Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman mentioned 3,000 Portuguese workers. Portugal is in the European Union and many of those workers may well be legitimate employees.

Mr. Simmonds: I agree with the hon. Gentleman and he makes a fair point. I have no issue with people coming to the UK to work, if they help our economy legitimately. That especially applies to the Portuguese workers, although another issue is involved which I shall address later in my speech. However, many workers in my constituency and the rest of Lincolnshire are not here legally and, because they have no recourse to law, they are exploited more than others. They have tax taken off their wages, as well as enormous sums for food, housing and transport. They have no comeback against that through the trade union movement or the law courts, and they would benefit significantly if the Bill were to reach the statute book.

Mr. Hendrick: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the helpful response, but does he include the 3,000 Portuguese workers in the 97 per cent. that he mentioned? He gave the impression that those workers were not here legitimately.

Mr. Simmonds: The hon. Gentleman misinterprets me. The 97 per cent. figure includes the Portuguese workers and he is right to say that they are here legitimately. I have no issue with that.

The Government have been dilatory as regards doing anything about the problem. It is not a new issue, but it has worsened in the past four or five years. In Lincolnshire, it has been exacerbated in the past three years by the problems with immigration. Had the appalling tragedy in Morecambe bay not happened, I suspect that the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire would not be getting the support for his Bill that I have been delighted to see today.

The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) comes out of the episode very well. She did everything that a Member of Parliament could have done to try to warn the Government of what was happening, as I have done with similar problems in my constituency that—thankfully—have not led to the terrible tragedy that occurred in her constituency. Why did the Minister involved not tell the Health and Safety Executive what was happening in Morecambe bay? If the HSE was told, why was nothing done about it? It is extraordinary for a Labour Minister to put in writing

27 Feb 2004 : Column 526

the fact that there are insufficient resources available to prevent vulnerable workers being exploited, but that is what happened in the response to the hon. Lady.

With my ten-minute Bill, I also warned the Government that such a problem could arise, although I never envisioned such a terrible tragedy. The Government were also warned by the National Farmers Union, the trade union movement and many other organisations, which now all strongly support the Bill. Moreover, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, in its consideration of the issue at the end of last year, specifically criticised the total lack of co-ordination between Departments. Lord Whitty's evidence to the Committee was complacent, and I am delighted that the Committee will follow up its report with further evidence taking to ensure that the Government have introduced greater co-ordination to improve the situation.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee highlighted the fact that no Minister was responsible and Operation Gangmaster had no aims and objectives. There were no overall goals, no budget and no time frame by which anything should be achieved. Those involved in Operation Gangmaster, which was supposed encompass three or four Departments, had not even met once in the previous year. I hope that the Minister—sadly, he is not in the Chamber at the moment—will confirm that Operation Gangmaster is now in full swing and working extremely hard to co-ordinate the Government's approach to support the Bill. Their approach to such matters before the terrible tragedy in Morecambe bay was dislocated and slothful, and I very much hope that that will change.

As the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire stated, the last reliable evidence on the issue comes from the 1995 agricultural compliance unit report, which identified 5,500 gangmasters and, by investigating them, recovered £537 million in unpaid tax and VAT at the time, nine years ago. I have no doubt—probably all hon. Members who have looked into the issue will agree—that the problem has exploded since 1995, so the sums that people are evading or avoiding paying to the Customs and Excise and Inland Revenue are enormous. The problem is far bigger nine years on.

I should like to highlight some of the specific problems that relate to gangmasters—they occur not just in Lincolnshire, but across the United Kingdom—while bearing in mind the fact that many gangmasters are legitimate and operate within the law and that they are a necessary part of the agricultural and horticultural food chain. First, there is the exploitation of vulnerable workers. As the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) rightly said in his intervention, many of them are legal, welcome here and an important part of our economy, but many are illegal, and it is those illegal workers who are being exploited.

The worst example given to me was that of an eastern European lady who was employed by a gangmaster and paid £149. After deductions, she was left with £19. I understand that the citizens advice bureau in Boston has an example of someone who is left, after deductions, with £6 a week. How can it be right that, in a modern, democratic, civilised society, we are allowing that to take place in our country?

27 Feb 2004 : Column 527

There are enormous health and safety issues. That is part of the tragedy in Morecambe bay, but not just cockle pickers are affected. There are health and safety issues in packhouses and on farms because there is no legislative framework to ensure that gangmasters and their subcontractors comply with existing legislation—never mind putting in place new legislative structures.

Enormous benefit fraud is going on, with people working—sometimes for legitimate gangmasters, sometimes for rogue gangmasters—while claiming benefit. Interestingly, a Government operation—Operation Shark, which took place in 2003—involved a swoop on the Scottish fish processing factories. More than half the people working in those factories were doing so illegally. Some 50 per cent. of the work force were foreign, more than a third of them were in the UK illegally, and 10 per cent. of the local work force were claiming benefits that they were not entitled to; and I suggest that that is prevalent across most of the casual labour market.

There is enormous tax and VAT fraud. VAT is charged to employers, but not passed on to Customs and Excise. National insurance contributions and income tax are deducted from workers, but, again, not passed to the Inland Revenue.

There are enormous social issues, such as terrible overcrowding in housing and inadequate access to health care. I have an example from my constituency where up to 30 workers sleep in a three-bedroomed house at the same time, and then another shift comes in as they go out to work. In effect, there are up to 60 people in a three-bedroomed house. That is exploitation to the most unpleasant and unacceptable degree.

Transportation is dangerous. Untaxed and un-MOT'd vehicles are used to transport people to and from work, 24 hours a day, six or seven days a week.

There is intimidation. Large professional criminal organisations—from the Chinese triads to the Russian mafia—are now involved in the exploitation of labour, as was mentioned earlier. Millions of pounds are being siphoned off into organised crime, because there are so many legislative loopholes.

The worst offence of all—if that list is not terrible in itself—is the extensive people trafficking that is taking place, as we heard in relation to Morecambe bay. Gangmasters are now making arrangements to bring in workers in lorries or to fly them in, often leaving the workers in great debt. They may owe the gangmaster £20,000 for transporting them to the UK, which they have to pay off before they are released. If the workers cause a fuss and do not like what they are charged, their passports are confiscated and they are often thrown out on the streets. They have no passport, no home, no income and no transport to work. Again, to my mind that is a completely unacceptable part of the UK economy.

I wish to draw attention to some of the Bill's specifics that need very careful consideration, I hope, when the Bill is debated in Committee. The criteria for licensing should be included in the Bill, not left to subsequent regulations, because we need to strike a balance that ensures that we catch the maximum number of people who want to operate as gangmasters. I am very nervous about the suggested figure—£3,000—that a gangmaster would have to pay to get on to the register. Some

27 Feb 2004 : Column 528

legitimate gangmasters who run small operations would find that sum exorbitant, and they would therefore not register, thus rendering their operations illegitimate. The process needs to be simple, non-bureaucratic and not have a deterrent effect on those who should register.

One of the issues that I have with the Bill, although I understand the logic, is that it applies only to certain agricultural and horticultural sectors. It does not apply to the construction, retail or cleaning sectors. Will legitimate gangmasters who provide labour for the agricultural, horticultural, cleaning and construction sectors in my constituency and throughout the UK need to have different business structures—one that needs to be licensed and the other that does not? We need to consider that very carefully, because that could provide a route around such legislation, as gangmasters and labour providers facilitate themselves by pretending that they provide labour for a sector that is not covered by the Bill.

Next Section

IndexHome Page