Andrew George: The right hon. Gentleman has raised the difficulty of relating benefit claims to employment opportunities. Does he agree that there are significant problems, particularly in areas like mine, where people who are claiming benefit find it extremely difficult to undertake short, intensive periods of work? It is a devil of a job to try to get back on to benefit, so they risk losing benefit and getting into debt. That is a great problem, simply because the system is not working to their advantage.
I am trying to make a broader point. How far should other aspects of the way in which we manage our society, whether acknowledged or not, be shaped by the desire to deter illegal immigration to this country? I am coming round to the view that it may be better to face up to the difficult issue of illegal immigration on its own terms and have a clear-cut policy, instead of hoping that the housing market, the health service and, above all, the labour market will operate as a covert deterrent. That is happening at the moment in agriculture, horticulture and the shellfish industry, as we have seen with such tragic consequences. I wish the Bill well, and I urge the Government to consider those other questions as it makes progress.
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) on introducing the Bill. As has been said, it clearly has all-party support. That support is both for its principle and the opportunity it provides to do something about the issue. There is not necessarily support for every aspect of the Bill, and much more debate is needed, especially in Committee, when I hope constructive proposals and amendments will be introduced to embellish and strengthen the enforceability of the measure.
A recurring theme in hon. Members' speeches was the fact that something needs to be done. The predecessor of the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) raised the issue in years gone by, so it is not a new concern in his constituency. The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), who has a particular reason for raising the issue, has handled her response to the appalling tragedy in her constituency particularly well. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), like his hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness, said that none of us wants unnecessary red tape and regulation, which is a burden on employers and often employees. However, something clearly needs to be done, and we all want to take the issue forward.
On 13 February, there was a lurid headline on the front page of The Independent, preceding a report on the 54 Greek Romanies in my constituency who were rescued by the Greek embassy from a gangmaster who, according to the headline, was allegedly beating and starving them and denying them their wages. The Greek
I am concerned that workers are coming to this country on false pretences and with false expectations. The gangmaster claimed that the workers had no intention of working and made some uncomplimentary remarks about them. As an office holder in the all-party group on Roma affairs, when I hear about Romanies coming from northern Greece to my area, I am worried when I learn that they have been given rudimentary accommodation and allegedly been mistreated. I support an agenda of celebrating diversity in this country and more widely, so when I hear of Romanies living close to Hayle, the town where I live in Cornwall, I believe that we should welcome them and share in their culture. They should not live in rudimentary accommodation, suffer alleged mistreatment, and have to be rescued. We should hold civic receptions to meet them and hear more about them, instead of allowing them to be treated in that way, which is a matter of great concern.
In an intervention on the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), I spoke about the difficulty of claiming benefits. Ten years ago, during a period of high unemployment, daffodil, broccoli and bulb picking, as well as other agricultural work and, to a lesser extent, work in the fishing sector in my part of the world, was undertaken by local people. Although west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly have much higher unemployment than the average for the rest of the country, our population is sparser, so the available work force among the unemployed and people on benefit is significantly smaller. Many growers and farmers in the area need other labour suppliers to provide labour for short, intensive periods because they cannot get that labour from the local area.
Locally and nationally, people who claim unemployment benefit find it tremendously difficult to undertake such work. The right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend was right that the housing benefit system is a particular problem. Areas with a tiny public rented sector and high house prices have extremely difficult housing problems. If someone loses housing benefit for a period and gets into debt they risk losing their home and a fundamental part of their life. People who undertake short, intensive periods of employment discover that it is simply not worth their while. We therefore need to address that problem when looking at the wider issue.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend and others that part of the background to the issue is the debate fuelled by some of the right-wing tabloid press in recent weeks about illegal immigrants and benefit tourists coming to this country. That is a red herring. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly points out and in my own assessmentperhaps we need further inquiry into thiscertain parts of the country, possibly including the great city of London, would collapse if not for the migrant workers who underpin the economy. The lurid headlines in some of the press do not provide a suitable environment in which to find a responsible way forward.
In an intervention on the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire, the Minister said that he wanted effective legislation. That is what we all want. As other hon. Members have said, it is not a question of licensing and regulationthat is the confetti in the backgroundwhat matters is enforcement. Within the Inland Revenue, an agricultural compliance unit is already operating. At the beginning of the year, growers in my area register all the gangmaster or labour supply companies that they intend to use during the year. They complete a form which they send to the agricultural compliance unit. If there is any amendment to that during the year, they must complete another form and send it to the Inland Revenue.
I do not know to what extent the Data Protection Act 1998 or other legislation is restricting the sharing of such information from farmers and growers between Government Departments with an interest in the operation of particular aspects of legislation. Those of us who do not want to create unnecessary additional regulation would not want farmers to complete yet more forms, when the information already available could be shared.
Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, with which I agree. The duplication of information helps nobody. It has been demonstrated that some organisations believed that they could not exchange information, when in fact they could. When the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was passing through the House, I recall inserting a clause to tell organisations explicitly that they could share information for the purpose of crime reduction. Although that was already believed to be the case, the purpose was to emphasise that information could be exchanged for virtuous purposes, provided that that was done properly and in accordance with the rules. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that information is not shared when it should be. Perhaps we can consider the matter in detail in Committee.
Andrew George: I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention. I hope that in Committee we will be able to tease out such issues, rather than reinventing wheels that already exist. As other hon. Members have said, we need to see evidence of a joined-up Government who recognise that information can be shared. Instead of creating unnecessary brick walls, we need to facilitate a mechanism whereby information is shared by Government Departments. I hope that we can examine ways of doing that.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee was critical of the Government, who clearly need to get a grip on the matter and adopt a more joined-up approach. As the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend said, there should be a Minister to give a clear lead and co-ordinate the approach among Departments.
I do not want to detain the House unnecessarily and I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. There are a few other points that I shall make as briefly as possible. The Home Office currently operates a scheme that causes concern to people in my area. Those who cannot get work permits are using, and allegedly abusing, a system operated by the Home Office called the training and work experience scheme, which allows
Other speakers have mentioned fraud. Under Operation Gangmaster in 200203, the Government reclaimed £5.9 million in VAT, the Inland Revenue recovered tax and national insurance of £4.3 million during that year, and the Benefits Agency recovered £405,000. It is interesting that in this caseto use old Labour-speak, if I am allowed to do so in the present Chamberthe problem of fraud seems to involve the bosses, rather than the workers. That should be the main focus of action, enforcement and regulation.
My next point was made in an intervention, which, sadly, was deemed to be too long. We have heard reference to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and I want to emphasis the role of the supermarkets. It is good to have their support for the Bill. They are creating the market conditions in which pressure to cut producer costs through potentially unscrupulous practices has had such unfortunate consequences. People, especially those from urban constituencies, if I may say so, may not understand the pressure on small farmers and growers in rural areas. Their farm-gate prices and the conditions on the contract are being pushed to such an extent that they desperately seek lawful ways of cutting their production costs. That creates an environment in which unscrupulous gangmasters can thrive. We should not overlook that.