Clause 1 - Interpretation

Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:31 pm on 28th April 2004.

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

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

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

New clause 5—Territorial scope of application.

New clause 26—Meaning of ''worker''.

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, West Renfrewshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang Labour, Edinburgh East and Musselburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

''orchard or osier land or woodland''.

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

Photo of Mark Simmonds Mark Simmonds Shadow Minister (Education)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

On the point about overlap with earlier legislation, does my hon. Friend agree that a crucial, related issue, which the NFU raised, is enforcement? It is arguable that earlier problems arose from a lack of enforcement, and the NFU's point that that there must be effective enforcement must be seen alongside the issue of duplication of legislation.

Photo of Mark Simmonds Mark Simmonds Shadow Minister (Education) 2:45 pm, 28th April 2004

I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a good point. I suggest that we get into the details of enforcement and the related issues and problems when we debate new clause 15 and the associated amendments. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide clarification today, or that he or his advisers will be able to set out the details more clearly either in future regulations as adjuncts to the Bill, or by writing to hon. Members.

I broadly welcome new clause 3. I am aware that the most serious problems with rogue gangmasters exist in the agriculture and horticulture sectors, but there is a danger that illegal operators will be able to circumvent the legislation if other key sectors in which they are involved are not included. The right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) gave a good example. In my experience, the more prevalent examples are in office cleaning and catering. Some gangmasters in Lincolnshire and elsewhere in the UK provide casual labour to various sectors, and we must ensure either in the Bill or in regulations that it will not be possible for a gangmaster to change the remit of his practices, or to pretend that he provides gang labour only to the office cleaning or catering sectors when in fact he is subcontracting his business to the agriculture and horticulture sectors, and thereby getting around many of the excellent clauses and the penalties in the Bill.

The NFU has clearly said that it is wrong in principle for employers in the agriculture and horticulture sectors to be singled out for new regulations and costs, whereas those operating in other sectors are not. That defeats our attempts to create a level playing field for legitimate providers. As we all know, illegitimate providers undercut legitimate providers in the marketplace.

My other concern about new clause 3 is the ambiguity around the terms ''consumable produce'' and ''agriculture''. How far up the food chain will the licensing scheme apply? For example, is a gangmaster who provides labour for sandwich packing to be covered by the legislation? It would be wrong if a supermarket or someone between the supermarket and the producer or grower were caught by the legislation if that is not what is intended, or if someone broke the law unknowingly, because they did not think that the law applied to them.

I welcome new clause 5, which would bring gangmasters acting outside the United Kingdom under the legislation. There are serious problems with Portuguese gangmasters in my constituency and elsewhere in Lincolnshire and Norfolk, and Chinese gangmasters have significant operations in the constituency of the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), where a terrible tragedy happened. In practice, how will we enforce the legislation against gangmasters who operate from outside the UK and who may never have set foot in this country?

I raised the issue on Second Reading. Some Lincolnshire packhouse owners and producers operate with Portuguese gangmasters who fly workers in or bring them in by other means, sometimes legally, sometimes illegally. The Minister is aware of that practice. Only yesterday, I discussed with the relevant Foreign Office Minister the fact that many Latin Americans are now coming up through the Iberian peninsula with forged documents. They pretend to be Portuguese or Spanish when in fact they are Brazilian or Bolivian. All those issues must be considered. Is the intention to seize the assets of foreign gangmasters as well as those of rogue UK gangmasters? How will that operate, and how will the former be prosecuted?

New clause 26 seems sensible. It states clearly that ''worker'' includes illegal workers who have no right to be in this country. In my experience, it is those workers who are exploited, mainly because they have no recourse through the trade unions, the law courts or the police. That is the hole that we need to plug.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) in respect of the pleasure of serving under you, Mr. Illsley, and in congratulating the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire on his promotion of the Bill. I know that the hon. Gentleman and the Government have done a tremendous amount of productive work.

The Government must understand that there will be a strong sense of regret in the agricultural and shell fishing communities that the Bill is restricted to them. The illegitimate and appalling misuse of labour is not restricted to those sectors. Although under new clause 3(5)

''The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision''

to extend the requirements of the Bill to other activities, I should prefer it not to be restricted in that way. It is a disappointment, and I imagine that some people in the agricultural sector will express regret. The Bill appears to focus on their sector as if it were the cause of the problem. That is not the message that we want to send out.

My second point relates to clarification. In my constituency, some gang labourers who work in the fields are subsequently engaged by packhouses. At present, the packaging and processing of foodstuffs is relatively rudimentary, but there is no knowing how far the packaging, processing, cooking and

development of foodstuffs and consumables will go. It would be helpful to have further clarification from the Minister in that respect.

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, West Renfrewshire

It might be appropriate if I explain the thinking behind the new clauses.

New clause 3 is a key element of the revised Bill. It defines the types of work to which the Bill will apply. The Bill is intended not to regulate each and every industry, but to regulate gangmasters in the sectors where they are most common and where the abuses by rogue gangmasters are the most extreme. Therefore, as amended, the Bill will cover all agricultural work and the gathering of shellfish. It also includes the processing or packaging of produce derived from those activities and the processing or packaging of fish.

As I understand it, the definition of agriculture is based on the definition in the Agricultural Wages Act 1948, with which many of us are familiar. New clause 3(4) defines shellfish in wide terms, and subsection (5) gives the Secretary of State the power to include or exclude work from the prescribed limits. Perhaps I should give my right hon. Friend the Minister the opportunity to elaborate, if he wishes to do so, on the way in which he might use that power and on the activities that he intends to include in the regulations.

New clause 5 is a straightforward provision that defines the territorial scope of the Bill. It will apply to the whole of the UK and to UK coastal waters, which extend six international nautical miles out to sea. The new clause is designed close any loopholes through which rogue gangmasters might try to escape by ensuring that the Bill applies to the supply of gang labour in the UK, even if the gangmaster is based outside it.

New clause 26 defines worker in the widest sense, because we must ensure that the Bill applies to all workers engaged by gangmasters. A worker is a worker is a worker, and no worker, indigenous or migrant, should be exploited. The clause will also extend the protection from exploitation to people who may be working illegally. The provision will be the key to ensuring that workers feel able to alert the authorities to any malpractice or breaches of the law on the part of their employers. That is crucial.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I welcome the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley. I am sure that having shared a room with you at the beginning of our parliamentary careers will not bring me any advantage, but I hope that such shared experience brings no disadvantages.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire on introducing the Bill and on the considerable amount of time and effort that he has invested in working with myself, my officials and the consortium of supporting organisations to produce an extremely effective Bill.

Hon. Members who have spoken have raised several issues. They want to ensure that we understand exactly what the legislation will do. I welcome the amount of engagement there has been from Committee members and from others prior to today's sitting. In recent weeks, I have had many

meetings with the TGWU, including with its deputy general secretary, Jack Dromey, and with the NFU, including its president, Tim Bennett. The fact that people at that level as well as people from the engine rooms of both organisations—to refer to those present today—have been involved demonstrates how seriously the matter is being taken.

During the course of our consideration, my hon. Friend and I have also met the wider group of stakeholders, which gave us an opportunity to talk through some of the issues, and we have had two meetings with Committee members. I appreciate that not all Committee members were able to attend, but the issues that have been raised in the debate are ones that we spent some time on during those meetings. Such engagement is very unusual. The right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk attended both meetings and drew on her experience, as did the former Secretary of State for Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and other colleagues. We also benefited from the experience of a former Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown). Even before today's debate, we have had considerable, knowledgeable and well-informed input from MPs. I believe that that process will have helped us to bring a well formed measure before the Committee.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh asked about the definition of agriculture and the impact on forestry. The definition of agriculture that has been used is a wide one that reflects previous use in agricultural wages legislation. That means that the Bill will cover gangmaster activity in forestry. Work in recreational woodlands or in sawmills, for example, might be different matters. However, one of the points that I would make to those who might want to expand the Bill's scope reinforces a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire. The Bill's scope is very clear. It is targeted at agricultural and related activities—including the gathering of cockles, for the obvious reason that the tragic events in Morecambe bay brought that activity to the attention of everyone in the House and the wider public.

Our aim has been to draft the measure as widely as possible and to make sure that we do not create unintended loopholes. We want to stay in the scope of the Bill as originally tabled, for the reasons of priority that my hon. Friend explained and for the reasons of procedure that I have outlined. We will have the capacity to exclude activities from the operation of the Bill. It is better to act that way around, because it ensures that we do not miss something out and thereby create a loophole, and it enables us to avoid excessive bureaucracy. That is why the Bill is designed as it is.

Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang Labour, Edinburgh East and Musselburgh 3:00 pm, 28th April 2004

Although I am not suggesting that my right hon. Friend expounds at length on this narrow point this afternoon, there has been a great increase in recreational woodland. Local authorities and all sorts of private sector people rightly prize it, because people like walking in woodlands. Many people therefore

work in woods, not only those who cut down trees or maintain them, but park keepers and other workers. It is important that a wood that is defined as recreational woodland is dealt with, but I defy anybody here to tell the difference between such woods by looking at them. They include both hardwoods and softwoods. That is an interesting point, but I am not asking my right hon. Friend to go into it now.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am happy to write to my right hon. Friend on that point. I think that parklands—parks in cities—will not be covered, even though they have woods in them, because their purpose is clearly recreational rather than agricultural. He raises an interesting point. We will have to define the interesting points that can be dealt with in the Bill and those that lie outside its scope and will have to be explored elsewhere.

I have covered several points raised by the hon. Members for Boston and Skegness and for St. Ives (Andrew George) in general terms by referring to the drafting being wide in order to narrow down. Now that the Bill has reached a point from which we hope it will be able to make progress, we intend to get on with the drafting of the secondary legislation that will be required and to share that with members of the Committee. That can be done on an informal basis as the Bill proceeds and goes to another place. In our previous discussions, I said that I would share that information with interested Members, primarily those who are members of this Committee as soon as possible. That may assist Members in another place in their consideration of the Bill and help them to be sure of its intentions.

Photo of Mark Simmonds Mark Simmonds Shadow Minister (Education)

To clarify, is the Minister guaranteeing that the regulations will be ready for examine when the Bill is discussed in another place? If not, when will they be ready? Will they be ready by the time that the Bill comes back to the House of Commons for consideration on Report?

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 12:00 pm, 28th April 2004

This is a private Member's Bill, so consideration after a Bill has gone to the other place and returned to the Commons is dangerous territory. It is possible for a piece of legislation that has general support to fall owing to lack of time. That is why we are so keen to get it right from the start. I am saying that we are able to go so far. I explained our intentions in the meetings that we held, and we are responding to comments that have been made. It is an iterative and engaging process. I hope to have at least a draft of the secondary legislation before the Bill goes to another place and to listen to the views of Members on it. I hope that that will be helpful.

Committee suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:20 pm, 28th April 2004

I shall respond in general terms to one or two of the issues of concern, but if members of the Committee wish me to, I shall be happy to go into greater detail outside the Committee, for their convenience. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness said that the Bill should not be a deterrent

to legitimate labour providers. It is important that the Bill be lean in terms of administration but adequately cover licensing and its enforcement. It does not deal with issues outside its scope that are the responsibility of other Departments. Members of the Committee have expressed concerns about the adequacy of enforcement. Again, I appreciate that those concerns go way beyond the licensing system.

We are trying to create an antisocial behaviour order for gangmasters that encourages legitimate activity, makes that easy—fees will be involved, but they should be the minimum needed to do the job properly—and makes it unprofitable to operate outside the legitimate sector. That is why increased penalties for repeat offenders come into the frame. I make the comparison with the antisocial behaviour order because that is fairly simple to obtain but, if it is breached, the walls come tumbling down on the offender. The same is intended here. The focus will be on dealing immediately and quickly with those outside the licensing system, the real villains of the piece, the exploitative people who take part in all sorts of illegal activities—usually, a mixture of several.

Reference was again made to the overlap with other legislation, in particular employment agencies legislation. We considered that issue with some care. We could draw a careful line, so that neither piece of legislation overlapped the other but, as many hon. Members have said, there would be a danger that a gangmaster who wanted to operate without meeting the requirements of the Bill could register under the employment agencies legislation and thereby be exempted from the Bill. That is why we have made it clear that gangmaster activities by anyone, including those who have registered under the 1973 Act, will be caught by the Bill. Again, we want to allow legitimate activities, keeping administration to a minimum and drawing helpful lines, but to avoid the possibility that people will evade the intentions of the legislation because we have gone into too much detail, thereby creating unintended loopholes.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The Minister said earlier that we should avoid unintended loopholes, and that is right, but in his definition of agriculture he may be creating a loophole in relation to flower and bulb growers and packers. The closest we get to a definition that covers that is in new clause 3(3)(e), which refers to

''the use of land for market gardens or nursery grounds.''

I am sure that those who wanted to find a loophole could say that that definition does not apply to large plantations of bulbs and flowers.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the point in the way that he did, and I can reassure him on it. One advantage of using a definition that is used in other legislation is that we know how it applies. I can assure him that the activities that he spoke about are covered in the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire made the point that the Bill applies to all agricultural work, including work in horticultural sector-associated packhouses, where many gangworkers are

employed. The gathering of shellfish has also been covered in the light of the tragic events at Morecambe bay. I can confirm that our intention is to introduce regulations to exclude some downstream processing activities, which partly addresses the point made by the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness. That will cover, for instance, cheese or butter making, bottling milk after pasteurisation, curing meats, smoking fish, making pâtés, canning produce, brewing, making ready meals, soup and sandwiches, to take a specific example that the hon. Gentleman raised.

If we tried to come up with a definition to cover all that, we would end up with complicated legislation, which is why we have gone for the wider definition. It will be helpful to assure the Committee of our intention to draft the secondary legislation and make it available to hon. Members and those in another place. We are clear about what we are doing: keeping the flexibility so that we can close any unintended loopholes quickly, while being specific in our actions and trying to avoid creating new burdens for business and farmers. We are trying to develop a system that is as simple as possible but is effective. In the drafting and definitions, we are trying to ensure that we can do that precisely.

I can also confirm that it will be our intention to exclude processing and packaging undertaken after the process has entered the retail distribution chain. That goes back to the issue of sandwiches. We have to discuss further the use of such regulations, and I am happy to undertake to do that with Committee members and the main stakeholders. We will continue the dialogue that has brought us to this point. At this stage, we do not intend to bring any more work within the scope of the legislation; the power to do that exists on a contingency basis.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire covered most of the points on new clauses 5 and 26. I agree that all workers, whoever they are, are entitled to protection from the exploitative activities of gangmasters. We have a duty to protect vulnerable workers from exploitation. I repeat my offer to provide greater detail on specific points, as I promised to my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh in relation to woodland, should there be issues on which Members want more information.

Photo of Mark Simmonds Mark Simmonds Shadow Minister (Education)

The Minister is making a constructive response to some of the points that other Committee members and I have made. However, he has not addressed my points about gangmasters based abroad or using foreign bases to manipulate or exploit workers in the United Kingdom. I would be grateful if he could either make some general comments now or give a commitment to do so later in writing when he has a chance to consider the detail.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am sorry—the hon. Gentleman is correct. The intention is that gangmasters operating from abroad will come under the legislation. Enforcement will obviously be more difficult in those circumstances, but we do not intend that someone residing outside the UK should be able to escape the Bill's impact. In so far as one can enforce the law on

someone outside the country, the provisions on enforcement, like those on confiscation, will apply. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman, but I am happy to confirm that to him in writing with more detail.

Unless Committee members have any more specific points, I am happy to say that I strongly support the recommended changes.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central 3:30 pm, 28th April 2004

Before I put the question on this clause, I will, in the words of the Clerk, break with parliamentary tradition and tell hon. Members exactly what is going on. We are dealing with this Bill in a slightly different way from most other Bills. The first five clauses will all be debated under clause stand part. No amendments to them will be moved. The new clauses will be dealt with towards the end of proceedings after we have dealt with clause 6.

Question put and negatived.

Clause 1 disagreed to.Clause 2Requirement to hold a licence