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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260-270)

Wednesday 21 May 2003

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

  Q260  Chairman: We are almost there. Can I ask you two or three final questions? Is there a single minister to whom the whole operation reports?

  Mr Kitchen: No.

  Q261  Chairman: So each of you reports to your departmental minister. Is there a ministerial committee which meets to exercise a sort of general supervision? Even at the level of the most junior, junior, junior, junior, junior minister—the sort of people who are given charge of energy saving and that sort of thing?

  Mr Kitchen: The Grabiner Steering Group prepared a report on illegal working last autumn which went from that Grabiner Steering Group to the Minister for Work and Pensions and went to the Treasury Minister and to the relevant Agriculture Minister. They were all made aware that this was something which was going on.

  Q262  Chairman: If I say "Who is in charge?" what is the answer?

  Mr Kitchen: The Grabiner Steering Group, which is senior officials.

  Q263  Chairman: Is there a sort of grand supremo in charge of that? Is there a chairman?

  Mr Kitchen: The chairman is from the Revenue.

  Q264  Chairman: So there is a civil servant in the Revenue who chairs this group. At a guess, what proportion of his working week, would you say, is devoted to this?

  Mr Kitchen: I do not know.

  Q265  Chairman: And you, Mr Kitchen, what proportion of your working week, would you say, generally, is devoted to this particular activity?

  Mr Kitchen: One hundred per cent of my working week is spent on fraud at the Department for Work and Pensions, of which this is part.

  Q266  Chairman: I am talking about what we have christened the "Gangbusting" side of it.

  Mr Kitchen: I would guess that it occupies a week a year of my time, directly on gangmaster. That is all it takes, but that would be to distort the effort I put into fraud as a whole.

  Q267  Chairman: I am not trying to belittle anybody's efforts. I think the problem is that when we realised that there was a government operation to try and deal with this, what we had in mind was a group of people who had been put in charge of it with a clear line of authorisation, operating clearly with the police, perhaps, and who really spent their time trying to crack this. What it seems to be is an extraordinarily fragmented operation, and each of your umbilical cords back to your own departments overwhelm any other sort of protein flow, as it were, in the operation. Each of you is doing the departmental brief. I get the impression that you have been sent on a mission impossible. You have not had the structures or any of the other stuff put in place to enable you to do this job. If I were a gangmaster, would you say that I ought to be petrified, terrified, worried, anxious or largely indifferent to your activities?

  Mr Kitchen: I would expect you to be concerned about the activities—

  Q268  Chairman: "Concerned" is not very high on the Richter Scale, is it, of terror?

  Mr Kitchen: I would express it slightly differently to the way you have put it. I am extraordinarily pleased about the way in which these departments are working together at an operational level on a daily basis with a significant number of officers dedicated entirely to gangmaster issues. My role as Chief Investigation Officer is to ensure that those officers, together with others in the DWP involved in investigations, are properly supported with appropriate intelligence systems, appropriate use of powers and a resourcing system to manage them in effective investigation.

  Q269  Chairman: But the game is running away from you. Is that a fair comment?

  Mr Kitchen: The game is difficult to quantify, and we are recognising that it is a significant problem which is evolving because of the factors that I mentioned previously and which is taking some time to get a grip of.

  Mr Black: I would say that I do not think the game is running away from us. I think it would probably have been easy to set up a few people in an office and put the "Gangmaster" logo over the top of their desk, perhaps. What we have here is a much wider problem, which we have now got a flexible response on; we can cut across all departments where all departments are concerned, and we can cut across two departments where two departments are concerned.

  Q270  Chairman: There is no Cabinet Office involvement, is there?

  Mr Black: No. But we are certainly able to identify the problem and put the appropriate resources and the appropriate talent and skills in to deal with that problem. I think it would be wrong to think of this as a one-size-fits-all problem; you get very large gangmasters and very small; different issues around different areas of the country and, indeed, gangmasters are not simply agricultural gangmasters, they are involved in a wide variety of areas. We would see it more as a flexible response rather than anything else.

  Chairman: Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming. We acknowledge that you are civil servants, not politicians, and that you have perhaps caught a little bit of flak which ought, more properly, to be directed towards politicians. The trouble is there are five politicians, apparently, that it ought to be directed towards. Perhaps we ought to have them lined up in front of us next, but we will have to make do with Lord Whitty. Lord Whitty will no doubt receive notification. By and large, we think the politicians have got some answering to do to describe how this operation is really going to deliver the sort of outcomes which all of us agree are necessary, which is tackling a problem which everybody has emphasised is a sort of serious social issue as well as being an issue of fiscal and economic matter as well. We are grateful to you for coming in such strength and you have helped our inquiry a great deal. Thank you.

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