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Mr. Bellingham: At the peak of the growing and picking season, there are several gangmaster operations in East Anglia that supply gang labour to the farming industry. At quiet times, they may supply labour to the catering, construction and hospitality industries. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that issue must also be addressed?

Mr. Forth: I hope that that would be generally agreed, but as we are talking about this Bill today, we can only note my hon. Friend's remarks on this occasion.

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Despite everybody's efforts to keep me on my feet, I wish to conclude by saying a few words about the lack of an impact assessment. I am nervous when we embark on such legislation without any attempt to measure the impact on the cost structures of the industry, on tax revenues—be it plus or minus—and, as importantly, on the consumer. The Bill is bound to have an effect in all those areas. Despite all the expert advice that the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) has had on the Bill from unions, retailers and others, no one appears to have made any attempt to estimate the impact on their costs, employment practices, ability to gather the produce or the cost to the final consumer. The hon. Member for East Lothian may be right that consumers would not care about the cost if such tragedies as we have seen recently are eliminated or it meant that people were treated decently. That may be the view that the consumer takes, but for them to be able to take that view they must know something about the additional bill.

Mr. Simmonds: Is my right hon. Friend aware that many legitimate gangmasters, especially those who have to provide labour 364 days a year to packhouses to enable them to supply supermarkets with an all-year round supply, operate inside the law under very slim margins of profitability? If the bureaucracy and additional cost is over and above what is necessary, many will not be able to operate profitably and will therefore not provide the much needed labour to send the food up the chain of supply.

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend knows much more about this issue than I ever will and he may be right, but I suspect that a countervailing force would be at work. If the illegal operators are eliminated, the legal operators will have that much more opportunity to carry out their tasks effectively and more efficiently. I welcome the fact that the Minister said that he wants to minimise any cost burden involved.

I said to the hon. Member for Pendle that we would be able to move on at about 1.45 pm. I pride myself on having a good sense of the passage of time and I am aware that the Bill's promoter will wish to say a few words, so I will conclude my remarks. I can see that the Bill will receive a Second Reading, but it will also receive thorough scrutiny in Committee—and that I very much welcome.

1.44 pm

Jim Sheridan: With the leave of the House, I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their support today, especially those who made such powerful and eloquent contributions to this important debate. That applies regardless of how late they joined it or how early they left it. I also want to mention the fact that—this is not a measure of the support given by those hon. Members who are in the Chamber—a number of right hon. and hon. Members from across the spectrum have given their support to the Bill.

In particular, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown). I was humbled by his presence, given his experience of agriculture, and pleased that he joined us today. I am also impressed by the presence of my right

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hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who is equally experienced in introducing legislation in the House.

I also welcome and appreciate the support given by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), whose constituents had tangible experience of the consequences of unscrupulous gangmasters.

I thank all those people outside the House for sending their letters and e-mails of support during the past couple of weeks. Of course, once again, I thank all the coalition partners for all their support and help. Their backing has helped the Bill to make progress. In that vein, I also thank the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) for his brief contribution, and I certainly hope that he continues in that way.

I have learned a great deal from the debate today, and I believe that gangmasters and gang workers may also learn something—that the days of exploitation must come to an end. Again, I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for his response and for his words of support and encouragement. I hope that, as the Bill progresses and we debate the issues further, the result will be that he and the Government will be able to work with me and my colleagues during the next stages. However, the Bill is deliberately non-prescriptive. We have said that it is entirely up to the Secretary of State to decide which agency should take up the responsibility. I was encouraged when my right hon. Friend said that existing agencies could perhaps do so, but serious consideration should be given to resourcing those agencies.

I finish by saying that, for all those who are exploited and those who have lost their lives because of exploitation, the Bill could and should be the most fitting memorial that the House could give to them and their families.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).

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Referendums (Thresholds) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

1.48 pm

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is a very short Bill, with a very narrow focus, but a big purpose. It will set a 50 per cent. threshold on turnout in a referendum. If fewer than half the electorate turn out to vote, the referendum will be null and void. My Bill deals with referendums triggered by an Act of Parliament; it does not cover local authority referendums.

The Government have already set a threshold for the promised referendums on regional assemblies in October. The Minister for Local and Regional Government has said that the result of the referendum would not necessarily be acted upon if the turnout were "derisory". My dictionary defines the word "derisory" as "laughably small". In the Library, I have just been looking at the "Oxford Dictionary", which defines the word "derisory" as "ridiculously small or inadequate".

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentions derisorily small turnouts. Under Standing Order No. 41 of this House, the threshold that has to be achieved is 40 hon. Members. May I suggest that he put his proverbial money where his mouth is and call a vote immediately under Standing Order No. 163 to check whether he has such a threshold for his Bill? Looking round the House, it seems extremely unlikely that he would be able to achieve that.

Mr. Prentice: I daresay we will have more of those lawyerly points, but I want to concentrate on the bigger picture.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

Mr. Prentice: I should like to make some progress, but I will then give way, because I like my hon. Friend.

I do not know what the Government mean by derisory, and I suppose that it will mean whatever the Minister for Local and Regional Government wants it to mean. However, Ministers have told us that they expect the turnout in October to be boosted by the move to postal ballots, so the vote might not be derisory after all. I certainly hope that it is not.

The referendums in the northern regions—for the North West, the North East and Yorkshire and Humber assemblies—will not just be about regional assemblies. In areas such as mine, east Lancashire, there are two tiers of local government: the district and the country council. A second question on the ballot paper will give the options for a new single-tier or unitary authority. There will be no option to stick with the status quo. The reform of local government in two-tier areas such as mine is contingent on there being a yes vote regionally for a new assembly, so Pendle could vote no for an assembly in order to keep its present form of local government, but be outvoted in the region as a whole. What happens in Pendle in October will therefore be very important. My constituency could find itself bolted

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on to Burnley and Rossendale to be become a new "Burpendale", or we could be subsumed in a new giant east Lancashire authority of 500,000 souls, no doubt based on Blackburn.

All that is being done on the back of a so-called soundings exercise carried out by the Deputy Prime Minister at the end of 2002. He wanted to know how many people wanted a referendum on the proposed regional assemblies. Many would say that the results of that soundings exercise were derisory. In the north-west, 56 per cent. of responses were in favour of a referendum on a regional assembly and 44 per cent. were against it. However, we must look behind those percentages, stripping out the councils, interest groups and organisations to consider the number of individuals who are calling for a referendum. In the north-west, 2,050 people called for a referendum and 1,530 did not. That is in the region of just under 7 million people.

In Yorkshire and Humber, 696 people wanted a referendum and 290 did not. In the north-east—to which everyone points as the region that is desperately anxious for a new regional assembly—323 individuals wanted a referendum and 403 did not. A majority of individuals in the soundings exercise in the north-east did not want a referendum. We could fit all those who wanted a referendum in the soundings exercise in all three northern regions into the Albert hall—downstairs. There is absolutely no pressure out there for this new tier of government.


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