Examination of Witnesses (Questions 313-319)
Wednesday 4 June 2003
Lord Whitty, and Mr
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
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
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
Lord Whitty: We
have had representations from the trade unions and from some of
the farming organisations.