Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill

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Standing Committee C

Wednesday 28 April 2004

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill

2.31 pm

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that there is a money resolution connected with the Bill, copies of which are available in the Room.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That, if proceedings on the Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill are not completed at this day's sitting, the Committee do meet on Thursday 29th April at 9.30 am—[Jim Sheridan.]

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): Although my point is not directly related to the sittings motion, it might ease the work of Members and therefore be helpful if I make it now. I have asked my officials to provide a draft of the Bill as it would read were all the amendments made. If I have your permission, Mr. Illsley, and that of the Committee, I can make that available to Committee members now. As many of the amendments are quite complex, doing so might ease the pressures on the Committee.

The Chairman: I am sure that the Committee will be grateful for that provision.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1


Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: new clause 3—Work to which this Act applies.

New clause 5—Territorial scope of application.

New clause 26—Meaning of ''worker''.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Illsley. You may be as anxious as I am, given that this is my first opportunity to present a private Member's Bill. I hope that people will be tender with me.

I am deleting clauses and making amendments to clause 6 following extensive discussions with the Government on what detailed provisions would be required. I have tabled new clauses to replace the deleted ones. My intention has always been to ensure that any law on the licensing of gangmasters is effective and robust. I believe that the amendments I propose will deliver just such a law.

I thank the Government for the help and support that they have given me in redrafting the Bill, and all the coalition partners within the group who are worked hard alongside us. That group encompasses organisations such as the National Farmers Union to the Transport and General Workers Union, so most people will recognise that that is a strange coalition partnership. All the partners have helped to inform my thinking about how the legislation should operate. The

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coalition for progress spans workers, employers, industry, unions and the wider community. Its breadth and depth powerfully reflect the seriousness of the issue and the merits of and the need for the Bill.

I also thank my parliamentary colleagues, many of whom are here today. They have been very supportive of what I am trying to achieve, and they have given wise advice on how best to reach our shared goal.

On Second Reading I said that the tragic loss of life at Morecambe bay was a terrible reminder that it is time for legislation, not exploitation. It is fortuitous that the Committee is sitting today, on what is regarded as the workers memorial day. That is a fitting tribute to workers not only throughout Britain, but those poor souls who lost their lives on Morecambe bay. We have a duty to ensure that those who lost their lives on that terrible day have a fitting memorial.

Today, with the Bill, we have an opportunity to build that memorial and to do what we are elected to do as Members of Parliament—to make a difference to people's lives.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh) (Lab): I have a question about a definition in new clause 3, but before I ask it, let me congratulate my hon. Friend on getting us to this point, which is a great achievement. Foremost among his supporters is the TGWU, but he has support from other organisations and stakeholders in the business community. As someone who has been around a long time, I know that the Country Land and Business Association, the NFU and the TGWU do come together from time to time. Other organisations from the food industry have joined in as well.

My question relates to the definition of forestry. Before I raise it, I wish to explain my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. It has been in there for at least two years, and this is my first chance to explain it.

As most people know, I have a farming background. The Strangs moved from Strathaven in the west to Perthshire in 1906. My grandfather moved and my father took over the farm, and he should have got the chance to buy it but it did not work out that way when it was transferred from the private landlord to the insurance company. Eventually, my brother got the chance to buy it, and I helped him out by buying a couple of fields in a woodland area, so, I have a small wood. I do not get any income from the woodland. One earns income from forestry, but I would have to spend money on thinning trees. When one buys a forest, one has to spend money; it is only when one harvests it that one gets any income.

The critical point I wish to make relates to the position of forestry workers. Some people will recall a very bad case in Scotland. I think that the worker involved was Portuguese—he was certainly from the Iberian peninsula—and the agent or gangmaster was also from the continent. He was working in a productive forest, not woodland—it is very important to distinguish between a productive forest and recreational woodland—when he broke his back. The TGWU and Alex Smith, the local Member of the

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European Parliament, helped him out at the hospital because he did not speak any English. At the time, there was quite a reaction in the Scottish papers.

That is a classic case of what can happen when gangmasters exploit workers on the scale that they have been doing in many sectors of the British economy. The Bill deals only with agriculture, forestry and related sectors. The definition of agricultural work refers to the use of land as an

    ''orchard or osier land or woodland''.

It is critical to make sure that the term ''woodland'' applies to all woods, not just hardwoods, softwoods, and those that are important to the farming industry in providing shelter. It must include the large productive forests, so that every worker in the forestry industry who works with trees is covered..

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): It is a delight to serve under the auspices of your chairmanship yet again, Mr. Illsley. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) on his hard work in getting this important Bill to Committee stage. It has been a tremendous achievement to hold together such a disparate group of supporters, and he has done an excellent job. I also thank the Minister, who has taken a lot of time and trouble to make sure that the Government co-operate with the hon. Gentleman to ensure that his Bill gets on to the statute book as fast as possible.

Many Members will know of my personal support for the Bill. I introduced a ten-minute Bill along similar lines last September. However, I have a number of questions to ask as we go through the new clauses, and I hope that the Committee will bear with me. I am keen to make sure that the perspective of the Lincolnshire agricultural sector is expressed, so that there are no unnecessary regulations and burdens on it or on legitimate gangmasters and labour providers, who must not be deterred from providing much-needed labour, much of it migrant labour, in future. We must make sure that the British agricultural sector is not harmed by this legislation in any way.

Despite what the hon. Gentleman said, unfortunately three Conservative Members who have taken a keen interest in the Bill cannot be here this afternoon because of immovable prior engagements. They are my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), who made a detailed and well-researched speech on Second Reading; my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), who was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the Conservative Government and strongly supports the Bill; and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), who has taken an active and supportive role in turning the Bill into an Act.

There are some broader points relating to the group of new clauses that I think the Minister needs to address, either when he winds up this stand part debate, or later. First, the seeming duplication that will exist between this Bill, when it is enacted, and the Employment Agencies Act 1973, requires clarification. We do not want to make legitimate labour providers go through two sets of regulations to meet the

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legislative criteria, nor do we want to allow the 1973 Act to be route whereby rogue or illegitimate gangmasters circumvent the Bill's provisions.

I shall deal with other regulations later, as well as certain impacts of the Bill, particularly the costs that are set out in the draft cost analysis, which I fear may deter some legitimate labour providers.


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