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David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): In those circumstances, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is good news that every major supermarket has signed up to the aims of the Bill? That sends a signal to all farmers that they want a level playing field, which should remove some of the pressure on farmers.
Andrew George: That will take some of the pressure off the farmers, in the sense that the supermarkets are saying that they want the matter sorted out. It does not remove the pressure of unsustainable farm-gate prices, or the incredible pressure to which farmers are subjected by the conditions in the contracts. The supermarkets are not relieving that pressure. They are, however, attempting to achieve good publicity for themselves by backing the Bill. They must follow that up by enforcing their voluntary code of practice, which is supposed to help to protect suppliersfarmers and growersfrom the unscrupulous misuse of supermarkets' monopolistic powers. Only last week, the Office of Fair Trading reported that farmers and growers are not using that code of practice because they fear the consequences. Of course the supermarkets will want to be seen to be supporting the Bill, because that is good publicity for them, but they must follow it through in the way they treat farmers and growers.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the aim must be to create a situation in which fair competition works and unfair competition is penalised? That is the constructive but limited objective that the Bill should have. Thenthis is where the retail organisations come inwe have to try to ensure that it is not worth anybody's while to employ illegitimate gangmasters. That will lead to light regulation because the whole industry is supportive of fair competition, which undermines the opportunity for unfair competition.
Andrew George: I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. That is the kind of world that we are pushing towards. We need to strike a balance between ensuring the success of voluntary agreements and creating an environment in which all consumers look for ethical trading products when they go to the supermarket shelves and want to be reassured that they are not buying something that is part of an unfair trading practice. If that does not happen through the market, sadly regulation is required to make the supermarkets enforce it.
I am well aware that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I simply say that the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire has my full support and that of my party. We agree that something must be done about the problem, and the Bill provides a good framework on which to hang further discussions. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not too precious about particular clauses and that he will welcome sensible and constructive amendments that would strengthen the Bill.
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab): I wholeheartedly welcome the Bill, which is intended to put right a long-standing wrong and to improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable people within these shores. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) on introducing the measure prior to the glare of publicity that followed the awful events in Morecambe bay, and on his exemplary, clear and, if I may say so, simple introduction of his Bill, which was a lesson to many.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) for her long-standing efforts to try to prevent the awful occurrences in Morecambe bay before they happened, and for her most restrained and moving contribution to today's debate.
It is only fair to remind the House that two Members of Parliament who are no longer with usthe late Joan Maynard, a Labour MP, and Dick Body, a Tory MPdevoted a huge amount of time to trying to persuade the rest of us that we needed to do more to protect people from evil gangmasters. It is to the shame of us all that we did not take more notice of them.
For a long time, we have been urged to take action by the TUC and the Transport and General Workers Union, which incorporated the Agricultural Workers Union. Now, we are finally doing something. With a bit of luck, we will find that, following the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire, Jim has actually fixed it. That would be good for everybody.
Casual working, contracted labour and agency staff have been around since employment has been around, and those arrangements are unlikely to disappear. We are therefore obliged to try to ensure that people who do casual work, who are contracted labour or who are agency staff are offered proper and full protectionthe sort of protection given to people in permanent long-term employment. Such people are especially in need of it, because many of them are ill informed, particularly vulnerable and difficult to organise. Consequently, it is difficult for trade unions to arrange the protection that membership can bring. I hope that the some of the extra funds that the Government are giving to the trade unions for training will be devoted to training people to make them more effective in recruiting and representing vulnerable people in the casual labour part of our economy.
Decent gangmasters have nothing to fear from my hon. Friend's Bill; indeed, they have everything to gain. Bad gangmasters are the robber barons of our society. I emphasise that they are robbing not only the people they employ, but everybody else. They are robbing the legal and illegal work forces with which they are involvednot only of money, but of their entitlement to the national minimum wage. By the form of their employment, they are robbing them of the tax credits that would go to other people in similar circumstances. They are robbing them of national insurance cover and contributions, pension entitlements, holiday pay and sick pay. They are robbing them of their healthin some cases, of their livesand all have been robbed of the dignity that everyone should be able to get from work.
But it does not stop there. They are robbing us all, as taxpayers. Income tax, national insurance and VAT are not being paid in, and most of these firmsif one can call them thatpay no other contributions. It is very unlikely that they pay business rates anywhere. They are the villainous people living on the edge of society who make no contribution to it but take a lot out. They are robbing reputable employers by undercutting the rates that reputable employers are required to take from the people to whom they supply the work force because they comply with the law. As my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale said, they are robbing our country of its reputation as a decent society. All that robbery must stop.
There are lessons to be learned, one of which is, as a generality, to beware of the worshippers of deregulation. Gangmasters were regulated from 1973 to 1994, but that system was abolished because it was allegedly a manifestation of the nanny state that involved red tape and snooping. If the nanny state, red tape and snooping would have stopped what happened in Morecambe bay, I am a proud supporter of all those things.
As my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire pointed out, we have recently legislated to register nursing agencies and to establish a registration system for the security industry. We rightly propose to register and license landlords to deal with bad ones and we intend legislating for a licensing system to get rid of loan sharks. All are good examples of what Parliament is about. Gunfighters in American B-movies say, "We deal in lead"; in this place, we deal in regulation. We should not be ashamed of that.
The next lesson to be learned is that when dealing with cruel and evil wrongdoers, voluntary codes do not work. The voluntary code in the sector that we are considering has helped the evildoers because it has increased their advantage over those who comply with the code. As the costs of complying have increased, the wrongdoers have been better able to undercut those who complied. We do not have voluntary codes against other thieving villains. We have laws against burglars and those who mug people in the street. We enforce those laws and punish the wrongdoers. No one would suggest that we could stop mugging on the street through a voluntary code. Yet, in the case we considering, organised, wealthy villains are mugging some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
Let us consider enforcement. There is no point in me or any one else making a pious speech, passing a toothless law and patting ourselves on the back for it. We must have effective enforcement. The Bill provides for two-pronged effective enforcement. First, it places an obligation on those who are called principalsthe people who use the gangmasters' labour. They will have an obligation to check on the gangmaster and all the way down the supply chain. If they want to retain their reputation as respectable people, they must do that. That is a singular requirement, with which most will want to comply.