Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill

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Mr. Simmonds: The Minister is being extremely helpful and constructive yet again. Am I right in thinking that enforcement will be the responsibility of DEFRA and that therefore the Secretary of State will be responsible for enforcement as well as the other matters, such as the GLA?

Alun Michael: If I interpret the question correctly, yes, because the responsibility for the legislation, its use and the establishment of the agency is DEFRA's. We are setting up a Government agency, but we seek to share the development of the policy and the mechanisms with an industry that knows its own business. That is where we are trying to be intelligent in squaring the circle. We want to ensure that the agency and all that it does both have Government underpinning and authority, and that the licensing system is a legal requirement and is underpinned by the legislation. DEFRA takes responsibility for that.

5 pm

What sometimes confuses people, for instance, is the fact that there will be a relationship between the licensing system, which creates a dividing line between the legitimate and the non-legitimate, and the work of Operation Gangmaster. The hon. Gentleman was a little dismissive of that work, but if he checks the newspaper cuttings from recent weeks he will see that there have been several serious successes and prosecutions. The activities involved in such operations go on throughout the country but remain invisible until people are arrested. Even then, there tends to be a bit of a delay until the cases come to court, so there is a tailback in terms of effectiveness. Nevertheless, I can assure him of Ministers' enthusiasm for such activities. Indeed, the support

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and encouragement that I have received from Ministers in other Departments in relation to the Bill shows the will to make enforcement effective.

Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend) (Lab): I understand that the licensing scheme and the policy surrounding it are, quite properly, matters for DEFRA, but how will the enforcement responsibilities that DEFRA is accepting sit alongside those of the Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions who is taking a co-ordinating role on such matters and on Operation Gangmaster in particular?

Alun Michael: It is fair to say that the purpose of Operation Gangmaster is to deal with the villains of the piece, and different Departments clearly have an interest in different aspects of enforcement. For instance, my Department has an interest in the agricultural wages requirements, while the Department for Work and Pensions has an interest in relation to the minimum wage and employment issues generally. The Inland Revenue has more than a passing interest in people paying their taxes. We are all concerned about health and safety at work, although the Health and Safety Executive has responsibility for that.

The point is that legitimate businesses sometimes breach one or other of the relevant pieces of legislation, while the villains of the piece have no regard for any of them. There needs to be co-ordination across government so that we can use whichever instrument is appropriate, or indeed all of them, to get a grip on things. Operation Gangmaster draws together a team of people from across government to tackle a particular investigation and the ensuing prosecution.

The existence of a licensing system, as well as the ability both to revoke the licences of organisations that play fast and loose and to prosecute gangmasters who operate without a licence, give us a new opportunity to target such people. The licensing authority targets people to ensure that they operate as legitimate gangmasters, but the power to prosecute is useful beyond simply enforcing the licensing system. We should consider not only the licensing authority but others having the opportunity to prosecute.

Mr. Brown: Which Minister will take the lead in enforcing the Act?

Alun Michael: The Secretary of State at DEFRA will have responsibility for that. The provisions will complement existing opportunities and create new ones for those who enforce other legislation. The relationship between the enforcement of these and other provisions will lead us to look for experience on the board to promote the usefulness of the licensing system. The connection with other breaches of the law, particularly where the villains are concerned, has resulted in the proposition of an enforcement liaison group to ensure that things are pulled together. As my right hon. Friend suggested, responsibility for leading the co-ordination of Operation Gangmaster activities clearly lies with the DWP. That will not only add significantly to the armoury of offences for which

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prosecution can take place, but change the geography of enforcement by making it much easier to get a grip.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): Let me describe a hypothetical situation. As an MP, I might be alerted to the operations of gangmasters who are, perhaps, in breach of health and safety requirements, exploiting illegal immigrants, involved in tax evasion or engaging in any of a range of activities. If I have difficulty in getting local agencies to work together, which Minister should I approach to kick off the operation to check the licences and to liaise with health and safety officials and other agencies, thereby ensuring that something happens?

Alun Michael: In the first instance, the question appears simple. We want to make it as easy as possible for people to get things done, whether they are Members of Parliament or members of the public. A member of the public will not ask under which piece of legislation he is making an inquiry; he will have a problem that he wants to draw to somebody's attention and will want to know how to do it. At a recent meeting, in response to a question from my hon. Friend, I undertook to consider how we can ensure that there is one point to which people can go for information on licensing and other gangmaster issues. I repeat that undertaking.

If there is a bit of a problem with the way in which a licence is working, my hon. Friend should come to me or to another DEFRA Minister. However, when it comes to enforcement issues and trying to catch villains, we shall ensure that the way the Bill is stitched in allows people to get to the right place without having to make half a dozen inquiries.

It is also important that agencies with good reasons for wanting answers should be able to find out pretty quickly whether somebody is a legitimate gangmaster, just as the police can now check a car registration number immediately, rather than having to send off a form and wait three weeks. We shall consider how to deal with that, too.

The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness raised the matter of the ability of individuals to prove their identity. That is very relevant if there is a question about which individuals are authorised to work in this country. Work is under way in a number of Departments, under a Home Office lead, to establish a simple system to deal with authorisation to work. That ties in with proof of identity and proof of authority, which will be necessary if the system is to work. I am going beyond the detail that needs to be in the Bill, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that the matter is on the agenda and being addressed.

Finally, there are matters on which the detail in the Bill should not pre-empt decisions that might be made by the agency's board—or the shadow board, which we want to establish as soon as possible—as we want to use the knowledge of the industry. We are doing that by consulting with the consortium and with the Association of Labour Providers. Much of that has to be an iterative process. I do not think that there is any disagreement over the practicalities that need to be dealt with.

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I hope that with those assurances, and the offer to go into any further detail that hon. Members wish, the Committee will agree to the measures proposed.

Question put and negatived.

Clause 3 disagreed to.

Clause 4

Obligations of principals

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

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 13—Offences: entering into arrangements with gangmasters.

Mr. Simmonds: I have a few, brief points to make about new clause 13. Its provisions are essential to the Bill and therefore require clarification, because they are causing a great deal of concern among the farmers and owners of packhouses who use the gangmaster structure to provide much-needed casual labour at short notice.

It is essential that new clause 13 be included in some form, because otherwise the legislation will not be effective. However, I seek assurances from the Minister: although the provisions are an essential component in making the law effective, we must ensure that employers who have done their best to check the legitimacy of a gangmaster are not subject to prosecution if a rogue gangmaster has claimed to be legitimate or has provided good-quality forged documents that have convinced the employer of that gangmaster's legitimacy.

New clause 13(2) states that the employer must take ''all reasonable steps'' to satisfy himself that the gangmaster has a valid licence. There is some nervousness among employers about the word ''all''. Can the Minister clarify its meaning in this context?

I welcome the additional provision introduced by subsection (3), which allows the Secretary of State to make regulations to define what constitutes ''reasonable steps'', but I ask the Minister to ensure that those regulations will be subject to consultation. It is essential that the ''reasonable steps'' to be taken are practicable, because there are obvious limits.

I alluded earlier to the need for an employer to be able to validate a gangmaster's licence, even in the early hours of the morning in a field. The licence must therefore be available through the internet. What steps must employers take to ensure that the gangmaster has an up-to-date licence with no special conditions, and how will the employer ensure that the licence that he is shown is current and has not been revoked 24 hours previously? If a licence lasts for longer than a brief period—two or three years—someone may still have that licence in their possession even if it has been revoked.

 
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Prepared 28 April 2004