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10.46 am

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) on his excellent speech, on securing his place in the ballot and on using it to promote this Bill. I

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congratulate him, too, on his work in preparing the ground for the Bill; he has spoken to a large number of people and organisations. As he pointed out, the Bill is different from other attempts to make progress on gangmasters because he has secured cross-party, multiple-agency support for it. That has taken a lot of work and I commend him for it.

There have been some excellent contributions to the debate so far. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith). All of us were deeply sympathetic to the position she found herself in after the appalling tragedy of the cocklers. It was a desperate human tragedy about which she had the courage to stand up and speak her mind. She said one or two things to Ministers that might have been unpalatable to them, but she did so because they were the right points to make, and we all admired her for that and for standing up for her constituents.

In my constituency, there is a very large arable, horticultural, food-packing and food-processing sector. My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) gave some statistics. King's Lynn in my constituency is about the same size as Boston, and it has more light industry and manufacturing. However, I imagine that in the area between King's Lynn and Wisbech, and King's Lynn and Downham Market, roughly 60 per cent. of people who work on farms and in packing plants and houses are overseas labourers. Some come from the European Union; in fact, there is a large number of Portuguese working in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard). There is also a number of Chinese and people from further afield still, and that number has risen sharply.

I should point out that many gangmastering labour-providing organisations are totally reputable. They are run by long-established families, they are long-established businesses, and they pay the minimum wage. They look after their employees and provide transport that is legal and in good working order. Many provide good accommodation. They meet the needs of the arable food-processing sector in a way that is beyond stricture and are a vital part of the local economy. The end users go back to the same gangmasters year in year out for workers to pick soft and hard fruit and to be involved in packing.

Mr. Simmonds: My hon. Friend makes an excellent start. Perhaps he has found in his constituency, as I have in mine, that those gangmasters and labour providers who operate within the legislative structures are keen for Parliament to legislate so that they are not undercut by those gangmasters who operate outside the law.

Mr. Bellingham: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is fair to say that until recently the legitimate gangmasters were against such a Bill, but the mood has changed. The amount of illegal gangmastering operations in our constituencies has increased significantly. For a long time gangmastering and labour-providing operations in my constituency relied on students from throughout the United Kingdom to work as seasonal employees. They then started to rely

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much more on eastern Europeans, many of whom came here to learn the language and to earn some money in the summer.

More recently, there has been a large influx of Chinese in west Norfolk, south Lincolnshire and north-east Cambridgeshire, many of whom came to East Anglia legally and legitimately. In the past couple of years, however, the snakehead and triad gangs have used that part of the country to offload many illegal immigrants who have been people-smuggled and transported into this country. I imagine that one reason why they come to Norfolk and south Lincolnshire is that the areas that they used to be sent to do not have the same availability of jobs and opportunities. The gangs obviously want to move them to a part of the country where jobs are available.

The problem was brought into sharp focus for me in the summer when a fire broke out in a two-bedroom flat in Fairstead, a ward in my constituency that is just outside King's Lynn. Some 22 Chinese people were living in the flat. The fire was not caused by arson, but was the result of an accident caused by overcrowding. The occupants managed to get out of the flat and it was a mercy that no one was injured. The incident led to a great deal of local publicity and concern. The borough council, under the leader, John Dobson, set up a working party to bring in the different agencies to find out what was going on and to get data and information to determine the seriousness of the problem. Its purpose was also to discover what the different agencies were doing and how they were responding to the situation.

A number of illegal gang operations were being run by the triads and snakeheads. Not only had they moved people into north-west Norfolk, south Lincolnshire and north-east Cambridgeshire, but they had established gangmastering operations to provide labour to many end users. It was the first time that many of the agencies—the immigration service, health and safety, fire, police and environmental health—had got together to discuss the problem.

My hon. Friend mentioned Operation Gangmaster. It was interesting that representatives from the Department for Work and Pensions said at the meeting that although the operation had more momentum now, it had been almost a virtual operation, which was completely understaffed. There was not enough data and Ministers and officials in London had not provided sufficient leadership to get it moving.

Representatives of the immigration service explained that they did not have enough staff in Norfolk to begin to find out how serious the problem was and to take action. When I asked the local representative of the service how many staff he needed in Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, he said he wanted 150 or so if they were to carry out the necessary inquiries by visiting the gangmaster operations, some of the end users and some of the places where the supposed illegal immigrants were living. He told me that the service had five people available throughout the area to carry out that work, four of whom spent most of their time at Norwich airport. Admittedly, something is now being done; the immigration service is opening an office in Swaffham, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk, which will make a difference. I gather that it will employ 14 people.

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The immigration officials made another pertinent point. I know that it does not come under the Minister's area of responsibility, but they said that they had stopped and interviewed a number of illegal Chinese immigrants. Few had legal or original documents. Many had forged documents and would not give their names. Those illegal immigrants knew that without legal documentation they could not be deported to the People's Republic of China because the Chinese Government have made it clear that they will not take back deportees who do not have legal documentation. One investigating officer made it clear to me that Chinese illegal immigrants often leave the People's Republic of China with identity cards and passports, but the snakehead and triad gangs advise them to destroy all documentation, which is replaced with false documents, including false names, when they arrive in this country. There is nothing the immigration service can do about that.

Those immigrants have my sympathy. They have paid king's ransoms to the people traffickers and triad gangs. Virtually all the money they earn goes back to their very poor families in China. I met some Chinese immigrants in the summer. I do not speak Chinese, but I had an interpreter. One has to admire them. They have travelled across the world to better themselves and to send money back to their home country. I understand from the local police that there may well be a connection between some of the Chinese in the part of the country that my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness and I represent and those who were so tragically killed at Morecambe.

I have always been tough on immigration, but what happened in Morecambe and the fire in my constituency, in which those Chinese people nearly died, make it clear that there is a human element to the issue. Those immigrants work hard. The ones who pick strawberries and other soft fruit and those who work in the food packing plants in my constituency work unbelievably hard. Some were working for well known, legitimate gangmastering operations that paid them the minimum wage and provided good accommodation and reliable transport. Others were undoubtedly working for illegal gangmastering operations. They were being paid a pittance, were exploited and lived in appalling accommodation. That situation in my constituency brought many things into focus for me.

My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness mentioned legitimate gangmastering operations. They realise that they are being undercut and that our local economies rely on a large number of labour providers who do not pay tax properly and who participate in a variety of VAT and benefit frauds. Above all, they realise that people are being exploited. That is why the mood has changed markedly.

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman spells out the nature of the complexity in the interrelation of a variety of different activities and different ways in which illegal activity is taking place and, indeed, the difficulty of enforcement. Does he agree that that requires co-operation across a number of organisations, and he mentioned some of his local ones? Does he also agree that the strength of the coalition that my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) has brought together gives us the opportunity to get those

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who are involved in commercial activities in the industry to work with the enforcement authorities, using the sort of proposals in the Bill, to create something that is effective, rather than imposing another piece of top-down bureaucracy?

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