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10.44 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Alan Campbell): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) on securing this debate and drawing our attention to this important issue. He has achieved at least his first objective of raising awareness of the matter. I am sure that all hon. Members are extremely sorry to hear about his constituent who was a victim of such distressing fraud. Unfortunately, the case that he recounted is serious but not unique. I also appreciate the comments of other hon. Members. They bring a great deal of knowledge and understanding to this important matter. Perhaps until the last contribution, there was a recognition that the problem is complex and that it will take more than Government to tackle it. The internet provides many valuable opportunities and benefits for law-abiding businesses and individuals but, unfortunately, some will always seek to exploit new technologies for criminal ends.

I anticipated that the hon. Gentleman would raise health-related issues, and I should like to respond briefly and generally to the points that he made. We want people to be able to order medicines from legitimate online providers. The Royal Pharmaceutical Society has introduced a local scheme for registered sites, and purchasers should look for the logo when buying their medicines. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency carries out enforcement action against illegal and unauthorised sites that operate in the UK, and works with international partners to tackle the threat to the health of the public. I shall go away and consider the points that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) made and write to them—the latter took the point to another level altogether.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of an awareness campaign. We have awareness campaigns across Government, and I shall give some examples and say what we are already doing later. As I said, I will take his ideas on the matter away and consider them.

The story of how the crimes come about has been recounted by many people. E-mail provides criminals with the opportunity to target many thousands of people in the hope that some of them—it takes only a small minority—fall victim to promises of unexpected entitlements or prizes, such as foreign lottery wins. The fraudster often maintains that before the prize or entitlement can be released, the victim must pay a series of charges. Sometimes, fraudsters claim that they are demanding Government-imposed levies, such as a customs fee from HMRC or money for an anti-terrorism certificate from the Home Office. As in the unfortunate case we have heard about, they produce professional-looking letters that purport to come from Departments in an attempt to convince the intended victim that they are genuine.

Victims often become embroiled and lose a great deal of money before the scam becomes apparent. Worse, they may also find that they are at risk of identity theft if they have provided personal financial details to the fraudster.

Mr. Evans: We have spoken about the fact internet fraud is one of the fastest-growing crimes, not only in the UK, but the world. However, there could be an element of under-reporting to the police, because some
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people who have been victims of scams, when they come to their senses, think, “How stupid I have been.” They are embarrassed to report the crime to the police. Does the Minister accept that every victim should put their embarrassment to one side and report crimes so that the police at least have more leads as they try to tackle them?

Mr. Campbell: That is a fair and important point. It reflects the subtle nature of fraud crimes. Somehow, people feel that they have brought it upon themselves and are reluctant to report it. People have been reluctant to report other crimes, but when they realise that there are sanctions available, that action will be taken and that the Government and others are interested, they get increased confidence and come forward. Our obligation is to demonstrate that those things are in place.

One thing that complicates matters for the Government is that many frauds are committed by criminals resident outside the UK. That presents difficulties of identification and investigation for law enforcement, and often means that victims are unlikely to get back their money. The Office of Fair Trading formed its scambusters team to address mass-marketing fraud. It cannot investigate individual cases or get money back for consumers, but, by working with other organisations, it can disrupt fraudsters and shut down their operations. The OFT’s Scams Enforcement Group brings together a number of law enforcement agencies, including trading standards and other partners, and focuses on law enforcement, consumer education and disruption of scammers’ routes to market.

The OFT also runs a scams awareness week every year. I shall refer to other awareness weeks later in my remarks, but I want to say now that it alarms me that someone as knowledgeable as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) is not aware of that. That is not a criticism of him, but of the way in which the event is run. I will take that point away with me and consider it further.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) mentioned the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the Nigerian law enforcement agency. I want to confirm that we work closely with law enforcement agencies in different countries, including the EFCC. A number of hon. Members inquired about the convention. I can confirm that we will begin the formal parliamentary process to ratify it by the end of this month, with full ratification, subject to parliamentary approval, by the end of January 2009.

Tom Brake: For the benefit of hon. Members, will the Minister explain why there has been such a long delay? Have there been specific issues that the Government have had to address? What is the reason for the length of time it has taken?

Mr. Campbell: When Government seek to sign up to treaties such as this, there are always a number of complex issues. I do not know the exact answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I will consider the matter and contact him later.

Advance fee fraud is just one form of fraud that can be enabled by the internet. Criminals often use the internet to carry out card-not-present fraud. They use stolen card details to purchase goods or services over
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the internet, and they also commit online banking fraud through the sending of e-mails that attempt to trick online banking customers into releasing personal financial details. I want to confirm to hon. Members that the Government take such fraud very seriously because it is a serious criminal matter. However, it is a notoriously difficult area in which to gather information. Robust pieces of research suggest the level of that fraud. A recently published report commissioned by the Association of Chief Police Officers suggested that, overall, fraud cost a minimum of £13.9 billion per annum. The OFT estimated that in 2006 UK customers lost around £3.5 billion to scams. The most recent annual card fraud figures published by the payments industry showed that total card fraud losses in 2007 amounted to just over half a billion pounds. Behind those figures is a victim facing a loss. At the minimum, they face distress and inconvenience and, in some cases, they face financial and personal ruin.

The Government have allocated £29 million over three years to implement the national fraud programme. That includes the creation of a National Fraud Strategic Authority, which was launched earlier this month. The authority will provide a strategic focus and mechanism for counter-fraud activity. It will develop and co-ordinate the delivery of a national fraud strategy, engaging stakeholders from across the economy. I was asked about the appointment of a chief executive. I can tell hon. Members that interviews will be held shortly, and we hope to make the appointment by the end of this year. The work of the National Fraud Strategic Authority is also overseen by a cross-departmental ministerial group, which I chair jointly with the Attorney-General.

The national fraud programme also includes additional funding for City of London police to take on a new national lead force role, offering assistance to other forces and establishing a centre of excellence to co-ordinate training and best practice. That expands the City’s lead force status for fraud in the south-east, for which the force has received additional funding from the Government and the Corporation of London since 2004-05.

A national fraud reporting centre, expected to go live in 2009, will also be established. It will radically streamline the way in which the public report fraud—including fraud committed over the internet—to the police. A promise that the police will investigate every fraud reported to the centre would probably be way beyond the resources of any law enforcement agency anywhere in the world. None the less, the centre will provide a powerful intelligence tool to law enforcement agencies that will help them to target available resources in areas in which they have the best chance of success. It will also help to form the basis of better prevention advice and alerts to fraud threats for business and the public.

Tom Brake: The Minister may not be able to deal with this matter immediately, but if people report fraud to this centre, they will be concerned if they do not see any action. Will the Minister make it clear what people will be entitled to if they have made a report to this centre?

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Mr. Campbell: The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that is pertinent not just to this debate but to policing in general. We are working with police forces to consider ways in which we deal with crime in general. We are looking at what the public can expect by way of standards and follow-up when they engage with police forces. I caution anyone against thinking that simply because they report a fraud there will necessarily be some action and a result at the end. I am sure that the authorities will do everything that they can, but I do not want to hold out false promise. The standard of service that people can expect is a fair point to make.

In addition to the national fraud programme, and in recognition that fraud committed through the internet requires specialist attention, we are also setting up the police central e-crime unit, which will be based in the Metropolitan police, to tackle electronic crime, and specifically fraud. The unit will act as the central unit for the police on promotion of standards for training, procedure and response to e-crime. It will bring together forces, the National Policing Improvement Agency and other groups to develop training and to co-ordinate activity to build up the skill levels within policing. There has been criticism about the amount of money that has been put into the unit. Let me explain to the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) that this is not the only unit that will be seeking to tackle fraud. The important thing is that the unit will be working with other police forces that have a funded capability. The figure that the hon. Gentleman quotes is not the end of the story. We are working on our targets, but it is a bit rich to ask where the targets will be when we are under a great deal of pressure not to have targets. Of course we want the unit to succeed and we will be working with it to ensure that it does. We are looking to recruit staff at present. As they will be specialised, I cannot give any numbers.

Mr. Evans: Clearly, the initial amount of money may not be enough, and the Government may need to look at that again. Will the Minister say something about the responsibility of the financial institutions themselves because they need to do a lot more to protect their customers?

Mr. Campbell: In many respects, the Government agree with the recognition by the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee that the problems facing us in making the internet safe cannot be addressed by Government, or any other group, alone. That is why we seek to bring together lots of different agencies and the industry. The industry has a responsibility as well. A joint get safe online week takes place and is supported by both the Government and the industry. We work closely with industry to identify ways of preventing fraud. Something that is not well known is that the Home Office works with industry on designing out crime. We work with a range of designers to see how we, and other areas in industry, can learn the lessons. I am sure that there is greater scope for more work in that regard.

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Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme

11 am

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Cook. I thank the Minister for giving up his time to respond to this short debate on the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. Although it is a little late, I welcome him to his new post and wish him well in what I think everybody would agree is one of the most challenging posts in Government.

I asked for this debate because I represent a constituency where fruit farming is the dominant type of agriculture. Kent is a county whose reputation as the garden of England is defined by its fruit farms, and I made my maiden speech on the subject when I entered the House in 2001. Since that time, I have served as secretary of the all-party group on the fruit industry, so this debate is taking place on behalf of the wider fruit sector as well as my own constituents.

However, it goes a great deal further than Kentish fruit farms. Since this debate was announced, I have been approached by many colleagues representing constituencies where other horticultural crops are grown. My concerns today are shared by, among many others, my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) and for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), who support this debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, who reports similar concerns among his constituents who grow salad, legume and asparagus.

Given the timelines involved in the proposal to end SAWS in 2010, this is an opportune moment to raise concerns, as the Minister has the opportunity to take action now to prevent a disaster a year or 18 months hence. He should be in no doubt that it is a serious and genuine problem and not just the standard Westminster Hall whinge. I know of three growers in my constituency who have had to let crops rot in the ground as a result of labour shortages, and the problems caused by the abolition of SAWS were the dominant topic of conversation at the national fruit show three weeks ago.

The National Farmers Union’s seasonal labour survey for 2008 showed that a staggering 61 per cent. of respondents claimed to have lost income as a result of labour shortages, of which 58 per cent. was directly due to crops that could not be harvested. In effect, the crops were simply left to rot in the ground. A further 30 per cent. of losses were due to crops that, because of labour shortages, were harvested so late as to be unsaleable by the time they reached the market. The best estimate for total losses this year is £8 million, but that figure is expected to rise dramatically in 2009, and the figures are almost bound to be a serious underestimate, as less successful growers tend not to respond to the survey in the first place and growers more generally are notoriously unwilling to admit to failing to harvest crops.

Before examining the issues, I hope that we can agree on three specific principles. First, fruit farming, like horticulture more generally, is an activity that we all ought to support. All growers are vital small to medium-sized businesses that feed other parts of the local economy on the farms where they are situated, such as packing and transportation. When we last debated this issue
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18 months or two years ago, fruit farming accounted for 12 per cent. of agriculture in this country, or 19 per cent. if the effect of subsidies is disaggregated. The industry produces high-quality produce close to the marketplace and, crucially, is completely unsubsidised. The Government’s healthy eating strategies, such as five a day, require UK growers to produce the fruit and vegetables necessary to make them work. In areas of top fruit farming, yielding fruit such as apples and pears, the trees also define the landscape. It is precisely because of fruit farming that Kent is known as the garden of England. Horticulture is an unqualified good thing.

The second principle is that, through successive Governments, SAWS has been a fantastic success for more than 40 years. SAWS is well managed by the operating companies and licensed by the Home Office, and all participating farms are carefully monitored. All participants in the scheme are genuine students, the money that they earn is taken home and invested in economies less developed than ours and, crucially, the abscondence rate is tiny. Many who come here as SAWS students go on to have successful agricultural careers in their own home countries; indeed, at the time of our last SAWS debate two years ago, the Polish Minister of Agriculture was Thomas Kowalski, who is an ex-SAWS student. In short, it is a fantastically successful scheme that should be nurtured and encouraged, not closed down.

The third and final principle, which is crucial, is that this is not an immigration and asylum issue. Participants are not looking to earn the right to stay here or to disappear into the black economy. It is a seasonal labour programme in which students come here on a work visa to gain specific agricultural experience relevant to their studies, earn some money and then go home. It makes no contribution to the more general immigration and asylum debate.

Mr. Malcolm Moss: (North-East Cambridgeshire) I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that SAWS is a well-tried and tested system in which seasonal workers do not place pressure on the housing market or impinge on the benefits or schooling systems? As he rightly says, it is not to be confused with migration and immigration issues.

Hugh Robertson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I thank him for that intervention. That is exactly the issue. SAWS workers come to do a specific task for a specific time, benefit hugely from the experience and then go home.

So what is the problem? At its peak in 2004, 25,000 students visited the UK through SAWS to work on our farms, earn money to take home and learn about our language and culture, as my hon. Friend said. The Government’s investigation into the matter, the Curry report, recommended that the number of places on the scheme should be increased to 50,000, or double that peak. However, despite that, the Government have committed to abolishing SAWS by 2010, in the hope that the shortfall will be filled by EU workers, particularly those from A8 accession countries.

The problem with that is fourfold. First, as I understand it, all restrictions on A8 accession countries are due to be lifted by 2011. Britain—I shall be careful how I say this—is not necessarily the most attractive European
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destination for unfettered migrant labour due to its climate, geographical isolation and associated higher travel costs. Worker registration scheme figures since 2006 support that, showing a downward trend in the number of A8 nationals coming to work in the UK in general and in UK horticulture in particular.

Secondly, there is a growing body of evidence that A8 workers are much more reluctant than SAWS students to work in horticulture. That is probably not a great surprise. They tend to filter away to less physically taxing jobs in the hospitality industry.

Thirdly—I would be the first to admit that this falls outside the Minister’s remit, but it is part of the larger problem—the domestic work force is reluctant to work in horticulture. The problem is closely related to the structure of the benefits system, which discourages the unemployed from taking temporary, seasonal work.

Finally, the Home Office has implemented year-on-year reductions in the number of seasonal agricultural workers in the years preceding the abolition of the scheme in 2010. In short, all the evidence suggests that the idea of replacing SAWS with A8 accession country labour will lead to a serious shortage in the work force, which will cause crops to rot, as we have started to see this year, and growers and horticulturalists to leave the sector. That cannot be a good thing in an economic downturn.

The solution is relatively simple and is fourfold. First, horticulture desperately needs an increase in the size of the remaining SAWS quota to manage the downturn in migrant numbers from the A8 accession countries. That would bring much-needed business confidence to the archetypically labour-intensive sectors of horticulture, such as soft fruit, top fruit and salad vegetables, and would be an easy win for the Government. Estimates from the NFU suggest that the recommended quota should be 21,250 for 2009 and at least 25,000 for 2010, or back to 2004 levels. If the Government really wanted to make their name with the industry, they could also lengthen the amount of time a seasonal worker can stay from six to nine months.

The second and longer-term solution is that horticulture desperately needs a new points-based system, or PBS, that is compatible with SAWS, and which embodies all the pre-2007 elements of SAWS. It would be perfectly reasonable to include new criteria that respond to broader societal concerns about the wider immigration and asylum debate, although, as I said earlier, this is strictly not an immigration and asylum issue. Such a scheme could easily include checks on arrival and departure for participating students; responsibility for ensuring departure being devolved to the SAWS operators, with return agreements in place with source countries; a strong educational and cultural bias, so that participants improve their English language skills and develop an understanding of British culture; and an appropriate inspection regime, including, if necessary, standards of accommodation and other employment conditions.

I know from my own experience—every year that I have been an MP, I have visited fruit farms over the summer, where many SAWS students are employed—that many growers do all of those things already. They have a programme of cultural visits, English language lessons in the evening, and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, the industry should welcome an increase in standards across the board.

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