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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 313-319)

Wednesday 4 June 2003

Lord Whitty, and Mr Lindsay Harris

Q313  Chairman: Lord Whitty, welcome yet again to the Committee at one of your regular appearances in front of us. We will be voting at some stage between now and half past four, I guess, I am not quite sure when, and we are looking to you to provide more entertainment than Clare Short is currently providing in the Chamber.

Lord Whitty: I am not sure I can comply with that.

Q314  Chairman: Thank you for coming. Could you define what you think the problem is with gangmasters, if there is a problem, or are we inventing something simply because the market is fulfilling a need?

  

Lord Whitty: I think there is a problem but it is not the problem of there simply being gangmasters. Gangmasters is a term which has been around in agriculture for probably more than a couple of centuries and has provided a need, in that agricultural and its seasonal nature in many sectors does demand more labour at certain times of the year than others and that has been organised by people who are not the direct employer, therefore gangmasters as such do provide a useful market balancing operation. The term gangmaster has certain connotations and it is clear that the nature of the kind of labour that gangmasters organise and some of the practices of gangmasters have changed over time and have, in some cases, led to certain illegal practices, both in relation to the exploitation of the workers themselves and in relation to tax and other provisions, and therefore the fact that there are people who are supplying flexible labour to the agricultural sector is not of itself a problem, it is the standards to which some of them operate which is the problem.

Q315  Chairman: You said "illegal" practices so would you say that the framework of legislation which one needs to deal with whatever abuse there may be is in place and the issue is therefore identification and prosecution rather than the creation of a new framework?

  

Lord Whitty: I think the bulk of the legislation clearly is in place in the sense of the illegality I am talking about, which is people working who are either illegally there or do not have a work permit, people drawing benefits at the same time as they are working, people who are not being paid the Agricultural Wages Board minimum wage, and people who are working in something which is in breach of health and safety or other provisions. All of that law exists. The issue of whether you need something in addition should not be closed, but because of the particular nature of gangmasters in agriculture and related sectors it may be that we should consider whether there is some further legislative or quasi-legislative activity which may be appropriate however most of the practices are already illegal.

Q316  Chairman: We will come to quasi-legislative activity, which I would be interested to get the definition of in due course. Can I ask what might seem a slightly curious question. I sometimes ask myself in the course of these inquiries who precisely is being inconvenienced by all this. I discount the Treasury because I am rather in favour of the Treasury being inconvenienced. The supermarkets are not being inconvenienced because they are getting the product they want on their shelves, the packers are not being inconvenienced because they get the labour they want, many of the people working for the so-called gangmasters are not being inconvenienced because they are getting a wage, even if they are getting a wage that is unaccountable, illegal and dodging the immigration services, so who actually is being put out by all this?

  

Lord Whitty: I maybe take a slightly more puritanical view than you, Mr Chairman, but I think systematic breach of the law is a pretty substantial inconvenience to society as a whole that ought not to be tolerated. It is true that not all gangmasters by any means would fall into that category and they should not all be tarred with the same brush, that is certainly true. There is also inconvenience in the sense that the standards to which they work, the knowledge of who the workers are and how effective they are amongst those who use them, whether they use them directly like farmers and growers and packing houses or whether they use their products, is affected by the way in which the labour itself is deployed. The fact that it can be cheaper than it legally should be sometimes disguises the fact it is sometimes lower quality than it should be.

Q317  Chairman: At our last session we had the various representatives of Operation Gangmasters sitting where you are sitting, and indeed one of them is back with you today. We had a slightly surreal experience I think it is probably true to say. Here there seemed a group of people who did not seem to be working to any particular boss, they spent a couple of days a year doing it, the Treasury was fussed about its own particular neck of the woods, the DWP was fussed about welfare fraud, other people were fussed about other things but everybody seemed to have a very fragmented approach, a little bit of the action, which was immediately passed back to their department. I rather got the impression this could go on from now until kingdom come and it would not make much difference and, quite frankly, nobody was terribly anxious to make much difference. Is that me being cynical yet again?

  

Lord Whitty: I fear so, Mr Chairman. The position is that all the departments represented here, and Mr Lindsay Harris is one of them from DEFRA, have a particular job to do, that is certainly the case and therefore they are coming at it as part of a wider brief than DWP or Customs and Excise or wherever. It is also true that in all of those briefs the way in which we regulate gangmaster provided labour presents them with a particular sort of problem, and it is a problem which may be not at the highest level but it is one which from DEFRA's point of view affects particularly the agricultural and horticultural sectors, and insofar as we are the sponsor Deaprtment for that we have some concern that it affects the quality of the labour market within that sector and it is a concern where we do need to pull together in a way which focuses on the fact of it being a gangmaster operated system and we ought to be concerned across Whitehall in co-ordinating activity to try and put that on a better basis. By putting it on a better basis, I do not mean abolishing it, I mean ensuring that we have an effective supply of flexible labour which is also meeting the minimum standards required by the law.

  

Chairman: The pulling together we will come to in a little while but meanwhile, Mr Lepper?

Q318  Mr Lepper: The Government says it has a vision for a competitive farming and food industry based on sustainable practices, but we have spent the last few weeks (and again this afternoon) looking at an industry that seems to be based on illegal practices in one way or another. If we were able to persuade all of these government departments who we had represented on Operation Gangmaster before us last week to get together and be rather more effective in the way in which from their various disciplines they were sorting out this problem, would our agriculture and horticulture industries collapse? Do they depend on illegality, continuing low pay, poor accommodation for workers, and the other abuses that we have been hearing about?

  

Lord Whitty: No, but what they do depend on is an ability to have a flexible supply of labour and to have that labour reasonably readily available in different quantities at different times of the year. If that is the case then that industry would be served by a supplier of that labour who was doing so cost efficiently, but not cost efficiently at the expense of the workers, the tax authorities and other legal requirements. I think there are probably huge inefficiencies in part of the system at the moment because some of the labour being supplied is being supplied in a less than totally transparent and legal way. Of course, there would be anxieties amongst the farmers and growers that any change in that system might increase the costs on them but my view is in the medium term at least it would be a more cost effective system if it were better regulated.

Q319  Mr Lepper: Has DEFRA had any representations from those involved in the industry, other than the gangmasters themselves, about the regulation of these practices?

  

Lord Whitty: We have had representations from the trade unions and from some of the farming organisations.


 
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