, is that the majority of the people that are employed on gangs are on a piecework basis, so exploitation in that sense, I will not say it is impossible but the facts are it links back into employment regulations, it links back to the minimum wage in other words. The sort of exploitation that you are talking about I find incredibly difficult to believe.

  Q118  Alan Simpson: So what you are saying then—just let me try and be clear on this—is that you do not think that there is any particular basis from which a gang master might find it attractive to employ non-legal labour as opposed to legal labour because the price that is being paid is the same?

  Mr Paske: I can see how a gang master can profit at that, certainly I can, but I am talking about responsible employers.

  Q119  Alan Simpson: And there is no evidence that farmers themselves have a remote interest in that as a process, there is no sense in which that influences the price that—

  Mr Paske: Certainly not from the point that you are making, which is pressure from price putting that in that place because, again, my experience is such that the labour content of the job that is being done in some cases is quite low. The fact of the matter is you know what the price is and, as I say, if you are paying on a piecework basis you know exactly how much it is going to cost you per pound to harvest the product. That system is the system which is most widely used in gang labour.

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