Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Cambridge Housing and Environmental Consultants (V14)

  1.1  Cambridge Housing and Environmental Consultants are experienced ex local authority officers, EHOs and surveyors, who specialise in providing assistance to Local Authorities. We are presently engaged by South Holland District Council to provide policy guidance and enforcement in the private sector housing market. From our knowledge and time spent in the area we are very concerned about the activities of a small but growing group of employment service agencies namely "gang masters" in this community. These are often small companies of one or two individuals with a turnover of £8.5 million.

  1.2  Our concerns are:

    (a)  The housing of substantial numbers of large numbers of guest workers of EU, non-EU, illegal immigrants, and asylum seekers in overcrowded, insanitary and poorly managed housing.

    (b)  The knock on effects to the Local Authority Housing Allocations policy when the Council is faced with the rehousing of these guest workers as a result of action being taken to close these appalling properties using existing housing act powers.

    (c)  The effects the housing of substantial numbers of guest workers in large dilapidated commercial properties has upon the local environment, relations with resident populations in predominantly rural communities and the rising number of violent incidents between these communities.

  2.1  To give you some indication of conditions on the ground and regularly encountered in the area in and around Spalding I would cite some of the following examples. The actual addresses have been omitted.

    I.  A small two-bedroom terrace house in private residential area of Spalding housing 20 people of Chinese origin with 10 people sharing each room on a shift basis. A fire had recently taken place in the kitchen making the facility unusable. The house was closed and the residents rightly made application to the Housing Authority for rehousing.

    II.  A redundant shop in a busy shopping street in the centre of Spalding housing 15 Portuguese and Brazilian workers was found to have no washing, toilet or kitchen facilities. Residents had to share what effectively was the old shop floor with no sub-division to give any privacy. The property did not have planning consent for its use and residents were housed in the most primitive of conditions with no heating provided in the middle of winter. As a result of joint action between the Home Office Immigration Police and the local authority the property was closed with some residents being returned to their home country.

    III.  A redundant coaching hotel in a small village of 1,200 people to the north of Spalding was found to be housing 65 workers in 10 bedrooms. The property had no kitchen or heating and upwards of eight people were being housed in each room. The 4-storey property had no fire warning system and the fire escape access door was unopenable. There was imminent danger to the residents and action was taken by the Fire Authority and LA to remove the Fire Certificate and action taken to close the property on this occasion voluntarily by the owners. The problem resulting from the closure was the residents presenting themselves to the LA as homeless.

  2.2  In the same village other properties were being used in a similar way including ex-Council houses and three other large redundant commercial properties. In this one village alone there were over 250 guest workers in a population of 1,200 creating tensions and leading to an increase in the amount of police manpower and time devoted to maintaining the peace.

  These are a few examples in the next section I will try to give some analysis and recommendations as to the means by which the problem could be resolved.

  3.1  Gangmasters contract to provide labour to national and multi national firms operating in and around Spalding at an agreed price. They are responsible for finding the workers, housing them, paying them and carrying out all the fiscal requirements set down by statute. The companies who hire the gangmasters in the main operate an arms length approach to what happens on the ground.

  3.2  The gangmasters either purchase or lease properties from other property owners and to ensure that heir share of any profit is maintained place as many people as possible in the property with total disregard to the requirements of the planning housing or fire authority. This situation pertains for as long as the gang master can effectively get away with it. When faced with action from the local council the gangmaster will effectively move the problem along to other property.

  3.3  The current legislation is based upon an assumption that most landlords have some regard to their rights and responsibilities under the law. The law in respect protects them by allowing preliminary notices to be served and guaranteeing some protection in law by giving landlords the right of appeal against legal notices. The gang masters are able to use this to their advantage. The bureaucracy involved in trying to close unsanitary accommodation makes this possible. Obviously one would want to see the present protections in law maintained.

  3.4  The gang masters exploit the fact that where the LA closes a property the LA has a responsibility to re-house the occupants. The LA who is always under pressure to find accommodation for people on its waiting lists may shy away from taking action to protect the health and safety of these people.

  3.5  There are a number of agencies involved in dealing with the problem usually acting separately with some limited sharing of information.

  In the climate described the gang master is able to exploit their employees who have no voice or and limited rights in law.

  3.6  There are companies who provide employment services who do provide this within the law and to a reasonable and humane standard and I assume profitably. There are large national and multi national companies who employ these more responsible employment service companies to provide labour.

  3.7  Many of the large retailers purchase large quantities of commodities from the farms and factories in eastern England who establish very detailed specifications as to the way in which the product is provided and who carry out detailed audits of these plants. The employment and housing of guest workers could be controlled through some form of self-regulation or Accreditation initiatives. The national retailers have enormous financial clout and could ensure that their audits and product specification are drafted to include employment and housing of migrant workers. The Government is in regular discussion with these organisations and direct or indirect pressure to address these questions.


  The following recommendations are listed to bring about improvement in the current situation:

  4.1  The Government should use its persuasive powers to bear upon the major national retailers and suppliers to bring about change in the way that guest workers are employed and housed The Government is in regular discussion with these organisations and direct or indirect pressure to address these questions.

  To this end the Government should consider producing some draft minimum standards for housing guest workers which companies could adopt and require their clients to maintain as part of a contract. This form of self-policing would offer the most immediate prospect of improvement and would remove the most unscrupulous of the gang masters.

  4.2  To deal with those that escape the net a multi agency approach should be adopted formalising the hit and miss type relationships that currently exist between the enforcement agencies to control the various unlawful activities of gang masters. The Government could draft a Best Practice guideline to various enforcement agencies with a directive requiring that a multi disciplinary group be set up on a county wide basis to address the situation.

  4.3  Make amendments to the current housing act laws which affect multi occupied property. Where there is severe overcrowding and an imminent danger to health and safety the LA would be given the powers of emergency closure in these circumstances. This is probably unworkable in the current parliamentary timetable but could be considered for the future.

  A great deal of knowledge and experience in this work has been accumulated and could be brought to the attention of local authorities by running seminars.

  These are the views of my consultants who have been actively involved on a practical level in trying to bring this sector of housing up to a reasonable standard. My company would be happy to assist the Committee in any way in the future recognising the challenges it faces.

Cambridge Housing and Environmental Consultants

3 June 2003

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