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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-130)

Wednesday 7 May 2003

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

  Q120  Alan Simpson: But in the absence of there being any particular sanctions on your own members, is it not the case that it is just much easier if they do not even bother to ask the questions about legality?

  Mr Paske: I cannot accept that, I am sorry. As I say, the majority of the members of my organisation are towards the larger side of the horticultural business, if you take it that side, so they are substantial businesses. Where there may be problems, as I tried to bring out in my evidence earlier, is where that labour is subcontracted or, indeed, where some smaller farmers who literally have not got the time perhaps to do the checks and balances that I do in my businesses, I can recognise the fact that there may be abuses within that system. I am not for a moment going to say that these abuses do not happen, I am sure they do happen, but the fact of the matter is that it is in my interest to make sure that they are stamped out where they possibly can be.

  Q121  Alan Simpson: Can I finally say that this issue for me goes back to the point raised by Michael Jack that on some issues the NFU is absolutely razor sharp in the evidence that it is able to produce to justify an intervention case that you expect or want the government of the day to act upon, but on this as an issue the union has been remarkably silent.

  Mr Paske: I am sorry, I cannot agree with that because, as I said to you before, every time this issue is raised we are told that there is insufficient time to bring in statutory powers. That is something which we are being told and I can go back over the 12 years and every time the issue has been raised that has been the answer that we have been given.

  Q122  Alan Simpson: So if Mrs Day is right and 50% of the farmers just do not take an interest or do not ask the awkward questions you, as a union, would be quite happy to say that effectively if your farmers are involved in some sort of Del Boy delivery system of an off the back of a lorry process that exploits labour you would be in favour of tough legislation that would stamp it out?

  Mr Paske: I would.

  Q123  Alan Simpson: Including sanctions on your own members if they were involved in that?

  Mr Paske: Absolutely so.

  Q124  Mr Breed: Just to wrap it up and see if you can agree with what we are trying to do, because if after all these years we are going to try and move the situation forward and make the Government understand it is an issue which is important enough to change legislation then it is important to actually try and ensure that they understand the seriousness. From what I have heard since I have been here you do not believe as a union that the current situation, the current legislation as it is enforced, is sufficient in any way to actually tackle whatever the size of the problem. Whatever we have got at the moment it is not sufficient and that is why you want statutory regulation. We agree on that?

  Mr Paske: Yes, we do.

  Q125  Mr Breed: The evidence to suggest that a statutory registration scheme will be policed more effectively than the current legal framework, we have not got a handle on that. What we are saying is that if there was that statutory registration it would require firm enforcement but what we have got is the evidence from SAWS that the Home Office are prepared to see that work effectively when the legislation is in force, so hopefully if we do get the right registration and licensing scheme in it can be properly enforced. What we are stumbling on a bit is the magnitude of the problem and to a certain extent that is where the Government has to decide its priorities. Our problem is that the evidence is that the problems associated with gang masters are a result of the inadequate legislation as opposed to a failure to enforce the existing legislation and it is an area that is inevitably hazy because we cannot demonstrate what size it is. To a certain extent, because it is underground and everything else, we are not going to get the firm evidence, and even today we have seen a certain reticence in people coming forward, but in your view from all you see and what you have heard and everything else you still believe that it is a sufficiently large enough problem for statutory registration and licensing to be part of primary legislation. You believe whether it is growing or diminishing that it is of sufficient proportions to demand that.

  Mr Paske: I would much prefer to see that, absolutely, yes.

  Q126  Mr Breed: In terms of the competition law and everything else, and I know there are problems with the European Union and everything else, even if those are resolved it would not be your view that we could continue on any sort of voluntary code basis, that is not going to work, it has to be a more tough statutory basis.

  Mr Paske: I am afraid to say so because all the voluntary schemes which you and I are familiar with just do not work as effectively as they should.

  Q127  Mr Breed: On the supermarket side, from your particular viewpoint do you believe that the supermarkets are actually having any effect? We know that they have influences down the chain and everything else but do you think that they have an effect on the prices that are paid for temporary labour in this case? We know they have an effect, and I personally believe they do have considerable effects on certain areas, but is there any real evidence to suggest that they are having an effect on the continuance, if you like, of these schemes which we want to regulate?

  Mr Paske: The fact of the matter is the prices that the supermarkets are paying are extremely competitive so we have to look at every cost in our business and see if there are ways that we can reduce those costs. To answer your question specifically, I do not think that is having a major effect on the cost that we are paying for labour.

  Q128  Mr Breed: If the supermarkets all of a sudden, totally out of character, were to pay fairer prices, do you think that would have any particular effect on this or would that sort of money disappear into the gang master's pockets rather than into—

  Mr Paske: That would be my belief. I would put that question to my colleagues as well.

  Mr Brown: Just to come back to the earlier evidence, certainly in my dealings with growers virtually every major retailer, if not every major retailer, puts in place some kind of ethical audit on their suppliers and it is growing. It is not just the two who were named earlier on, certainly others are doing this.

  Q129  Mr Breed: Right the way down as far as the person who picks the bit of fruit at the bottom? It does not stop at the packers?

  Mr Brown: They will look to the packer and then from the packer down to the grower to show evidence of what they do to check. It is actually where some of the forgeries have come out, it must be said.

  Q130  Mr Breed: So you would agree if the supermarkets suddenly did decide to pay slightly higher to try and reflect that, it is pretty unlikely to change anything in terms of the current situation, the money would just disappear slightly before it got to the person it was actually meant for?

  Mr Paske: Again, I go back to the anecdotal evidence that why we are concerned is that there does seem to be some very serious criminal activity coming into this whole area. It would be naive for me to sit here and believe with that type of person getting involved we could sort it out without legislation.

  Chairman: This particular gang master thinks we have had enough for the day. Thank you very much indeed for giving evidence to us. It is obviously a very interesting subject and we are discovering more all the time. We may want to come back to you, you may want to come back to us, but until the next time, as they say, thank you very much indeed.

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