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Mr. Bellingham: The right hon. Gentleman presumably heard my few remarks, in which I mentioned the case of the farmer trying to get his strawberries picked at the crack of dawn. Many subcontracting gangmasters, and perhaps even a third or fourth subcontractor, are involved, so that in the early morning, the farmer has no idea where the labour has come from but is desperate to get his strawberries picked. Does not the right hon. Gentleman feel sympathy for the position of such a farmer or grower?
Mr. Dobson: Yes. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but if the Bill succeeds, matters will be much easier and the farmer will be more secure because there will be reputable suppliers of labour, on whom he has been able to depend in the past. If the suppliers need to subcontract people to help them, there will be other reputable people further down the supply chain. If we eliminate the disreputable, farmers and suppliers should be okay. In any case, the Bill provides for some sort of defence of reasonableness.
Although I believe that we need a separate agency for the task of enforcement, I do not accept that it is terribly difficult to co-ordinate the activity of various agencies and Departments to deal with the problem. An impression of difficulty is created through the possible involvement of the Inland Revenue, the Department for Work and Pensions, the immigration service, the police,
It is not impossible to conduct a raid involving, for example, two agencies, and subsequently ensuring that the other five, six, seven or eight do their job. My right hon. Friend the Minister and other Ministers should draw to the attention of those in the field that they have a job to do and that it is about time that they started doing it. If the debate gives Ministers an opportunity to say, "We want a bit better performance from you folks", that will be another merit of it.
I strongly support the Bill and stress the necessity for enforcement. A long time ago, when I did history O-level, the history master said, "They passed a factories Act, which had no impact. Then they passed another factories Act that included a factories inspectorate and it started having an effect." Without enforcement provisions, we will not get the changes that we want. I hope that the measure is passed and receives the resources that it needs for enforcement.
I speak as a central London Member. Although I represent Elm Village and Chalk Farm, that does not qualify me to talk about agricultural work, despite growing up in the rural east riding of Yorkshire and therefore having some knowledge of the position. However, I am worried about the exploitation of other vulnerable workers because it is not confined to the agriculture and food industries. It is much more widespread. It occurs in the rag trade, the construction industry, catering and cleaning. I have to emphasise a shameful pointthe exploitation does not affect only the private sector. Clear evidence shows that people who work down the supply chain for the national health service, local government and central Government Departments are affected by such vile exploitation. The council, hospital or Department may let a contract to a reputable agency, but many members of the work force are probably not directly employed by it. The agency may subcontract and the subcontractor may subcontract and so on, further and further down the line, until we end up with people who do not get a decent rate of pay, who do not pay tax or national insurance and who are charged for their transport, overalls or uniforms and food. They are vulnerable people, and the position is disgraceful.
Those vulnerable people include many people who are legally entitled to be hereBritish citizens, who are as British, or not, as me. However, people who are here illegally are exploited even more. They are often trying to pay back the people traffickers who brought them into the country and rip them off. They pay probably the same collection of evil villains for their accommodation. Ultimately, they are enslaved by debt and violence, and the threat of violence. We should not forget the violence that lies behind much evil enforcement.
There is also a peculiar sub-category, to which the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) referred: ill-informed people from the European Union who have been convinced by their evil gangmaster that
I have tried to give credit to everybody who has been involved in the Bill, and a great deal of emphasis and exploration of this exploitation has been done by Polly Toynbee of The Guardian. I do not agree with everything that she writes, but over a long period she has devoted a huge effort to identifying and drawing our attention to the problems faced by some of the most deprived people in our country. One measure of our success ultimately would be if she could start writing articles about something other than the impoverished work force in Britain, and I am sure that she would be delighted to be able to cease writing on the topic.
This excellent Bill brings protection to one group of exploited workers, but if we pass it roughly as it is, a large number will remain who are not protected in the way that we would wish. I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire that I do not seek to have his Bill amended and extended to cover everyone, because that is not his task, nor the task of a private Member's Bill. But we cannot sit back satisfied once the Bill becomes law. We need a much more comprehensive approach and a comprehensive measure to ensure that no one in Britain is employed in conditions that would be unacceptable to us, or our families. That must be the test. If the thought of us, our children or grandchildren being so employed is unacceptable, such employment is not fit for anyone else either.
One of the things that bothers me is that no one even knows how many people are not being paid the minimum wage. The TUC estimates that about 150,000 are in work not being paid the minimum wage, but there is no clear Government figure on those doing casual or agency work. Those figures seem to range from about 250,000 to 1 million, and I think that even 1 million is an understatement. God knows how many other people are employed in the so-called black economy.
The Government say that one of the attractions of Britain's economy is that we have a flexible labour market, but generally speaking it is the casual contract labour agency end of the market that provides the ultimate flexibility, and if it is that sphere that provides the flexibility that we say is helpful to our economy, we are under a special obligation to ensure that the people working in it are offered the protection that we would all like to see. It is imperative therefore that we strongly support and push for the implementation of the present directive that is held up in the European machinery to provide the proper protection for casual and agency workers Europe-wide, which would reduce some of our problems.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire. The Bill will do a good job as long as Ministers accept that it needs proper enforcement and the resources are provided. Not many people succeed in placing such a measure on the statute book and can look back and say, "I did that." My hon. Friend will be able to say, "I did that for some of the worst-off people in my country." Not many of us will ever be able to say that, and my hon. Friend should be really proud.
Mr. John MacDougall (Central Fife) (Lab): I add my warmest congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) on his timeous introduction of the Bill. When he first introduced it in January, no one could have imagined the horrific circumstances that were to unfold in Morecambe bay, which so shocked us.
The timing is right for such a Bill, which is welcome. We have a proud and rich inheritance of representing our work forces and trying to ensure that they are well looked after, and many have contributed to that over the years, including trade union representatives and others. Since I first aspired to enter the House, I have always believed that its task was to ensure that people were properly protected and that we could be proud of the working conditions that we offered to our workers.
Recent months have made clear how much we have failed in the past. There is no shame at all in saying that we can always do things better, and each and every one of us has had a good wake-up call. We can do something much better than exists at present, and the Bill offers that opportunity.
We have an increasing problem with the enlargement of the European Union. More and more people will move across Europe and Britain has a strong economy and is an attractive place in which to live and work. We should offer the best protection to anyone who seeks employment in this country, with the best conditions attached to that employment.
I am delighted that the supermarkets have spoken out so clearly in favour of adding their weight behind the Bill. It is important to have such commitment. It is a narrow-minded approach to believe that provision is adequate and to become complacent, so that we do not take the right steps at the right time. As I said, this Bill has been introduced at the right moment.
It is a very dark and intimidating world out there for people who are brought into this country. We can only begin to imagine what pressures the people in Morecambe bay were under. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) on the excellent way in which she has represented her constituency during the horrific experience that it underwent. I am sure that the House has felt and will continue to feel much sympathy for that terrible set of tragic circumstances.
One can only begin to imagine what kind of pressures those people were under. What would make anyone go out in such conditions to carry out such work for the income that they were receiving? That is why, as has been said today, we should all feel some sense of shame for not addressing those problems.
It is time for the Government to act in this matter. The Select Committee report on gangmasters in 2003 concluded that the Government had not tackled the problem effectively. It is six years since the interdepartmental working party on the issue was set up, yet we still do not know how many gangmasters operate legally or illegally in this country, so we do not know how many people are legally or illegally employed. We should address that issue, and the Bill will give us the opportunity to do so when we consider it in Committee, as I hope that we will.
In discussing Operation Gangmaster, the report raised the question of whether there had been appropriate funding. Resourcing levels have been bad, and much more can be done in that regard. Mention has been made of enforcement, which is a very important issue that we must tackle. The Bill must have teeth and make a difference, and we should be able to measure the resulting difference clearly. I also welcome the work of the Ethical Trading Initiative. The code of practice is a good one, but we must ask ourselves whether it is sufficient in itself. I hope that we can look at that in Committee.
Casual workers are an important part of the economy. We must be careful not to be over-prescriptive with paperwork. We have heard about the burdens imposed by unnecessary legislation, but that does not apply in this case. There is clearly a weakness in the system, so in that regard the Bill is important; it is not legislation for legislation's sake. That is an important message. Reference has been made to a £3,000 charge, and such matters will doubtless be discussed in Committee. The legislation will bear much responsibility but whether it will stand the test of time will be determined by its effectiveness.