Clause 4 - Obligations of principals
Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill
5:00 pm

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with no special conditions, and how will the employer ensure that the licence that he is shown is current and has not been revoked 24 hours previously?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longer than a brief period—two or three years—someone may still have that licence in their possession even if it has been revoked.

Alun Michael: On the last point, the authorisation that comes with the licence does not necessarily mean that identification has to have the same time scale. The question of identification of an individual needs to be

examined. In this place, for example, passes are issued for variable periods for a variety of reasons. That experience may be used to inform our consideration of the matter, although I am not sure that the House of Commons is necessarily to be regarded as a gangmaster. However, the Whips on some occasions—No, I will not go there.

To a great extent, the hon. Gentleman has answered his own question, and I am happy to confirm that his understanding is correct. The new clause makes it clear that everyone in the food chain has a responsibility to ensure that they are dealing with a reputable and licensed operator. When a person fails to discharge that responsibility, they will commit an offence under the proposed legislation.

As the hon. Gentleman suggests, however, we have the scope to make regulations to clarify the appropriate action for a labour user to take in checking whether a gangmaster is licensed. That will almost certainly include making a register check and a requirement that they see the original licensing documentation. However, until the authority has established the licensing procedures, it is not possible to say precisely what form the regulations will take.

I reiterate the point that the intention is to involve employers in the board and that they should be engaged in the design of the requirements that will be included in the legislation.

I can confirm that my understanding of what we need to do is along the lines of what the hon. Gentleman is asking us to do. The purpose must be to make it easier for employers to comply with the law. We should not have unrealistic expectations and ask them to fulfil vague obligations that are not clear, simple or practical. Our intention is that the issue will be dealt with in the regulations and as the agency takes form.

Mr. Simmonds: I thank the Minister for that answer. I have one plea: will he ensure that the structures that are put in place by the GLA or that come through in the regulations apply not only to the first gangmaster in the chain but to all the subcontractors below that gangmaster? Thought needs to be given as to whether the employer or the first gangmaster in the chain is responsible for ensuring that all subcontractors are licensed and legitimate.

Alun Michael: I can confirm that that is my understanding and that the legislation allows for that to happen. We need to ensure that it is clear what the employer who is using gang labour has to do to comply with the law. I accept that it is important for that to be set out clearly. However, I make a plea for us not to start using initials. Neither officials nor I have ever knowingly used the initials ''GLA''. As far as I am concerned, they mean the Greater London authority. It is not necessary for us to refer to the licensing organisation by its initials, as that could raise some confusion in certain quarters.

Question put and negatived.

Clause 4 disagreed to.

Clause 5 disagreed to.