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Mr. Forth: My point follows the intervention of the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). One could be driven in the direction of saying that before we rush to legislate it might be worth considering whether the course that my hon. Friend is suggesting might be more effective, certainly in the short term. If a Minister were to be nominated or to be given responsibility to range widely across all the existing different agencies to ensure that they enforce their responsibilities, that might be a much more effective way of dealing with the matter than legislating as suggested, which may take much longer to take effect. Surely, therefore, it is not a matter of either/or, as my hon. Friend's suggestion would, at the very least, have a much quicker effect than the Bill.

Mr. Paterson: I agree entirely. The events at Morecambe and other industrial accidents can be addressed immediately by ensuring that the Health and Safety Executive is properly resourced and focused. That could happen today if a Minister took action. I repeat yet again that what happened at Morecambe resulted from the Executive's failure to enforce existing legislation. Logic dictates that the Government should implement their own findings, get a multi-agency taskforce up and running immediately with a Minister in charge, announce a budget allocation from existing resources and set targets for enforcement action. Running through the discourse is the issue of adequate enforcement. The Association of Labour Providers makes the point eloquently:


The activities of illegal gangmasters are shameful, and we will support measures to end them. If there are deficiencies in existing law, the Bill could be amended to remedy them, but deficiencies in enforcement and political will are more of a problem than legislative deficiencies. I completely endorse the admirable intentions of the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire to stop the activities of criminal gangmasters, and cannot stress enough our determination to help to solve the problem. I sincerely regret, however, that, as currently drafted, the Bill will not realise the high hopes that he and his supporters have for its efficacy.

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12.56 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): I welcome the Bill, and thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) for introducing it. Anybody who leads a coalition that includes the Transport and General Workers Union and the National Farmers Union is formidable. This week, I met Tim Bennett, the new president of the NFU, and Jack Dromey, deputy general secretary of the TGWU. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has good relations with both organisations and regards them as friendly and co-operative, although not usually at the same time. My noble Friend Lord Whitty has had discussions with the British Retail Consortium as well.

We fully support the Bill's objectives and, by making the changes that my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire is willing to accept and which I shall spell out in more detail, I am confident that we can co-operate in getting it on to the statute book without delay. The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) expressed some genuine concerns, but they can be overcome. Everybody wants effective legislation. When one starts work on legislation one begins with something crude that can be refined by discussion over time. The Bill as drafted is a serious attempt to put legislation on to the statute book, but it can be improved. Today's debate has looked at a series of issues and demonstrated the wish of Members on both sides of the House to have effective legislation in place. That is often easier said than done, and legislation can be a substitute for action, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said a few moments ago. My favourite comment about legislation is telling. In "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", Gibbon warned that laws often fail to prevent what they forbid. I am proud to have introduced in the House the antisocial behaviour order, a mechanism designed to prevent antisocial activity, rather than just say that it should not happen. I hope that together we can effectively create an antisocial behaviour order for gangmasters by fine-tuning the Bill.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst about the need to make enforcement by existing agencies more effective. There is a need for licensing to deal with the offences both of acting as a gangmaster while not licensed to do so and employing unlicensed gangmasters. That would help the work of existing agencies and assist the creation of a fair market by squeezing out illegal activity.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire for his enthusiasm not just to get the Bill through, but in working with Government organisations and the wide group of organisations that have supported him in order to get it right. Even before the events in Morecambe bay, we were close to agreement, and I am pleased that he has extended his ambitions for the Bill following those tragic events.

All the contributions to the debate have demonstrated the value of debating such issues in the House. My hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire gave a comprehensive introduction, virtually all of which I agreed with. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) said much that I agreed with, particularly his comment that the Bill

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was not about bureaucracy, but about enforcement and effectiveness in order to create fair competition. I understand fully his concern about the possible level of fees, which was reflected in later contributions. We need to address the matter and engage the industry in that discussion.

Clearly, the important thing is to create mechanisms that will work and which build on the strength of organisations. Farmers know what their needs are and how the system works on a day-to-day basis, which many of us do not. They should be engaged in the decision-making process that defines the activities of the licensing body, which in my view should be kept as simple as possible. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned scams and the possible outcomes. That is why people engaged in the industry, who understand the fragility of some of the processes, are important. Leadership in the hands of the industry is an important element of the measures that we design.

My hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), to whom I responded following a parliamentary question a couple of weeks ago, pointed out that problems still remain. That is why the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), was with her in the area yesterday, listening to comments from local people. She is right to identify a number of ways in which enforcement and co-ordination could be improved and a better understanding developed between the various organisations, although a great deal is being done. I shall return to that point in a moment.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) made a number of points about enforcement and the work of Operation Gangmaster. I agree with his concern to make sure that we do not increase the amount of red tape. My right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) rightly referred to the need for leadership. Indeed, the leadership in Operation Gangmaster is with the Department for Work and Pensions, in which he played such a distinguished part.

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) mentioned changes in the nature of work and employment and in the terms on which labour is supplied. He is right to highlight that. We are responding to changes in a market, some of which have happened over a number of years and some quite rapidly in response to need. We should bear that in mind. My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) expressed vigorously the need to help stop robbery of various sorts. He went slightly further than I would in promoting red tape, but I agree on the need to squeeze out performance and to make sure that we do not underestimate what has been done to tackle the difficult problem of illegal activity. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Fife (Mr. MacDougall) emphasised the importance of the Bill.

The hon. Member for North Shropshire focused on the importance of legislation being effective. In many ways he reinforced my key points about the Bill. He rightly pointed out that the range of illegal activity involved is extensive. People are breaking the existing law in complex ways in order to undertake such activity.

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We are talking about individuals at the hard end of the business, who will certainly not help the enforcement authorities or those operating in the legitimate market. They are among the nastiest people in our society and are some of the most difficult to deal with in a decent society.

The hon. Gentleman quoted from Lord Grabiner's report, which has played into the work of Operation Gangmaster and the thinking of Ministers. However, I agree that more needs to be done. The test of how we design and use the requirement for licensing will be its outcome, not whether we have managed to put another piece of legislation on to the statute book.

There are a variety of concerns about the Bill as drafted, including the level of charges that might emerge, the operation of the licensing body and the engagement of the industry. The latter is absolutely crucial. I hope that a simple licensing scheme, and a simple offence and penalty, can create a different environment in which fair competition is strengthened and rewarded, and in which enforcement of all the legislation that the hon. Member for North Shropshire mentioned becomes much simpler as a result of the additional provisions in the Bill.

We need to create a framework by which everyone in the industry—workers' representatives, especially the Transport and General Workers Union; those who use gang labour, particularly the National Farmers Union; consumers of the outcome, including the British Retail Consortium; and legitimate gangmasters—plays a part in creating the atmosphere of enforcement. Against that background, I have to say to the hon. Member for North Shropshire that I am not convinced of the need to set up a new agency, which, as he said, takes a long time. We should consider in Committee the option of nominating or establishing an agency if that proves necessary, but we should also consider the possibility of a co-operative approach within the industry. Giving the industry ownership underpinned by legislation might be the best way to carry forward effective licensing.

I want to stress that, as Members on both sides of the House have said, it is not illegal to operate as a gangmaster. The Government have no intention of making such activities illegal. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire made clear, those who run legitimate businesses provide a flexible labour resource that is vital to key parts of the agriculture and fresh produce industries, which would be crippled were they not to have access to the labour that they need.


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