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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-239)

Wednesday 21 May 2003

Mr Richard Kitchen, Mr Lindsay Harris, Mr David Lambert, Mr Graham Black, and Mr Rolf Toolin

  Q220  Mr Mitchell: Go on!

  Mr Toolin: No. The issues, really, are about putting bad gangmasters out of business but also supplying the labour market in a reasonable manner whereby the UK can control it reasonably. We do not control it now and we do not have the resources to play into that, however much we want. Someone mentioned Lincolnshire earlier on and the police activity. The Police Reform Act, which went through Parliament doubtless, actually has stopped the process of police assistance in Lincolnshire because they have already spent their overtime budget. It is not a question of us putting money back into the budget, it is about hours. I could pay them to do it but they would still be forced to say "No". So it is not just ourselves that are really capped in this way, I think there is capping from the way the legislation is written. There is no doubt in my mind, and I have dealt with illegal working in the agriculture industry since 1990 in various forms from the basic right the way through to where I am now, which is not much higher up the tree, but the issues—

  Q221  Mr Jack: As a gangmaster!

  Mr Toolin: There is certainly a lot more money to be made on the other side of the fence, there is no doubt. The issues, I think, here are that we have not addressed it. We had, and still have, very good embryonic systems in the way that SAWS is operated. I have dealt with the major people involved in that, through Concordia and HOPS (GB) on a number of occasions, and they are genuinely interested in supplying labour. Because of the nature of harvests, etc and weather, the people who contracted that labour cannot always give them work, and we should be somewhat more flexible in the way that we allowed, within what we considered an appropriate scheme, that to be carried forward far better. It was a system which, I still consider, has some value in terms of the future and we way we do it, and I am glad to see it is being extended. I hope, through that extension, that where my staff go out, what we have to say about the conditions they find the workers in and where they breach the agreements that were made in the original transactions, action is taken against those individual employers, that they do not get to use the SAWS system again. In general terms of gangmasters, there is intimidation. The intimidation starts in many cases back in their own countries and the payments start there as well. The sort of rough average is £2,000, before you get the package, as it were, to come to the UK. On arrival you are promised legal employment, you are promised good benefits, good living conditions, and that is why you pay your £2,000, but you are not actually given a contact number in the UK until you arrive. That costs you extra as soon as you do arrive in the UK and then you have got to pay £100 for the contact number. It moves on from there. The white van comes and whisks you off, as my colleagues have described, up to Scotland one day, down to the South West the next week and so on and so forth. People mention the question of people dying as a result of the hours they have had to work, and Lincolnshire, again, is an area where there have been two fatalities, and the reasons for those fatalities have been the long and arduous working conditions for the people concerned. Persons who are unlawfully in the United Kingdom are open to exploitation, they are exploited, but that is not to say that there are not some good gangmasters who actually believe in doing the thing properly. There is certainly one in the Evesham area that I have dealt with over the last months that I have been involved there and he is insistent on a proper system and doing it well. There are some Asian gangmasters in the Birmingham area who get their employees through the mosques and that is a rightful transaction; people are lawfully in the United Kingdom, they are treated well, their fees are paid and they can still make money. So it begets the answer what sort of money is being made by those who act unlawfully in the United Kingdom, in terms of being gangmasters? We do have successes here but they are few and far between. It depends on the resource level. One recent success in the Cambridge area was where well in excess of £2,000 in cash was found under the bed of an associate gangmaster—because that is the other difficulty, nobody can actually say who the real one is. We have managed to go through a money laundering charge and we think we will be successful there, but these are minor successes, really.

  Q222  Mrs Shephard: We are left with the problem as we began with it, which is that while economic migrants are okay and also necessary, many of us feel, given the seasonal nature of the work in the past and the fact that we cannot get British people to do these jobs, we still do not know the scale of the problem; nobody can tell us how many gangmasters there are, how many illegal immigrants they are employing—what the scale of fraud is. Nobody can tell us. The Chairman, at our last session on this subject, asked the witnesses the following question: "Who is disadvantaged by this system?" The answer seems to be "No one". One is beginning to wonder if we cannot get answers because nobody is disadvantaged, despite the fact that there are clearly abuses going on. The supermarkets are not disadvantaged, the producers are certainly not disadvantaged, the gangmasters, from what you say, in spades are not disadvantaged and even the workers themselves, if they come from abroad, are certainly getting more than they might be getting at home. However, there is abuse, there is exploitation. Is it not someone's business?

  Mr Toolin: I think it is all of our business, really.

  Q223  Mrs Shephard: It does not seem to be.

  Mr Toolin: I did go over the resource element. You can only get out of something what you put into it. Every part of government, and mine is no different from any of my colleagues' here, is in that position. We put what we can into it, what is there to be put in, and we do our best to actually deliver what we can to you. But in order to do this properly I think we need to look at the system as a whole. Someone mentioned earlier the question of the Portuguese gangmasters and their exploitation of their own people. I have to sit back in wonderment and say "Why should a Portuguese person be persecuted in the United Kingdom when they are an EU national and fully entitled to take work here?" That can only mean that we have allowed a system of gangmaster-ism to take control of the industry and become a monopoly to the industry, and that cannot be right, surely. A Portuguese person should be able to go to a Jobcentre and say "I would like to work for F&C Packing", or whoever else. (That is a made-up name, I do not think there is an F&C Packing—there might be an F&C Packing. I apologise to them if I cause them any pain.) The issue is that. I think that that actually sums up the position with the vast majority of gangmasters and the fact that there is nothing to regulate them in any way. They seem to be able to do what they want.

  Mr Black: You asked who is disadvantaged; I think we would say that the exploited workers are obviously disadvantaged, that the employers who are trying to play by the rules are disadvantaged because they are undercut by people who are not playing by the rules, and I suppose from our end of the table the Exchequer is disadvantaged as well. I think we do recognise there are a lot of disadvantages involved in the system if it is being abused. Equally, I have to say it is a concern of everyone on this table, and we have all put quite a lot of resources, and an increasingly amount of resources, in to try and combat it. Yes, we are not as far down the track as being able to give you exact figures but we do recognise there is a problem and we have recognised that there is an increasing problem and we have tried to respond accordingly to make sure that we are not only individually as departments trying to combat it but, I think, more importantly, trying to pool our resources and information so that we can deal with it more effectively in future. We are taking it seriously.

  Q224  Mr Breed: Going back on to Operation Gangmaster, so that we can try, again, to get some sort of idea where we are, presumably when the thing was set up and the contract given to whoever carried out that assessment and everything else, this was the genesis of the Government's drive on targets? There must have been some target set. Can you tell us what target Operation Gangmaster actually has in terms of its on-going work? Perhaps more importantly, could you tell us how ministers actually monitor the performance of the operation and how often this is all reported to DEFRA—the whole process—so that we get some idea that whilst it is an on-going operation and it is still on-going, what is the evaluation? What are the targets? How is it being monitored? What is the ministerial involvement, and all that sort of thing?

  Mr Kitchen: There are two areas that I might answer. One is in terms of the level of fraud and error there is in the benefit system, where there is a central PSA target to reduce the level of fraud and error from an 1999 baseline by 50% by 2006, to which these activities make a contribution—a small contribution.

  Q225  Mr Breed: There is no Operation Gangmaster target as such?

  Mr Kitchen: Not that is brought to ministers' attention. The second issue that I raise is that Gangmaster is one part of the Grabiner-led activities in relation to the informal economy. The Grabiner Steering Group, of which I am a part, requires reports from the various departments involved, and we prepared a report to ministers I think last September. I am a little bit hazy—

  Q226  Mr Breed: That is a more global report?

  Mr Kitchen: That, again, is for the informal economy as a whole and it covers not just the agricultural sector but illegal working in other industrial and agricultural sectors.

  Q227  Mr Breed: But the people who are doing Operation Gangmaster must have produced some material targets, some sort of estimate, some sort of information in order to compile that report.

  Mr Kitchen: I know nothing of the report. From DWP I know nothing of the original report; that is a DEFRA issue.

  Q228  Mr Breed: I wonder if Mr Harris knows anything about that.

  Mr Harris: The original report you are talking about is the evaluation that was done of the original Operation Gangmaster project.

  Q229  Mr Breed: Were there any targets?

  Mr Harris: I am not aware of any, no. The report was an external evaluation of what was originally a pilot project, as has been described, in East Anglia and Lincolnshire. The report looked at its effectiveness in terms of taking enforcement action against illegal activity by gangmasters and concluded that the pilot had value and that it was worth extending to other parts of the country where these types of activities were a problem. What we have had since then is a gradual roll-out of Operation Gangmaster to other parts of the country.

  Q230  Mr Breed: But there is no ministerial oversight, as far as you know?

  Mr Harris: Our ministers in DEFRA take a great deal of interest in this issue but they do not get specific reports from Operation Gangmaster, no.

  Q231  Chairman: This may be a daft question but when you have finished here, Mr Harris, do you go back to DEFRA, and, Mr Kitchen, do you repair to the Department for Work and Pensions? Mr Black, do you go back to your office in the Inland Revenue and, Mr Toolin, do you head back off for the Midlands? When you have team work, the impression I got was you had an office, which was open plan, and you all sat together all the time, at adjacent desks, so you could talk all the time and you got on with the job. It seems to me you are just seconded occasionally from your department. It is a bit like "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!"; there is not any integrated working at all. This is the most un-joined-up form of government I have ever come across, pretending to be an integrated operation. There is nothing integrated about it at all, you just bump into each other occasionally. Would it not be better if you had a building with a sign on the door which says "Gangmaster Squad No 1" or "Shark Tooth" (or whatever you call yourselves) and it looked like you were actually working together all the time, doing nothing but this?

  Mr Kitchen: The people around this table are not working together all the time on this issue, we are working across—each of us—our own departments' law enforcement, or other activities. What we do have within the DWP is a central team co-ordinating the activities at an operational level of those engaged in gangmaster activities. You have before you an example, from Operation Shark, of the approach we are taking, which was that we identify a target for enforcement action, we bring together the relevant bodies which have something to do with that particular target, and we undertake enforcement action against them in a co-ordinated and integrated way based upon intelligence held by all the departments concerned. What I do not do on a daily basis is speak to the people around this table on gangmaster issues. My attention is based on the investigative activities of the Department for Work and Pensions on illegal working over a wide variety of trade centres, including agriculture. My minister is interested in what we are doing on gangmaster, I have written a report to my minister on what we are doing on gangmaster but there is no public sector targets on it that I am aware of.

  Q232  Chairman: You are not a hit squad in any way, are you?

  Mr Kitchen: I think what we are is a group of civil servants working against a number of issues that fall within the remit of our various departments, and being as effective as we can, in the area of gangmaster. That is something which we can be reasonably proud of. What we have undertaken over the last year is a significantly different approach with gangmaster fora in every region of the country—six across England, one in Scotland, one in Wales and one in the North of Ireland—who are working across the departments in co-ordinating activities against this problem.

  Q233  Alan Simpson: Chairman, I get this feeling that we are all being set up for an episode of Bremner, Bird and Fortune. It is impressive that we have such a large line-up but I find myself sitting here thinking that, after four or five years of the best brains that we have, to be told how little we know is not designed to reassure the Committee that we have got a grip on the problem at all. Can I rattle off a number of very specific questions that may move us forward, because I hope you can actually answer this. Mr Kitchen, I am not concerned if you are not in contact with your colleagues on a daily basis. Can you just tell me how many times in the last year the five of you have met?

  Mr Kitchen: Not once.

  Q234  Alan Simpson: That is helpful. Mr Lambert, 13 prosecutions. Is that what you said? Can you tell me how much we have raised by way of penalties?

  Mr Lambert: No, I cannot tell you that. I can find out for you.

  Q235  Alan Simpson: Mr Kitchen, we have been told by the Fresh Produce Consortium that one of the problems is that there just are not enough bodies on the ground in Operation Gangmaster. Can you tell us how many people are employed in Operation Gangmaster and what your annual budget is, so that we know both the human and cash resources that you are working with?

  Mr Kitchen: Within DWP I have 50 officers engaged on Operation Gangmaster and a total budget of £1 million.

  Q236  Alan Simpson: I am sorry, is this just—

  Mr Kitchen: On Operation Gangmaster.

  Q237  Alan Simpson: You answered "Within the DWP ...".

  Mr Kitchen: I did.

  Q238  Alan Simpson: Do we have to go through each of you?

  Mr Kitchen: I am answerable for the DWP. In the DWP I seek to co-ordinate the activities of other areas. What I have sought to explain—clearly badly—is that the operation fora pull in people from other departments appropriate to the activities they are engaged upon; sometimes it is Revenue, sometimes it is Customs, sometimes it is Immigration or other departments—social services departments of local authorities. I have 50 officers working entirely on Gangmaster with a budget of £1 million. In addition to that, officers of the DWP engage in investigation where they also come across working and claiming in the course of their normal work—gangmaster activity—and deal with it. You ask how many on Gangmaster, specifically; it is 50 and those officers over the last year have raised sanctions on 138 people who are working illegally, we have thousands of adjustments of benefit and we have identified overpayments of benefit in 235 cases. We have also identified one collusive employer. That is within the DWP.

  Q239  Alan Simpson: And a figure for what you say you have raised?

  Mr Kitchen: 404,000.

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