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1.28 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I very much welcome the tenor and content of the Minister's response. I would like to think that it is a sign of a shift in political thinking—and, indeed, in the political landscape—when a Minister places such welcome emphasis on minimising bureaucracy and cost and the focusing of legislation. Those are welcome sentiments, and I hope that he will share his new-found views with some of his ministerial colleagues. I hope to hear more of that sort of thinking from more Ministers in respect of future legislation, but let us be grateful for what we have had today. I certainly welcome the thrust of what he said.

I shall be uncharacteristically brief for me on a Friday, as I can see the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on the other side of the Chamber and I am keen for his Bill to get a proper airing. Indeed I intend to ensure, as far as I am able, that it does, because I support it. However, I want to say a few words in this debate and to pick up on three points. The first is enforcement and the second is scope, on which the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who, sadly, has just left the Chamber, made some telling points that I hope will not be forgotten. The

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Minister, too, touched on the scope of the measure, as did my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson). Finally, I want to say something about impact and cost—the gaping hole in the argument that we have heard today, especially in the context of the much-vaunted claims about support from retailers.

The voice that has not yet been heard is that of the hapless consumer, yet if the Bill, or some similar measure, is to have the impact that everyone wants, there is bound to be an on-cost effect, principally for food, but possibly for other things, too.

Anne Picking: The point about the consumer is important, but does my right hon. Friend—[Interruption.] Well, I quite like him. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that no consumer would want to eat cockles at the expense of people who had lost their lives?

Mr. Forth: It is difficult to ask 60 million individual consumers what they want, but I know what the hon. Lady is saying. That is not the point at issue, however; I should prefer, in discussing such legislation, that we be aware of the likely cost impact so that consumers could make a judgment—for example, through studying our debate.

The risk is that we do things in this place that increase costs—

Geraldine Smith: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Forth: Of course, I will, when I have finished my point. I welcome all interventions on Fridays, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you know—I encourage them.

In order for consumers to make the judgment to which the hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) has rightly referred, they should know more of the facts than have been put before us today, or are likely to be put before us.

Geraldine Smith: Is there not a cost to the Treasury if we do nothing? The cockles in the middle of Morecambe bay were worth £10 million, but I doubt that much income tax was paid on that.

Mr. Forth: That is a fair point which, with a bit of encouragement, I might want to develop—who knows?

There is always a trade-off between tax forgone and tax that is more collectable, were we more successful in enforcement; but there may also be a negative effect. If we shrink activities through excessive licensing, other losses may be incurred.

Alun Michael: The right hon. Gentleman is right to refer to excessive licensing. That is why it is so important to keep licensing activity and costs to the minimum. I was reluctant to comment on the possible figures, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) and I need to consider the issue; it is of course legitimate for other Members to look into it, too. At a later stage, a regulatory impact assessment for business will have to be carried out, but I hope that the right hon.

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Gentleman will accept that, as I indicated earlier, our first task is to ensure that, by working with the industry, we keep the costs to the minimum that is necessary for effectiveness. We can then achieve outcomes such as an improved marketplace in legitimate activity.

Mr. Forth: I am most grateful to the Minister for those comments. We all look forward to those aims being carried forward.

There are subsidiary arguments, although I shall not be tempted into them. However, if by introducing such measures we force up the price of ethical or regulated produce, there is a danger that it could be displaced or replaced by products from elsewhere that are much less ethically gathered or manufactured. That balance must always be struck. We have to be aware of the global context in which these things operate—whether it be cockles or any other produce.

All of us who go to the supermarket, as I do every week—

Anne Picking: Aye, right.

Mr. Forth: If the hon. Lady doubts me, she should ask Mrs. Forth the next time she sees her. We do our shopping as a joint activity in Waitrose in Bromley, if the hon. Lady really wants to know. I shall be in the supermarket tomorrow, as I am every Saturday morning, and the hon. Lady is welcome to shop with me in Bromley. As well as monitoring prices closely—perhaps that belies my origins—I examine the origin of produce and am struck by the vast variety of sources. When we seek to regulate, control or tax activities in our country, we must consider the likely impact on imports.

Mr. Bellingham: My right hon. Friend has touched on an important point. I represent a number of chicken producers in Norfolk who implement high standards of animal welfare. However, we import millions of chickens from Thailand that have never seen the light of day and that have been force fed chemicals and other ingredients, but the bottom line is that the consumer wants cheap chickens.

Mr. Forth: That example specifically makes the point that I was trying to make generally. I am sure that the Minister will bear it in mind because it is consonant with his argument.

Rob Marris: The effect on the price for the consumer may not be as great as the right hon. Gentleman fears. We have heard today that the principal—the farmer—may not pay a cheap price for gang labour because the gangmaster rips off the workers by operating illegally by, for example, overcharging for accommodation, and the farmer ends up paying for the labour and charging supermarkets for it.

Mr. Forth: I accept that, but there may be another effect—the produce will not be gathered at all if we are not careful. If we eliminate problems such as multiple occupation of homes and hot bedding, the supply of labour may reduce to such an extent that farmers, the principal producers, will have difficulty obtaining labour to gather their produce. Again, that would have

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a general effect on the domestic agricultural sector, and it could have a displacement effect on imports. We are not necessarily at odds here, but, as the Minister says, we must be mindful of the tensions inherent in the Bill.

I was going to discuss enforcement, but I shall leave that matter because I want to discuss the scope of the legislation. Almost as a throwaway line, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras said that the Bill is focused on the agricultural sector, which is currently on people's minds. As he said, we should not forget that the phenomenon exists in catering, construction and other sectors of our economy. That raises the questions of whether we should legislate and how focused legislation should be. There is a tension between saying that the legislation should be focused and therefore more effective, and ignoring similar problems in other sectors, which does our voters and us a disservice. We should bear that point in mind as we examine the Bill.

Given the Bill's title, there is no possibility of extending its scope, but I hope that a marker has been put down that such matters will not be forgotten. That point relates to enforcement, because if Customs and Excise and the immigration authorities can enforce legislation on agriculture, which the Minister told us about a moment ago, presumably they can do it in other sectors. If they have demonstrated their capacity to enforce legislation in agriculture and other sectors, why can they not rapidly extend their effectiveness, which we all want?

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): One important problem is that there are considerable numbers of asylum seekers, particularly in London and the south-east, who are not allowed to work and who want to work. They do not receive state aid or benefits and are therefore prey to the worst kinds of exploitation, which one can find in catering, hotels and building sites all over London and the south-east. I understand that that issue is outside the scope of the Bill, but it must be addressed at some point.

Mr. Forth: Without trying your patience too far, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I am a student of your body language—I would agree with the hon. Gentleman, except to say that again a balance has to be struck between over-protecting such people and denying them an opportunity to work. That is another issue that has to be borne in mind. I had some furniture delivered recently by two charming young Ukrainian gentlemen. Being the decent sort of chap I am, I did not ask to see their work permits. I could not decide whether I wanted to encourage them to bring my furniture or whether I felt that they were prevailing too much on our hospitality. I shall not dwell on that issue.

With my eye on the hon. Member for Pendle, I wish to make a final point.

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