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Jim Sheridan: On charging £3,000 for a licence, it is clear that the Secretary of State will determine any costs. Such payment will be graduated, so that smaller farmers can be accommodated and not disadvantaged in comparison with larger ones.
We should also consider the rights of people in employment, and factors such as agricultural minimum rates of pay, the national minimum wage, written employment and pay details, working time, holidays and so on, which are important details. When people seek employment in these industries, they must be reassured that they will be properly represented in respect of their conditions.
Another factor is the temptation to use young children in such work. We must make sure that they do not fall into the grip of unscrupulous gangmasters. We must continually emphasise that we are talking not about those who operate properly, but about illegal activities and people who operate outside the law, not within it. That should be the central thrust of this legislation. Of course, such people do not only come from this country; as I have said, they also come from the enlarged European Union and even further afield.
This issue has been a difficult one for many years, which is why it has been discussed in the House on many previous occasions, and in different ways, by various Members in trying to increase awareness of the illegal activities of gangmasters. The Bill is a vital first step in legislating to deal with the current situation, and I welcome its simplicity. It does not get bogged down in the complex details; its purpose and intention are clear. I hope that the broad support that it has received in the House so far will continue, and that we all remain focused on the value of that simplicity. I hope, too, that the Government will make only minimal changes to that simple approach in taking account of their own concerns. That way, we can ensure clarity for everyone
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and we would all like to have the vision to make the right decisions at the right time. There is no doubt that, had legislation similar to the Bill been in place, the tragic circumstances in which the Chinese cockle pickers lost their lives would have been much less likely to occur. That is what should drive us forward. The legislation is very much needed and people will benefit from it. If it is passed we could all rest easier and feel that we had done our best to protect people who seek employment in our country, because we will have offered a leading example for the whole of Europe on how best to employ people. The legislation will support best practice.
I reaffirm that the Bill is opportune and that the case for the legislation could not have been made more clearly than by the tragic circumstances that have occurred. Sadly, we have read about other cases, even in the public services, of the temptation to go for cheap labour. Cheap labour is one thing, but credible labour is entirely different. I hope that the Bill will bring about a more credible system in this country for the employment of people who, through no fault of their own, have to work at the bottom end of the wage scale and desperately depend on their low incomes. In those circumstances, unscrupulous people can exploit them so much that we end up with more lives lost. More than 20 people have lost their lives and that is more than 20 too many. We must seize the opportunity that the Bill provides to provide a much more secure employment system that will apply to all people seeking employment here.
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I heartily congratulate the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) on his luck in coming so high in the private Member's ballot and on introducing a Bill that attempts to deal with an important area of concern in our national life, which is reflected in the attendance of hon. Members this morning.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Before my hon. Friend gets carried away and to forestall any remote chance of the record being misleading, he will accept that, if I recall correctly, there are 659 Members of Parliament. Does he gauge the support for this or any other Bill by the number of MPs present in the House? On my count, to be generous, there were probably 30 Members in their places today, so I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that 30 out of 659 reflects the true measure of support for the Bill today.
Mr. Paterson: That is an interesting comment from one of the most assiduous attenders in the House. I congratulate my right hon. Friend, who turns up at every possible opportunity and uses every possible means in the parliamentary process to get his point of view across. I thought that there were about 30 Government Members in their places this morning, and it is rather surprising that more of them did not want to speak.
Mr. Paterson: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is right that many Members are in their offices, watching our proceedings on the television. Perhaps they will be tempted down to the Chamber later.
The hon. Members for West Renfrewshire and for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) movingly reminded the House of the horrific recent incident in Morecambe bay, which involved illegal Chinese immigrants. On behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition, I should like to offer my deepest sympathies to the relatives of those who died.
There is a terrible poignancy about the ability of our society to enable a man to telephone his family on the other side of the world as the icy waters close around him, and its inability to enforce existing laws, which could have saved his life. That provided a terrible and haunting example of the simple fact that passing laws in the House is futile unless they are enforced.
The Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 made provision to fine employers up to £5,000 for employing illegal immigrants, but that legislation has not been properly used. According to the latest statistics on the control of immigration, published by the Home Office in November 2003, 22 people have been proceeded against under section 8 of 1996 Act, and just eight have been found guilty. The failure to use the Act properly is even more tragic in the light of what the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale told us this morning. She was on the case immediately; she had a warning; she wrote to the Minister on 28 June. Six weeks later, she received a reply saying that it would not be appropriate to participate in the particular operation. Her comments this morning were trenchant and pertinent.
As politicians, we should ensure that a true memorial to those who died so unnecessarily will be real enforcement of existing legislation, to prevent further tragedies. I wholly endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale, who pointed out that another accident is waiting to happen.
Mr. Paterson: That is indeed the drift of my remarks. I think that the Minister, too, believes there is no point in setting up extra bodies for the sake of it. As I hope to elaborate, there is a clear case for better co-ordination of the existing bodies.
Lessons can be drawn on the subject of gangmasters from the excellent report produced by the EFRA Committee. It noted that law-abiding gangmasters provide a vital service, supplying labour to a wide variety of industries, not just to agriculture. That is especially true at times of seasonal demand, as was eloquently made clear by my hon. Friends the Members for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) and for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham).
Yesterday, I was talking to one of my constituents who runs a substantial agricultural operation. He depends heavily on what he prefers to call agency labourhe does not use the term gangmaster. He uses a wholly legitimate, responsible organisation and brings in workers at busy times. He told me that many of those staff are paid as much as £6 or £7 an hour and are in responsible jobs. As he says,
As the spokesman from the Transport and General Workers Union said at the briefing meeting organised by the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire in Committee Room 12 on Wednesday, there is a market need for legitimate, legal gangmasters; they provide a vital service. However, as the EFRA Committee showed, legitimate gangmasters are being undercut and damaged by unscrupulous operators whose activities are criminal. They are a disgrace and, as the report showed in some horrific examples, which were movingly repeated by the hon. Gentleman this morning, they present us with a problem that must be addressed.
The Opposition are wholly committed to ending the shameful activities of criminal gangmasters as soon as possible. Following the good work of his predecessor, who promoted a private Member's Bill on this subject, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness described some of the appalling behaviour of gangmasters, but pointed out that nearly all those activities are already illegal.
In a particularly helpful contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk graphically showed the need for co-ordination between agencies. He showed that when they met, they did not know what they were doing or what remit the other agencies had. Dramatically, the immigration authorities say that to
The central issue seems to be that many laws and enforcement agencies are associated with the matter. The basic legal framework for gangmasters is set out on page 14 of the Select Committee report, which lists the activity, the main legislation and the enforcement agency, and we should put it on the record. Illegal working is covered by the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, which should be enforced by the immigration and nationality division of the Home Office. The national minimum wage was introduced by the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, which should be enforced by the Inland Revenue on behalf of the Department of Trade and Industry. The agricultural minimum wage was introduced by the Agricultural Wages Act 1948, which should be enforced by DEFRA.
Deductions from pay are covered by the Employment Rights Act 1996, and the enforcement agency is effectively an individual worker bringing a complaint to an employment tribunalas my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk said, there is a problem with language there. Minimum standards for employment agencies are laid down by the Employment Agencies Act 1973, which should be enforced by the DTI's employment agency standards inspectorate. Requirements on notice of termination of employment are laid down in statute by the Employment Rights Act 1996, and an individual worker enforces it by bringing a complaint to an employment tribunal. The right to a written statement of employment particulars is also included in the Employment Rights Act 1996, and again the complaint mechanism is an individual worker bringing a complaint to an employment tribunal.
Working time and holidays have been mentioned several times this morning, and the working time regulations and agricultural wages order cover them. Again, complaints are made through an employment tribunal, which is already established in law.