Previous SectionIndexHome Page

28 Jun 2005 : Column 371WH—continued

Employment Agencies (Overseas Recruitment)

10.59 am

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): It is always a delight to see you in the Chair, Mr. Olner, and may I begin by saying that it is a great honour to have the opportunity to appear in Westminster Hall before you? I would also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister. It is very exciting to see lots of women Ministers, but seeing nice, talented and charming Ministers is an added bonus.

No society anywhere in the world can operate on the exploitation of labour that is poorer and less free and able to defend its interests than labour from the host nation. As a thriving commercial country that is full of the stimulation of exciting new jobs and frequently needs the support of people who want to do the jobs that are perhaps more routine and boring, we are an ideal country to welcome overseas workers. Of course, that is the case as long as we apply our own standards and make it clear to those who come to work in this country that they are protected and will not be part of an almost invisible, exploited group of workers.

Such people have the right to expect fairness of treatment, and certainly the protection of their interests. As a nation that has evolved a sense of fair treatment and equality for so long, it would be appalling if we were found to be treating those who come to our shores legitimately to seek work in an unacceptable and reprehensible manner.

I have become aware of a situation that I think is probably not unique. In fact, the more work I have done, the more it has occurred to me that the same situation is arising throughout the United Kingdom, whereby British employers—I emphasise the word "British"—are seeking to employ mostly immigrant workers in conditions that are sometimes frankly reprehensible. I am indebted to the Library, which has supplied me with detail about the conduct of employment agencies and the laws under which they operate. On reading the information, some of which has also been supplied to me by trade unions, it is extraordinary to see how many laws and protections are apparently in place to ensure that we cannot exploit workers.

It is extraordinary in the 21st century that people can still be cheated of the minimum wage. There are still people operating in the agriculture and transport sectors who are apparently not protected by the rights that are genuinely enjoyed by British workers and which we would expect to be the norm. In some instances, we would expect those rights to be the absolute ground base. However, that lack of protection is happening in spite of the fact that we have not only excellent controls on paper over the work of employment agencies, but in some instances, codes of conduct that are meant to control the employment of workers in industries such as agriculture.

When we read those codes of conduct and see the large firms that have signed up to them and the work that was done by the National Farmers Union and the Transport and General Workers Union to reach a workable code of conduct that can be defended—an example of what we ought to be doing in many
28 Jun 2005 : Column 372WH
instances—we can only wonder at the gap between the structure that we think is in place and the reality for those who come to this country to work.

Why is this a matter of concern to me? It should be a matter of concern to all trade unionists, and I have been in a trade union since I was 16. Moreover, it ought to be of concern to every member of the United Kingdom. I am horrified to learn that there have been developments during the past few years that to me are wholly indefensible. Some British employment agencies, faced with the restrictions of existing British law, seem to have found ways of sailing astonishingly close to the wind. Members will recognise that as a technique not unknown to those who wish to consider only their own commercial interests, but it becomes horrifying when large numbers of people are involved.

For example, many employment agencies advertise in nations that have newly joined the European Union. That is perfectly legitimate, and as long as those agencies stick to the employment laws, no one can possibly criticise them. What appears to have happened is rather different. Workers are being encouraged to come to the UK, where they are told there will be constant work. Perhaps the word "constant" is an overstatement; they are told there will be steady amounts of employment. They are encouraged in some instances to pay large sums towards their transport.

Such workers then come here and sign contracts, sometimes in languages that they do not understand. They are told that their accommodation, transport and employment will all be taken care of. In some instances, they are put into accommodation that is grossly overcrowded and that does not offer the level of care that would be expected as a very minimum. They are offered work. They do not speak the language of the country. They do not know their rights and they are unable to access that information.

Those people go to work in various different types of jobs. Unfortunately, this issue is not restricted to one type of industry. As far as I can see, people are being exploited across large numbers of different types of jobs: distribution, agriculture and even, to my horror, long-distance driving. If there is one idea that frightens me, it is not a lorry driver who does not know how to handle the machine that he is asked to drive, but one who does not understand the rules of road safety that apply to the United Kingdom and cannot read the road signs. That matter should give the Department for Transport some thought. Polish long-distance lorry drivers are taking out vehicles on our roads in large numbers and although they may be perfectly adept at driving, the fact that they are not aware of the conditions in this country and not, in many instances, even capable of reading warning signs or the information on the gantries of motorways must constitute a hazard and the Department should consider that very closely.

The situation is far worse, however. Many of those workers, who have paid to come here, paid for accommodation and been informed that they will have jobs, discover that whatever the job—in many instances, it is extraordinarily lowly paid—there are large numbers of deductions from the amounts that are paid to them on a number of grounds. Their passports are confiscated. In many instances, they are kept apart from the people of the area so that they are unable to seek support. There is also the issue of what happens if for any reason their
28 Jun 2005 : Column 373WH
employment ceases. For example, in the case of agricultural workers, people have frequently been driven to an agricultural job and told when they arrive that it is not available. They have then been driven back again and charged for the transport even though they have not received any payment. Let us remember that these people are not operating with large cheque books and nice comfortable buffer zones in a working current account; in many instances, they are penniless, do not speak the language or understand the conditions, and are being exploited.

The worrying thing is that there is evidence of a consistent policy of deliberate isolation. I do not know whether the Department for Trade and Industry is aware of that or capable of getting beyond it. If there is such a policy, it explains a great many things. I discovered during the course of my research that the Department puts out useful leaflets on the website in Portuguese and Polish, which I have printed off and am endeavouring to get to the people concerned. However, for someone coming to this country for the first time who does not have access to a computer and does not know how to access Government services, putting those leaflets on the website is a limited facility, although it is important.

So what happens then? Any suggestion by any of the workers concerned that they dispute the terms and conditions of the work, the terms and conditions under which they are living or, even worse, the circumstances in which they find themselves if for any reason they cannot maintain constant employment, is met with this suggestion: "Well, you can go out on the street." In fact, that is happening in increasing numbers. The local authority then finds itself in an extraordinary situation. These are workers who should not have any claim on the support system that operates in the United Kingdom. They are not entitled to any kind of benefit, housing or social care. Yet, what is the alternative?

In my constituency, we are beginning to see that hidden group of people contributing to very real problems. If people are thrown out on to the street hungry, with no money, no likelihood of employment and no command of the English language, they will inevitably resort to methods that most of us would find reprehensible. There has been a little crime wave due not only to some petty difficulties where people are stealing food, but to some greater instances involving a number of quite serious cases, some of which cannot be discussed because they are still going through the courts. The homelessness problem is becoming real.

As far as one can see, none of the workers is ever screened. There is a mechanism for applying to the home country for information about them, but it is difficult to access, and many of the employment agencies are not concerned about carrying out detailed checks. They should be, but they are not. The respectable agencies may do so, but they can find it difficult. I have read in the information that has been provided to me about the machinery through which one accesses somebody else's criminal record system, and it makes the British version look almost uncomplicated.

The reality is that people come into this country, and no one checks their ability to work or their criminal past, and no one asks them about their background. These people are being employed in the food industry, including in catering, and in long-distance lorry driving.
28 Jun 2005 : Column 374WH
In some cases, it has been the individual action of employers in seeking to solve their workers' practical difficulties that has led to a clear statement of such extraordinary arrangements.

The confiscation of passports is clearly forbidden. In all the rules that one reads about employment agencies, it is clear that they have a responsibility to check, to record and to assure themselves that information is precise, but that they have no right to take people's passports and hold them. If there is a dispute between the workers whose passports have been taken by the agency and the employer, that group of people can no longer get work; they will have no papers, no way of proving their status and no way of asking for assistance. Even if other employers are prepared to employ them, they cannot do so.

The trade unions have increasingly sought to assist such workers. After all, it is in no one's interest for a great pool of unemployed workers to be moved from place to place clandestinely and without any support. The unions have been rebuffed, however, and in many instances they have been physically refused access to the groups of workers concerned. The unions have found it extraordinarily difficult to get over the information about minimum wages, deductions and the rights of the workers concerned.

Even worse, many of these workers are becoming not only homeless but a real, practical difficulty, because of the way in which British employment agencies and British employers treat them. The Salvation Army offers these people food parcels when they are starving, and I understand that it has found it increasingly difficult to do so because of various unacceptable responses from many people connected with employment agencies. The local council is faced with a number of people whom it cannot assist. It has no right to repatriate people, even if that is what they want, and neither does it have access to money or any way of checking the circumstances of the people who present themselves. Workers are being brought here in large numbers by recruitment agencies, supposedly on the basis of local employment needs. The agencies are recruiting energetically in Poland, Latvia and the former Czechoslovakia. They are exploiting these people, both as landlords and as employment agencies. There has been a rise in shoplifting and in the number of assaults. Increasingly, as I said, there is a problem with some of the driving rules.

The really frightening thing, however, is the conscious policy of isolation that some of the employment agencies are adopting. If one is recruiting, employing, housing and controlling a group of workers, one must be extraordinarily careful that it is clear where the lines of demarcation lie. I have with me wage slips that make it clear that people were offered £300 for two weeks' work, but that they received £40 at the end of that period. That is not acceptable in this country. No one would go along with it. To be fair, the employers concerned are not automatically acquiescent. Many of them need workers and are not aware of the savagery with which many people are being treated.

The local authority has noted an increase in begging on the streets. It knows that no local emergency accommodation is available. We have one YMCA centre, which does a fantastic job for those in the age range of 16 to 25, but it is always over-subscribed. There are no resources to help any of the migrant workers. Not
28 Jun 2005 : Column 375WH
only is no assistance offered to them individually, but there is no way of getting translation and interpretation services to them. There is a growth of resentment in the host population, both in the workplace and in the areas in which these people are dumped, sometimes 50 to a house. The issue is already creating real problems with overcrowding.

We need to consider not just the legislation regarding the acceptance of migrant workers, but the behaviour of the employment agencies. We need to discipline those agencies. We need to enforce the laws. It is all very well sitting back comfortably and saying, "We have not only suitable laws, but codes of conduct", but there is a problem if we are not enforcing those laws. That is indeed what is happening. We need legislation to identify the role and responsibility of the recruitment agencies that bring in workers. We need to integrate the workers into our communities, and we need to be certain that the group in question, which consists not of asylum seekers or refugees, but of people who want to return to their country of origin when they have sufficient money, is not exploited in conditions that amount almost to slavery.

I ask the Government a number of questions. We cannot have employment agencies deliberately exploiting workers. It must be possible to split the role of those who recruit, supply and house such workers. I have made rough calculations and I think that some of the employment agencies walk away with £600 or £700 a week in cash from the workers. We are not talking about small amounts. Some of the agencies that are simultaneously providing housing are in charge of hundreds of houses in Cheshire and Staffordshire. We need to consider how we deal with the individual problems. I am not suggesting that we should have a fund to repatriate people to their own countries. That is not the right approach. Those who deliberately exploit existing legislation, and gaps in it, should be forced to pay.

We need multilingual social workers. In my area alone, workers speaking at least three or four eastern European languages need assistance. We also need to insist that the agencies must have access to those people. If people are not only not given much money but are escorted forwards and backwards to the local shops so that they cannot talk to local people or get in touch with anyone who might assist them, it could lead to an enormously dangerous situation. I believe that that is happening in my constituency and elsewhere.

I have a great deal more detail, but I will not bother the Minister with it today. She has got the burden of my argument, which is that no civilised country can operate by exploiting large numbers of workers. The Romans could not do so, and the French revolution grew out of precisely such a savage exploitation of one group of workers by another, and they had nationality in common. We have the beginning of an enormous social problem. The benefit of employing workers from overseas should be not only that we offer support, money and opportunities, but that we are able to demonstrate that we are a civilised society and that people are not expected to work as they might have done in the early 19th century.
28 Jun 2005 : Column 376WH

Unless our laws are enforced, they are not a great deal of help. The best bit of paper is not a defence against someone who refuses to give a person information or protection, or to ensure that that person is being treated in any way other than very harshly. The United Kingdom does not want to develop that reputation. That is not a United Kingdom that a Labour Government want to present to the world, and it is not a situation that I would ever find acceptable.

11.22 am

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on an excellent opening speech. She has covered many of the issues that I had intended to mention in this important debate.

I come from Scotland, a country that has sent people out around the world over many years. It is important that now, when Scotland has a falling population, we should look at what we are doing to recruit from overseas. It has an impact, not only here but in those countries, and it is sometimes a devastating one. We take key workers from areas such as the health service when, at the same time, the Department for International Development is supporting the public sectors in those countries.

The Government must address a number of serious issues. They must address exploitation and what is happening in this country: in some occupations we would think it utterly unbearable that people should have to live and work under certain terms and conditions. What are we doing to stop that happening? How will we deal with those recruitment agencies—although most agencies are not causing the problem—that bring people into this country under dangerous conditions, low pay and unacceptable standards of employment?

There can be benefits for employees and employers. In many areas, such as the building industry in cities such as London and Edinburgh, there are real shortages of skills. However, it does nobody any good to have people working in those industries who are not aware of the relevant rules and regulations—in the same way, as mentioned earlier, as lorry drivers can be unaware of the rules and regulations of the highway. If plumbers and gas fitters are not aware of the safety concerns over here, people could lose their lives; not only those doing the work, but those occupying those houses where the gas installations are not up to UK standards. A leak occurring at a later date could cause death or destruction.

I do not need to cover again several issues that have already been highlighted, but I shall mention the problems of recruiting and retaining staff in this country's health service. It causes real trouble in other countries when we use employment agencies to recruit staff from abroad. However, there are examples of good practice. I have seen at first hand the work of a partnership with the New Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, which has sent midwives to Malawi to help train nurses and bring them up to a higher level of expertise.

At the same time, there are qualified nurses in care homes in this country. Recently, I encountered at first hand a qualified doctor who was not able to gain
28 Jun 2005 : Column 377WH
employment here because of different standards and qualifications and the need to be registered. Sometimes, as well as people from other countries being exploited, people in this country are not able to use their skills fully. With all due respect to the excellent work that many care workers do, it is not necessary to have qualified nurses and even doctors doing such jobs.

Unionisation has been mentioned, and the important role that unions can play in dealing with pay, conditions and safety issues. Another area where recruitment takes place, although not through official channels, is among women who end up working in the sex industry in this country. That is an expanding trade. Such women are probably the most vulnerable people: their passports are removed, they work in outrageous conditions and they are exploited through the threat that they could be thrown out of the country, or on to the streets, if they do not do what their employers—nothing other than pimps—tell them to do. The Government must ensure that such women are protected. I would like to hear from the Minister what is being done for that most vulnerable section of society.

As I said, many skills can be gained by recruiting people into this country, but there are many risks. I would like the Minister to discuss the impact that some of our recruitment has on the world's poorest people and countries. As the hon. Lady gave an excellent introduction, I have kept my remarks fairly brief. My last point is that it is all very well having rules and regulations, but there must be action at all levels to enforce them. What are the Government doing to enforce the regulations? We should accept nothing less than thorough, strong enforcement.

11.28 am

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on starting an important debate on a significant topic that will get more and more attention as time goes on.

Like her, I started with a constituency interest. Southport traditionally has had many casual workers in the fairgrounds, in the tourist industry, to some extent in the care industry and, in the outlying areas, in the agricultural environment. The constituency has high employment at present and most people, bar a small minority, seem to be able to acquire the jobs that they seek. Therefore, it did not at first seem to be a major issue if, for example, the people working at Pleasureland were no longer college drop-outs, as was the case in the past, but Lithuanians or whatever. However, I have grown increasingly concerned about the matter.

My concerns focus on much the same issues as mentioned by the hon. Lady. Housing is a big problem. The abuse of tenants in houses in multiple occupation by agencies, or landlords who provide some kind of back-up for the agencies, is notorious. It is difficult for a local authority to address the issue. Often, by the time it gets all the information that it needs to take action, the tenants of the house have moved on and a different set of people live there. That is quite apart from communication difficulties that the council may have with people for whom English is not the first language.

I have been concerned with the minority of cases in which the people working for the agency are not there legitimately, but have entered the country via some
28 Jun 2005 : Column 378WH
illegal route. I have no particular information about my constituency, but I know that for some appreciable time a very well-known recruitment agency in Liverpool was accepting people whose identity was clearly forged—it was very relaxed about doing so until it was detected.

I am concerned, too, that the records of tax that such agencies might or might not pay on behalf of their workers are not in as good order as they might be. One way to bring the agencies to order, and to ensure that what they do is legitimate and above board, would be for the Inland Revenue to play a greater role in getting to grips with their affairs.

Lastly, I am concerned about information that has reached me to the effect that some of those who facilitate the entry of workers into the country are borderline criminal. In some cases, they are not located in this country; one of the major importers of labour in my area is based in Mauritius. That happens against the background of a compliant attitude by more responsible economic bodies. Most agencies, when challenged—for example, on whether the people working for them ought to be in the country, and have proper legal access—are able to point to an ID card that has been shown to them at some point. To be fair, there are some very convincing ID cards about. Brazilians habitually walk around with Portuguese ID cards that are very difficult to differentiate from the genuine ones. My point is that there is a kind of complicity—people who are offered cheap labour are prepared to be easily satisfied that that labour is what it appears to be.

In my constituency, reputable companies act as agencies. I know that they have asked the Government about matters such as gangmaster legislation. They want to put themselves on a thoroughly legal basis. However, there are other, more shadowy, organisations. A few months ago, I spoke to a lady from Namibia. She had arrived in this country, having paid £2,000 for the privilege, and was told that she had a job with a reputable agency. However, when she turned up there she found out that it had never heard of her and did not employ people from Namibia, so she was stranded. She became dependent, in the first instance, on the charity of a local church—very much as described by the hon. Lady. On the back of that constituency experience, I have become a strong supporter of gangmaster legislation.

The awful precedent of the Morecambe disaster occurred up the road from us in Southport, so I am very keen for the legislation to have real teeth. I inquired a few weeks ago as to how many employment agencies—or other firms—had been prosecuted for employing overseas labour illegally. The figure for 2003 was two.    On the same day, the Government made announcements about what they would do to such miscreant economic entities, and that sounded great. However, one can sound great and not do very much, and the hon. Lady and I are calling for action. There is a culture of complicity. A lot of people are involved in irregular activity—it is not universally irregular, but aspects of it give cause for concern.

There are landlords who are happy to co-operate with the agencies and daily breach most of the regulations that apply under the various housing Acts. Some firms that pack vegetables and so on do not inquire too deeply into what is going on. They do not strive too hard to put all their insurance details in place, or to make provision
28 Jun 2005 : Column 379WH
for people when they lay them off. The scenarios that the hon. Lady described, in which people are casually laid off by organisations when there is a blip in demand, reminded me of the sort of industrial circumstances that applied in rural areas during the industrial revolution, and in the early part of the United States' history. Older Members will recall films such as Marlon Brando's "On the Waterfront", in which people lined up on some days to get work and money, but on other days did not. That is very much the situation in many constituencies up and down the country, except that people there are more dislocated from society. Ultimately, the responsibility lies not only with producers, but with some retailers. It behoves companies such as Tesco, Sainsbury's and Waitrose to inquire carefully.

Mrs. Dunwoody : I am sorry to interrupt; it is cheating a bit when I made such a long speech, but I must say that an excellent code of conduct has been agreed by big retailers, the NFU, the Transport and General Workers Union and, presumably, by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. It is extraordinary. All that the big retailers have to do is to apply the code of conduct that they supported.

Dr. Pugh : That is precisely the case. Most of the right noises have been made and the right codes of conduct published, but not all of us are satisfied that people apply them. There is almost a culture of not asking too many questions.

The agency model takes a lot of pressure off many people. The issue came at me from a different direction when I spoke to someone from the building trade, who told me that most people who work on building sites are not working for big builders such as the McAlpines, but are agency staff. I asked why, and he pointed out that there is an escalating number of accidents in the building industry and that, as far as the main builders are concerned, if workers work for agencies rather than for them, health and safety legislation sits more loosely on them. I encountered one case in which, in order to get agency employment on a building site, workers were encouraged to take shares in the agency. That peculiar device created special difficulties when the workers took umbrage against the agency because of some accident, or some site that had not been properly supervised, and found themselves suing the company in which they had shares.

There is a culture of complicity. The Government cannot ignore this issue. There is a lot of exploitation in which people who come here to work and who expect a good day's work for a good day's pay find that a lot of the good day's pay is missing when they examine their finances at the end of the week and find out how much rent they have to pay. Outsourcing, as we call it, is increasingly popular. Indeed, Departments are driven to do it right, left and centre. That makes it easier to fall into a culture in which the more dubious agencies find ways into the economic system to their great profit.

I have one more example to give the Chamber. Liverpool John Lennon airport has all sorts of security requirements. Naturally, it wants to get security for the best price, so it outsources. A few months ago, it outsourced to a perfectly reputable security company,
28 Jun 2005 : Column 380WH
which works for various blue-chip firms, but the people who were employed turned out to be illegal immigrants who nobody could put clear names to. That can happen when outsourcing and agency working become more common and when the Government take their eye off this particular ball. As I said at the start, the hon. Lady has drawn attention to a major problem that is going to get bigger.

11.39 am

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on securing a debate on this important, sensitive and complicated subject. In her opening remarks, she set out eloquently and in some detail some of the wide-ranging social problems that can result from this issue, as did my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) and for Southport (Dr. Pugh), whom I also congratulate on their remarks.

I start by making a fundamental background point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Southport underlined. This problem is likely to grow in the years to come, as we need migrant workers in this country, as in many other western countries, for the economy. That adds to the moral imperative, which the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich has been describing, to treat them properly. We must also ensure that we do not asset-strip developing countries of workers from particular professions, such as those in the health care sector, and benefit from those professionals while their countries cannot fully staff or accommodate their own health services as a result.

The demography of this country is changing. People are living longer, the birth rate is lower and there are fewer economically active people, which is another reason for needing more and more migrant workers in the future. Globalisation and the enlargement of the European Union, which is likely to be enlarged again, are making migration much easier, as are the many skills shortages in our country.

The United Kingdom will need migrant workers to work in construction and many other sectors, some of which have been mentioned, to maintain our wealth and prosperity. That need is particularly pressing in Scotland, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West would agree, where the population is both falling and ageing. It has fallen by some 20,000 in the past 10 years alone, and it continues to fall, which is why the Scottish Executive have been promoting the fresh talent initiative to try to attract more migrant workers to Scotland to fill some of the gaps in the economy. Scotland has a net migration of young people to the rest of the UK. London, as my hon. Friends will doubtless know, is a particular beneficiary of Scots migrating from Scotland to work south of the border. However, the fresh talent initiative is being frustrated in some cases by the increasingly strict Home Office rules, and is unlikely to meet its objectives as a result.

This problem may be even more acute in my constituency, Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, which is in the heart of the highlands and islands. Its population is even older than in the rest of Scotland. There has been a net migration of people over many decades, even centuries, and now Highlands and
28 Jun 2005 : Column 381WH
Islands Enterprise, the economic development agency for the north of Scotland, has set a target of increasing the population of our region by 15 per cent. in the next 20 years. That is a very ambitious target, which I fully support, but it will be achieved only by attracting migrant workers from overseas as well as from the rest of the UK.

The need for migrant workers in different sectors of the economy is obvious. The construction sector offers clear examples of that. No doubt hon. Members will have read the report in yesterday's Financial Times about a trip to Poland, organised by Aberdeen city council and involving construction businesses from Aberdeen, to build relations with Poland and to work with employment agencies to bring construction workers to Scotland, because there are simply not enough people in Scotland and the rest of the UK to carry out the work that needs to be done in many construction trades. There has been a substantial increase in house building in many areas in the UK, and the need for more affordable housing will create even greater demand for skilled people in that sector.

The care home sector and seasonal employment have also been mentioned. I was told by a party colleague, who is a Member of the Scottish Parliament, that construction of the Scottish Parliament building—a matter that was not without controversy—involved workers of 14 nationalities. That highlights the issue.

While I was preparing for this debate, employers in my constituency drew to my attention incentives or the lack of them for people from the UK to take up certain jobs in certain sectors. We recently had a debate on tax credits and the major problems in the tax credit system. People in this country who might be attracted to take employment in seasonal sectors, where incomes fluctuate and are unpredictable, are discouraged by the operation of the tax credit system because the clawback of overpaid tax credits could lead to their incomes fluctuating even more. Again, that puts pressure on employers to seek migrant workers because they cannot find people in this country to do those jobs. In Aviemore, which is a tourist centre in my constituency, that is a serious issue for restaurants and other tourism businesses.

The fundamental question raised by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich is how to ensure that the migrant workers whom we need in this country are treated properly when they come here. I agree with her that it is principally a matter of enforcement. We have heard a lot about the social consequences of exploited workers being pushed out on to the streets, homeless and hungry, which can give rise to crime and disorder issues, such as increased shoplifting, which was mentioned, and so on.

We have also heard about the mistreatment that many employment agencies get away with, such as paying less than the national minimum wage. Some hon. Members may have read the report by Citizens Advice on exploitation of migrant workers. It described cases of people not being paid at all. Overseas students were invited to do cleaning jobs to supplement their income while at university, but their pay was regularly deferred and they eventually left because they were not paid. They were working for nothing, which is the most
28 Jun 2005 : Column 382WH
grotesque form of exploitation. We have heard of many forms of exploitation today, including the removal of passports.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Southport that there is a culture of complicity, which must be addressed, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister about what steps can be taken to deal with it. As Citizens Advice said, migrant workers are often the most vulnerable to exploitation in our society. A number of issues must be addressed to make people more aware of their employment rights, their right to the minimum wage and what may be deducted from their pay packets. Legislation limits the deductions that can be made from wages for accommodation and so on.

John Barrett : Does my hon. Friend agree that the present problem will increase under the Government's plans for slimming down the civil service? Those in the Inland Revenue are particularly angry that a number of their jobs will go. One way of tackling the problems to which he referred is to ensure that tax, national insurance and so on are paid. With fewer staff in the Inland Revenue, that will become a bigger problem rather than a problem that can be dealt with.

Danny Alexander : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I agree that the Inland Revenue has a role to play in using the information that is has to ensure that people are being paid properly. He mentioned one of the consequences of slimming down, and I hope that the Minister will address that issue.

It is also the case that many migrant workers are afraid to complain. Although workers who are being exploited can turn to mechanisms within the law, such as employment tribunals and so on, their practical knowledge is that such a major and time-consuming step could result in their dismissal, which could mean, as my hon. Friends said, that they become destitute on the streets. As a result, many of those who are being exploited—even those who know that they are being exploited and that their treatment is outside the law—are unlikely to take the steps currently available to them.

The Minister will be aware that the Citizens Advice report proposed the establishment of a cross-departmental task force on fair employment to consider a broad range of enforcement issues. I would be most interested to hear from her whether the Government will take up that suggestion.

As we have heard, there are both good and bad employment agencies. One of the difficult questions raised by employers in my constituency, however, is how employers and employees can tell the difference between them. I would be interested to hear what steps have been taken to regulate and monitor employment agencies. Employers who, naturally enough, have a demand or desire to recruit workers from overseas should be able to do so in the knowledge that the agency is reputable and not involved in crime, as in the example described by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport. It is true that some employers groups, such as the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, are aware of the need to take account of the social, moral and cultural responsibilities of taking on foreign workers, but not all of them are.

The other issue that needs to be addressed is the asset-stripping of third world countries. It is not ethical for the United Kingdom to drain third world countries of
28 Jun 2005 : Column 383WH
workers in key sectors such as health care. Overseas staff are a valuable asset to our health service, but they must not be exploited in order to cover up our failure to generate sufficient professionals—nurses, doctors and so on. Our long-term dependency on overseas clinicians must be tackled for the sake not only of the countries from which they are being recruited, but of the sustainability of the national health service. Again, I would be interested to hear from the Minister what steps the Government intend to take, and in particular whether they will take advantage of our presidency of G8 to work towards an international agreement to limit the number of nurses and doctors being recruited from vulnerable countries.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman is looking at the clock, just as I am.

Danny Alexander : Thank you, Mr. Olner.

Given our need for them, migrant workers should be valued and not exploited. We need them for economic reasons, and we therefore have a moral responsibility to treat them properly. Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich on securing this important debate.

11.54 am

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I join in the general congratulations to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on securing what has turned out to be a very important debate. The hon. Lady began by congratulating the Minister. I have to say that the Opposition found the Minister's appointment rather good news. She deserves her salary; we just wish she were getting it. No doubt, it will only be a matter of time.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich set out some worrying concerns, but we should set this debate in the context of the fact that very far from all employers or employment agencies behave in the way that she described. Of course, she did not suggest that all of them did so, but it is difficult to tell how many do.

There are many reasons why it should be easy to cross from country to country to better oneself, obtain work and provide one's services. It is a basic tenet of free trade that one ought to be able to better oneself and move to where the global economy requires. Individuals benefit by moving from country to country selling their labour, and they are offered the chance to improve their professional and language skills. The country that receives the skills of such people benefit too, because they provide a resource that the domestic market cannot at that time fulfil.

For example, medical training takes a minimum of eight years, and we need more doctors and nurses. We face a shortage now, and the only way we can fulfil that demand is by offering medical posts to overseas staff. That creates the problem of asset-stripping of other countries, which hon. Members have mentioned, but it also gives people who come to this country from overseas the opportunity to return later, better trained, to the countries from which they came and help out the health economy there.
28 Jun 2005 : Column 384WH

It is not by any means all employment agencies that behave in the way that the hon. Lady described, but to the extent that some do so—there is no doubt that some behave extremely badly—such behaviour is completely unacceptable. The UK needs to operate, and does operate, by certain basic principles, not because it is in our interests to do so, but because we think that it is right and humane. The principles are those of openness, keeping to what we say, standing by our contracts and keeping to the rule of law. The prevention of exploitation is a key part of that, as are basic minimum standards of treatment. We are talking not about huge rafts of regulation, but about basic minimum standards.

The hon. Lady drew attention to some real problems. I shall not go through them, because she did that so well herself, but I suspect that she could not say all that she might have said, because of the problem that the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) raised. Many people who are being exploited in the way that she set out are frightened of approaching the authorities to say what is wrong, even if they know how to do so in a foreign language—and too often they do not know. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that we often may not know how big the problem is, because of the fear and isolation to which the hon. Lady referred. When hon. Members say that there is a lot of exploitation, I am afraid that I must reply that we simply do not know how much.

The hon. Lady referred to an under-culture of isolated workers who are unable to seek the help of the codes that we have happily passed in Parliament. That problem affects not only the sectors that she mentioned, but the health sector, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) said. The recruitment of nursing staff has been mentioned. Nurses must be registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council to work in the UK. Conversion training is often required for registration, and it is undertaken on a student visa rather than a full work permit.

Mrs. Dunwoody : I apologising for interrupting. It is clear that private hospitals in this country exploit nurses in an unacceptable way, and I know that the Royal College of Nursing is very concerned about that.

Mr. Arbuthnot : I was about to come to that point, but the hon. Lady is right to raise it. Often, places on national health service conversion courses are not available. That means that people coming for nursing training in this country must either accept low-paid work or work in private and independent health care. The exploitation that can exist on private conversion courses—of course, it does not happen in all cases—is worrying.

The worry about the retention of passports can be made worse if employment agencies have not submitted to the Home Office the work permit papers that they ought to have submitted. The Government have produced a code of practice for health workers that will come into effect in December this year. It sounds as though that will be good news, but it requires the enforcement that the hon. Lady talked about.

I will not go on. As the hon. Lady said, we need to insist that agencies must have access to the people who are being exploited, but in order to have that access, they
28 Jun 2005 : Column 385WH
need to be aware that exploitation is going on in a particular sector or among particular people. It is difficult for anyone to address that problem.

This is a civilised country, but we need to do constant work to ensure that it remains as civilised as it is. The hon. Lady raised some extremely important questions, and we all look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in reply.

12.2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Meg Munn) : I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on her choice of subject for today's debate and on her powerful speech. I thank her for her kind comments at the start of the debate. They are all the more appreciated because she is, rightly, a well-respected parliamentarian. I also thank the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) for his kind comments. There have been many thoughtful and interesting contributions, and I shall try to address as many of the points raised by hon. Members as I can.

The Government condemn any abuse or mistreatment of workers, whether they are UK nationals or migrant workers. We take such issues seriously and will continue to mobilise the resources of the various enforcement agencies that have been established to tackle such illegal practices.

It is important to place on record what we do to protect agency temporary workers. Having done that, I will answer the points that hon. Members raised. The Government acknowledge the important role that employment agencies and the workers whom they supply have to play in the labour market. However, it is important that employers and everybody operating in the industry accepts that they have an obligation to those who use their services, whether their client is an individual worker or a multinational corporation. The Government are keen to ensure that all workers, including agency temporary workers, have appropriate protections, yet we have found that, as has been said, some workers—they are often migrant workers—do not realise what rights they have.

As my hon. Friend said, the Government were aware of that difficulty, and so we took early action. We considered it particularly important to get information to potential work seekers before they left their country. We were aware, in particular, that some European Union accession country nationals were at risk of being exploited by their fellow citizens.

That is why, last year, we offered to work with all new member state Governments to help ensure that their nationals were informed of the implications of working in the UK, including access to statutory employment rights, before they left their home country. We suggested to those Governments that we jointly prepare bilingual "Know before you go" leaflets. I have a couple of examples with me, if any hon. Members would like to look at them after the debate. The leaflets give advice on questions to ask before leaving a country and on the legal protections offered to workers, including agency workers. To date, we have produced leaflets in partnership with the Polish and the Lithuanian Governments, who agreed with us about the need to produce them, and we are waiting to hear from a number of other interested member states. Those leaflets
28 Jun 2005 : Column 386WH
follow a similar leaflet that we produced in partnership with the Portuguese Government, to which my hon. Friend referred, and they have benefited from input from trade unions, the TUC, the CBI and other stakeholders.

We have taken steps to ensure that the bilingual leaflets are made available in informal locations. My hon. Friend rightly raised the issue of how people access the information. For example, the leaflets are available in locations such as Portuguese delicatessens, Polish shops, newsagents frequented by migrants, health centres and so on, so that we can ensure that they reach people who may be fearful. We have also distributed them to all citizens advice bureaux in the UK.

Agency temporary workers are by no means unprotected in the UK. They have access to core employment rights and statutory social security benefits, such as statutory sick pay. Since coming to office, the Government have sought to ensure that all workers receive the minimum standards of pay and conditions. Since 1997, we have significantly improved protections for agency workers. They are entitled to the national minimum wage, and they have the right to four weeks' paid holiday. The minimum wage makes no distinction between legal workers. Everyone working legally in the UK is entitled to it, regardless of how long or short their stay may be. It does not matter whether their employer is based in the United Kingdom or in another country. Moreover, a range of other protections, including those under sex, race and disability discrimination legislation, also apply to agency workers.

Legal migrant workers are protected by the same employment rights as those covering UK nationals, and all migrant workers, irrespective of their status, are protected by UK health and safety legislation. The immigration and nationality department of the Home Office is responsible for detecting and apprehending illegal migrant workers and for taking action against those responsible for employing them.

The Government have done a great deal in recent years to put in place a comprehensive package of employment rights to make sure that people are treated properly in the workplace. It is essential that both workers and employers understand their rights and obligations, and that employment rights actually work in practice, enabling people to maximise their potential in the workplace. In particular, it is important to be aware of the risks facing the most vulnerable workers, who may include those with low skills and little or no spoken English.

The denial of the rights of such workers risks undermining the wages and working conditions of millions of other people. The vast majority of decent, law-abiding employers risk being undermined by unfair competition from the small minority of employers who deliberately seek to avoid their obligations. My hon. Friend was right to say that in a civilised country it is wrong to exploit people. It is also clearly not in anybody's interest to do so.

As part of our work to combat those problems, we are considering how we can help vulnerable workers through better access to skills and training, enabling them to progress out of low-paid jobs, and through more effective enforcement targeted at unscrupulous employers who set out deliberately to take advantage of the vulnerable.
28 Jun 2005 : Column 387WH

Dr. Pugh : Those are good intentions, and I applaud the Government on what they are endeavouring to do, but can the Minister cite any evidence that the Government have actually done a great deal? Are there any statistics about how many employers have been taken to court by the Government? That would show us that they are taking the matter seriously in terms not only of rhetoric, but of action on the ground.

Meg Munn : If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall come to that point. I picked it up from his speech earlier.

The UK has a clear need for migrant workers, because of our historically low unemployment coupled with rising vacancies in the labour market. There are currently more than 600,000 vacancies, owing to a number of economic factors, including demographic changes, which have seen an increasing amount of people retiring as the working population decreases. Agency work pays a key role in achieving labour market flexibility, helping companies to deal with peaks and troughs in demand and enabling individuals who do not want a permanent job, for whatever reason, to participate in the labour market. Agency temporary work can act as a stepping stone to permanent employment. About 40 per cent. of UK agency workers find non-agency jobs within a year of starting agency work, and 36 per cent. were outsiders—unemployed starters, or other non-participants—before starting agency work.

In Great Britain, the private recruitment industry is regulated by specific legislation that sets out standards for employment agency behaviour. The Employment Agencies Act 1973 and associated regulations, which were completely overhauled only last year, set those standards for the conduct of the industry, and the DTI's employment agency standards inspectorate is responsible for enforcing the legislation. The inspectorate follows up every relevant complaint that it receives that indicates a possible breach of the legislation. The inspectors investigate employment agencies by visiting their premises to inspect their records and documents, and they also undertake targeted visits in areas where infractions are considered most likely to occur.

On a specific point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich and the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), one of three conditions must be met if a deduction from any worker's pay is to be lawful. The deduction must be required or authorised by legislation or by the worker's contract, provided that the worker has been given a written copy of the relevant terms or a written explanation of them, before the deduction is made, or the worker must have consented in writing to the deduction before it is made.

No benefits in kind except accommodation can be counted towards minimum wage pay, but there is a limit on the amount that an employer who is providing accommodation can count towards minimum wage pay. The daily accommodation offset is currently set at a daily rate of £3.75, which the employer makes for each day of accommodation. It is not intended as a commercial valuation, but is designed to protect workers from unreasonable accommodation charges.

As to confiscation of passports, an individual's passport belongs to the national Government and an employer should not keep hold of it, although it may be
28 Jun 2005 : Column 388WH
necessary to look at it for various reasons. In holding on to the passport, the employer might be guilty of an offence under the Theft Act 1968.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) referred to the issue of sex workers. In the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, we introduced a new criminal offence of trafficking for the purposes of exploitation, including forced labour, under which sex workers would be included. That is punishable on conviction by a maximum of 14 years' imprisonment.

Mr. Arbuthnot : I have been puzzling over what the Minister just said about passports. Presumably, an offence under the Theft Act would require an intention permanently to deprive, and it would be difficult to prove that any employer intended permanently to deprive somebody of their passport. Is there or should there be any offence of holding the passport of another person with the intention of applying pressure to that person?

Meg Munn : The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point of legal detail. I do not have the answer to that question, although I may do shortly. That was quick. I am informed that the Identity Cards Bill will provide added powers on that point. Perhaps that will persuade him of the way in which he should cast his vote later today on Second Reading of the Bill.

On enforcement, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) and underlay all the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, who called the debate, we do not hesitate to prosecute where appropriate, but we do so only as a last resort. In the overwhelming majority of cases in which our inspectors discover breaches of the legislation, they find that, on being made aware of those infractions, companies agree to change their procedures and/or pay the money owed to the worker. Last year, the DTI undertook about 1,000 inspections of agencies and recovered more than £20,000 in wages that had been illegally withheld from workers. It is unlikely that those workers would have recovered that money by other means.

We are also looking at projects such as the joint workplace enforcement pilot—a snappy title. The pilot will involve an examination of the potential for intelligence sharing and closer co-ordinated working among Departments to tackle a range of issues relating to illegal working, for the purposes of criminal investigations or proceedings.

Mrs. Dunwoody : I certainly would not dispute my hon. Friend's description of the pilot's title as extraordinarily snappy. The reality is that employment agencies will simply go one step at a time. When I complained about people signing contracts in a language that they did not understand, the agencies used Government money to translate them. Although one particular point was dealt with, the people whom we are discussing have no intention of complying with the law, because they can walk away with large sums from each worker.

Meg Munn : My hon. Friend raises important issues, and the pilot will try to address some of them by
28 Jun 2005 : Column 389WH
building a thorough understanding of all the problems associated with illegal working in the area under investigation. The debate has been helpful in raising a range of such issues, and we shall try to identify the obstacles to effective enforcement or compliance. That will test the hypothesis that a joint team focusing on enforcement could have a more significant impact on routinely non-compliant employers than existing arrangements.

Only last year, the Government revised the legislation governing agencies to tighten the health and safety obligations on them and to clarify their responsibilities for their workers.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that language proficiency is an important factor as regards health and safety? There are 600 Polish migrant workers in Selby, and I am hosting a conference with them, employers, trade unions and employment agencies in the autumn. We are pushing the local training and skills council to improve language courses and other provisions aimed at migrant workers. Can the Government encourage learning and skills councils to get involved in something like that?

Meg Munn : I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. Clearly, one benefit of regional development associations and the learning and skills councils is that they can address the needs in their areas. If they are meeting the needs of people in their areas and helping the local economy, that should be encouraged.

On the point raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West, the Inland Revenue enforces the national minimum wage, but it is funded by the DTI. I am glad to reassure him, therefore, that cuts at the Inland Revenue will not affect national minimum wage enforcement.

The Government are committed to ending the abuse and mistreatment of migrant workers that has been described today. Where there are serious criminal offences, it is clearly for the police to investigate in the first instance and to take action if appropriate. If there are serious breaches of employment legislation in addition to serious criminal offences, however, the appropriate Government enforcement agency will investigate. Workers or third parties who are uncertain where to turn for advice can call the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service helpline in confidence for advice on employment rights. The number is 08457 474747.

In relation to agencies, the DTI can take complaints about agencies from third parties or take forward complaints in confidence without ever disclosing the names of concerned workers. If my hon. Friend or any other Member present has similar concerns, I urge them to let my Department have details of agencies or workers, and I will ask officials to look into them urgently. I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend that we must bridge the gap between the rights that agency workers have and the reality for the workers that she has so clearly described.

12.20 pm

Sitting suspended.

Next Section IndexHome Page