Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Andrew George: The Minister talks about using the strength of the Government. He will recall his intervention on me during Second Reading and the focus at that time of the debate on the need for Departments to break down potential barriers such as data protection. It was argued that farmers and gangmasters should not be asked to replicate forms and information to different Departments separately. What discussions has he had with his colleagues in other Departments to ensure that that does not happen?

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman is right, and I did say on Second Reading that we would seek to achieve that. That is not a requirement in the Bill, but we should use existing resources and powers in other legislation and ensure that they are co-ordinated effectively. Where co-ordination has been tried—in Lincolnshire, for example, through Operation Gangmaster—we have seen the benefits and learned lessons from it. It has also helped us to understand the best way of running a licensing system and the requirements that would be placed on licensees.

Overall, it is not anticipated that the Bill will lead to any significant net increase in Exchequer expenditure, because the additional resources allocated to enforcement activities will be offset by savings to the Exchequer in respect of lost tax, national insurance revenue and reductions in benefit fraud.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): On that point, significant savings could be made in comparison with the sort of operation that had to be mounted—successfully—by the Department for Work and Pensions on the Dee estuary last year.

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend is right, and I am aware of his interest in ensuring that problems on the Dee estuary are properly tackled in a manner that will last. That is the concern of many hon. Members. For some time, we have seen an effort to co-ordinate work across several Departments and enforcement agencies. I gave more detail about that on Second Reading, when it was more appropriate. Those efforts have had some success, but clearly more is needed. That is why we supported the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire to introduce legislation, and we welcome the opportunity to work with him and with organisations on both sides of industry to produce effective measures.

Clearly, it is developments occurring in parallel with the legislation that will create the licensing system and a clear line between those who are licensed and those who are not. That will allow us to create a simple offence of operating while not licensed to do so. All that will make a difference to the geography of activities, though it will

8 Mar 2004 : Column 1340

not detract from the complexities of some offences or of the market, which is far from simple. Nevertheless, the line will be created, and all hon. Members accept that that is important.

Geraldine Smith: On unpaid tax and national insurance contributions, does the Minister agree that in Morecambe bay it was estimated that there were between £6 million and £8 million worth of cockles, and that probably very little of that was paid back in taxation?

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend makes a fair point, which shows the value of individual enforcement agencies such as the Exchequer being involved in enforcement processes. The point of the licensing system, however, is to create the division between those acting illegally and those acting under a licence. That leads to a simple offence, whereas many other offences that have to be pursued require a considerable collection of evidence and drawn-out enforcement processes. The Bill will create two very simple offences, which should create an impetus towards virtue, if I may put it that way, within the farming industry and in the activities of gangmasters. I therefore commend the motion to the House.

9.34 pm

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): Over my 17 years in this place, I have worked out that something curious happens every day. Today's curiosity is a Whip speaking from the Dispatch Box. Perhaps it would be helpful to say that this is not my first outing at the Dispatch Box. My first and only other outing was on Friday 15 March 2002. On that occasion, our usual channels agreement nearly foundered because the business that was due to run until 2.30 pm ended a few seconds early, and it fell to me to fill those seconds. I managed 91 words before being cut off in my prime. This time I will manage more than 91 words and prove why I was given a non-speaking job in the Whips Office.

This debate is not about the Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill. The Minister made some fair points and I very much welcome the opportunity to agree with much of what he said and to discuss the issues, but I am fairly sure that if I did so it would not be long before you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, told me that the debate was not about the Bill but about the money resolution. Having said that, I should like to say—probably—just one sentence about the legislation because it is important to set in the context of the Bill my comments on the money resolution.

When the Bill was debated on 27 February, my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) made it clear that

I and my colleagues tonight stand four-square behind that commitment, but our commitment to that principle does not justify our allowing this money resolution to pass on the nod.

The money resolution raises some important issues, so I listened carefully to the Minister in the hope that he would address those that concern us. I had hoped that

8 Mar 2004 : Column 1341

he would tell the House how much taxpayers' money he wants us to authorise, yet he said that he could not be clear, so he did not do so. I had also hoped that he would tell us what the Government will spend that money on, but he was not quite sure about that either. It is because he did not answer properly either of those questions that I would contend that he is asking us to sign a blank cheque.

Before we decide whether to support the money resolution, we need to know a number of things. As far as how much is concerned, all we have to go on at the moment is what the Minister said, and he said a number of things. He said that the legislation may or may not be self-funding; he hopes that it will, but he is not sure. Then he said that he will try to keep expenditure to the minimum, but did not say what that will be. He said that the fee might be £3,000 or it might be less; he was not sure.

Alun Michael: I referred to £3,000 because Conservative Members had cited that figure during the previous debate. Estimates of the cost of funding a licensing system have ranged in some work that I have seen between £1,000 and £2,000, but that is not sufficiently robust for me to come before the House and say, "That's what I think the figure is." That is why we are working with the industry to try to ensure that the figure is as low as possible and that the system is as effective as possible. We want an effective licensing system, but we need to ensure, as one of his hon. Friends said, that it does not impose an unreasonable burden on industry.

Mr. Wilshire: I am grateful to the Minister for correcting that, but it does not matter who cited the figure. All that is clear is that we do not know how much the system will cost—regardless of whether the Minister or the £3,000 figure that I use is correct. He said that the cost might be £1,000 or £2,000. That is a 100 per cent. variation.

Geraldine Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the cost of doing nothing was the death of 20 young people? What price will he put on their lives?

Mr. Wilshire: Of course, I accept that, which is why I made it crystal clear at the outset that we are four-square behind the attempts to get rid of that criminal activity. I am not raising these points on the basis that we should spend nothing. The House is being asked to vote on a money resolution for an unknown quantity of money, and we should know how much we are being asked to authorise before we authorise it. That is all I am saying; I am not arguing that we should never authorise anything.

Mr. Fallon: No one objects to the Minister proposing a money resolution; that is why he is here—to ask for more money, and the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) clearly wants that money spent. The confusion is that, on the one hand, the

8 Mar 2004 : Column 1342

Minister said that the scheme was self-financing, yet on the other he said that there would be no significant net expenditure. All we are asking is: what will be the net expenditure? If my hon. Friend or the Minister can help us on that point, we might foreshorten the debate.

Mr. Wilshire: I cannot help my hon. Friend. I hoped that the Minister would help us. He shook his head when the phrase "self-funding" was used, but I wrote down his words. He said that the scheme might be self-funding but that he would need robust cost estimates for the information that he needed.

Alun Michael: I think that the hon. Gentleman is a little bit muddled. Fees will be charged for the licensing system, which we expect to be self-financing. That is why it is sensible to hold discussions between the Government, the promoter and sponsors of the Bill and the industry to ensure that the fees are sufficient to be effective but as low as possible to avoid burdens to the industry. That is the self-financing element. The establishment costs and the amount that might be needed for additional enforcement would of course fall to Government and they will depend, to some extent, on the outcome of those discussions. That is perfectly self-evident.

Next Section

IndexHome Page