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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180-190)

Wednesday 21 May 2003

Mr Peter Allenson, and Mr Don Pollard

  Q180  Mr Borrow: Can we look at the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme. In my constituency the horticultural businesses in West Lancashire are block growers and they have traditionally relied on the SAWS scheme for seasonal labour. The Committee have heard various tales as to the effectiveness and legitimacy of the scheme. We have heard from some people that it is being well run and well regulated and from other people that workers who are here under the scheme often are diverted into labour type work that they should not be doing under the scheme. I think that given they are supposed to be students on the scheme, it should have a cultural and educational aspect to it rather than simply being a source of cheap labour. I have heard a number of tales from my own constituency of workers here under that scheme being diverted into other types of work. I wonder what your take is on the way in which the scheme is working and whether it is working legitimately or not and how effective the Home Office is in regulating the scheme?

  Mr Allenson: Certainly from our perspective the SAWS scheme, in many ways, is difficult for us to choose because obviously students are here for six months and we are unlikely to have too much access to them. We get second hand information, for example, through directly employed staff that are supervising the SAWS students themselves. Certainly up until recently there has not been a high level of complaint—I will not say there have not been any complaints—to us about abuse of the scheme from the students involved in the process or indeed from trade unions back in the country that perhaps they came from, feeding it through to us. We are concerned about the rapid expansion of the scheme, we have made that view known, and about how that effectively leads to it being abused, perhaps, in the future. We have concerns about the scheme but in the past it seems to have been relatively well regulated and monitored none the least because the two main organisations which were involved are charitable institutions. We are concerned that other companies in the new system may get involved and that may lead to other pressures that there are not presently.

  Q181  Mr Borrow: Have you got concerns that the expansion of the scheme could have an effect on the whole market for temporary labour in the sense that the idea behind the scheme is that people come here as students in order to widen their experience and earn some money, but not principally as a source of labour. The whole ethos of the system will change to being a source of temporary labour in the agricultural sector and that will compete against other sources of temporary labour if the scheme is allowed to expand without the necessary checks and balances in the system.

  Mr Pollard: I think that whole original concept of SAWS being part of a strong culturally element as well as a work experience element and a chance for people to earn money has gone by the board over the last four or five years especially as the numbers allowed in have increased. It is really a source of labour. Certainly the NFU position seems to be that where they continually ask for more to be allowed in seems to be on the labour side rather than on the cultural side. As you probably all know, it is a very narrow recruitment exercise, it only deals with students from Eastern Europe, it only deals with students in their penultimate year of university so they will go back to finish their degrees. The recruitment is through the universities in Eastern Europe. The facilities and the farmers who apply for workers, their places of work are inspected, the accommodation is inspected. Once the workers are here they have a complaints' procedure and the inspectors go out to see these places occasionally. From that point of view it is very successful but I think I have less of an acceptance of abuses in the SAWS scheme than Peter because I have had many complaints from students where either the accommodation or work has not been what they were told it would be, sourcing out is a problem. It is probably less of a problem with the two main ones which provide about 90% of the SAWS students but some of the smaller ones, I think there are five other small ones and I know one which is a farm which has about 500 licences for work, they are supposed to work directly with farmers but I know they send out to gangmasters as well. There are other cases where the farmer because of the harvesting conditions may have only two months' work and they have contracted for three so they send them somewhere else for the other month which is illegal but permitted by the Home Office.

  Q182  Mrs Shephard: I was interested in the point you made about there being a lack of workers in rural areas. Having observed this rather closely for the last 15 years what I feel is there are not the workers who will do the kind of work which is required, namely packing, processing, quite unpleasant sorts of work and harvesting in very inclement conditions. One of our earlier witnesses suggested that it was a lack of social housing in rural areas which had contributed to the problem, I would like you to comment on that. It is not my perception at all, it may be yours.

  Mr Pollard: There are changes in society all the time. At one stage some groups of people would do a certain amount of work and then they improve their conditions and do not want to do that work any more. Whether it is America or this country, you get other people, maybe people come from the North or from Ireland and they do the lower paid dirty jobs, and I think we are at that stage in social development where the UK workers can get more money in much better conditions and, therefore, you have to have another source for that labour and that happens to be in many cases immigrant labour.

  Q183  Mrs Shephard: There is another twist to this because some of that work, say packing and processing of vegetables, is being done by workers who come from those countries from which the vegetables and fruit are being imported. This is another twist, is it not?

  Mr Pollard: Yes, it is another twist. It is one of the ironies of horticultural development, is it not?

  Q184  Mrs Shephard: In your paper on gangmasters in Sussex you suggested that the Immigration Service was insufficiently funded to deal with the problems associated with gangmasters. Certainly, again, that is my experience in Norfolk. Our chief immigration officer said they had not even got enough people to know whether some workers were Portuguese or Brazilian and, even worse, they might be legal or they might not be legal, for example. In your evidence to us you do not comment much on what the Government has done to try to deal with this, for example Operation Gangmaster. Do you think that Operation Gangmaster has made much difference?

  Mr Pollard: The first thing I think it did was to recognise there was a problem.

  Q185  Mrs Shephard: Yes.

  Mr Pollard: Basically up to that time the only person speaking out was Sir Richard Body who was speaking out about gangmasters and abuses of gangmasters and it was never really taken seriously however long he took over some of that issue. In 1998 when they created Operation Gangmaster, that was a recognition there was a problem. It did another thing. One of the problems with the gangmaster situation is that abuses of labour rights are spread across seven different government departments and Operation Gangmaster at least was an attempt to bring those different departments working together in co-ordinated action, so that was a useful thing. Even the raids themselves were quite useful because they gave us a base line. If you had a certain number of raids you began to see how many people on that particular place were illegal immigrants, how many were on benefits, how many were legal workers. You began at least to have the base line. The problem is the first year Operation Gangmaster operated, at the end of that year they produced not this report but a report this thick about what they had found and comments and analysis of it—the first report was done in late 1998, no report has been produced since—and when I asked for an update on it I was given this: it is about two paragraphs and this is the update. Now the problem about statistics and what is happening is how can you do that if you do not have an update. What have they found in all these raids? What is the percentage of illegal workers? Why are we not being told that? You can ask that, I can ask it, and nobody will answer me but they might answer you. Where are the results of Operation Gangmaster which not only are Lincolnshire but in six other regions of the country as well? I think it would be very useful if people on this Committee would ask where is the analysis, where are the results of all these raids you have had? What does it tell us? I think we could start getting beyond anecdotal evidence.

  Q186  Mrs Shephard: We are about to have that opportunity.

  Mr Pollard: Right.

  Q187  Mrs Shephard: One final question which is this. You say, rightly, that the offences might be spread over six or seven different kinds of government agencies and again something which has arisen with more workers coming from other countries is this question of exploitation in terms of the conditions which involve housing and travel and food and all the rest of it. Again, in my experience in my constituency, although gangmasters appear in the dock as far as the Committee's inquiry is concerned, in that particular case of the exploitation, it is not the gangmasters, it is agencies which are run by Portuguese businessmen. All of this has been uncovered by the local citizens advice bureau. Is that within your experience as well?

  Mr Pollard: I have not found that but I would not be surprised by that. As you know, it is human nature that often the people who abuse other people are from that same society. I think the issue you raise about accommodation and health and safety points to the fact that this is not just a labour problem, it is a social and labour right and the accommodation these people face. I have seen gangworkers in vans with no seats and even now just a pick up van. There have been two deaths, one in your constituency, Mrs Shephard, a van coming back from dropping off workers and it overturned and the driver was killed and in the other case in Suffolk where a van also overturned and the driver was killed, both of whom turned out to be illegal immigrant labour. There are transport problems, housing accommodation problems, etc.

  Q188  Mr Lazarowicz: I understand your union is in favour of a statutory registration scheme being introduced. Can you tell us why you think a statutory scheme would be enforced any more effectively than the present framework? Are not many of the problems to which you refer ones which arise not from the lack of a scheme but from the lack of effective enforcement action of the present law and present rules?

  Mr Allenson: I think, first of all, we are calling for a statutory registration scheme because we believe that voluntary codes have not worked appropriately. We have, of course, within our own trained group the experience of the Agricultural Worker Wages Board. Whilst that is not enforced as well as we would want, it is nevertheless seen and stood up as the example of enforcing a minimum rate within that particular industry. We believe, as I said earlier, that unless we have a registration scheme in place then we will not provide a platform from which reasonable employers can exist and grow. Of course if we cannot do that then we cannot raise levels within the industry itself. We have several ideas about what a statutory scheme would entail but it is quite clear it has to be audited on a regular basis, it has to be monitored on a regular basis and there have to be some substantial teeth as a result of any gangmaster who does not meet those particular criteria. It is very, very important and it is the only way that we can see that we will raise levels in this particular industry having seen gangmasters over a period of time develop, and they are now getting to a stage where there is that criminal element, we believe, involved in the process.

  Mr Pollard: We have difficulties now to prove a murder if there is no body and it is equally difficult to prove some of these crimes which have been committed if we do not know specifically who the people who are running the businesses or subcontracting them are. I think a registration scheme would be a first step, it is by no means a solution but it is a first step to know who is operating out there. It is not uncommon—those of you who know gangmasters in your constituencies—that they change names, they change addresses, they change the directors on an almost annual basis in many cases. It is fairly difficult to trace that back and then pin the crimes on individual people.

  Q189  Mr Lazarowicz: There was a previous registration scheme, I think until 1995, which was not particularly successful in tracking these abuses down. What would your explanation be for the lack of success of that scheme and what lesson would you draw from that operation for the type of scheme that you want to see?

  Mr Pollard: I think you are referring to the Employment Agencies Act?

  Q190  Mr Lazarowicz: Yes.

  Mr Pollard: First of all, it did not really apply to gangmasters. It did not apply to agencies who supervised their workforce. In many cases gangmasters supervised the workers, even though they may have been working on a farm or packhouse, they were being supervised by staff of the gangmaster and they never came under the legislation of the Employment Agencies Act. Maybe it was a bad Act, I do not know. I have seen the Act but I do not know why it failed. It does not mean we should not try.

  Mr Allenson: I think, Chair, as you know very well by now, we have two voluntary codes. It has been a long-documented problem. I think there is an awful lot of anecdotal evidence but I think there is an awful lot of anecdotal evidence that cannot be explained out there, and therefore it is time for a registration scheme. I think a registration scheme could be put together that could actually be quite effective. Certainly Operation Gangmaster has helped but it has not, by any means, eliminated the problems to the extent that is necessary.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. You have been extremely helpful, not least in suggesting how we may carry on with the next part of this session. Thank you. I suspect our next witnesses have been sitting behind listening, in any case.

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