On amendment 68, I welcome the observations the Minister made in his latter comments. The Bill creates an unreasonable anomaly between the caveats it provides for employers and the absence of any for employees. As I understand it, under clause 9, employers are only guilty of the offence of employing an illegal worker if they do so “knowing” or
“having reasonable cause to believe” that the person is an illegal worker.
We are saying to employers that there is a test of reasonableness before they are criminalised for the act of wrongful employment. The problem with clause 8 is that there is no such test of reasonableness. With the amendment, we seek to bring some equivalence between the way we approach employers and the way we approach employees by enabling them to be able to demonstrate “reasonable excuse” for the predicament in which they find themselves. Although I have reservations about the entire clause, were the Government successful in retaining it, I hope they would look generously on the amendment, which could provide that equivalence.
I have concerns about clause 8 more generally, as it criminalises the act of illegal working. I take the point made by my hon. and learned Friend the shadow Minister that we might disagree on this matter across the House. However, I do not think we need to. A number of us have said that we are at one on the objectives of the Bill, as we were with the Modern Slavery Act. In seeking to ensure that clause 8 does not stand part of the Bill, we are at one with the Government’s policy objectives of achieving effective labour market enforcement and, indeed, of combating modern slavery. Less than two years ago, in November 2013, the Home Secretary made combating modern slavery a priority. I do not have the experience that Conservative Members and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham have of serving on that Bill Committee but I commend those who were involved on that legislation, just as I commend the Home Secretary on the priority that she placed on combating modern slavery. That aim won wide support, found expression in the Modern Slavery Act, and took us in the right direction. The problem with clause 8 of this Bill is that it risks undoing some of the good of the Modern Slavery Act.
I am sure that the Government do not intend to undermine their own legislation so soon after it has become law so I hope that the Minister will give serious regard to the points that we are raising in suggesting that clause 8 should not stand part of the Bill. I hope he recognises that if it does, slavery is more likely to thrive. I notice that he is shaking his head and I look forward to his response.
I put this to the Minister: what do we know? What is all the evidence clear about? I am happy for him to intervene if he disagrees, but all the evidence is clear on one thing. The more vulnerable workers are, the stronger the hand of the gangmasters or the unscrupulous employers who seek to exploit them. I am sure that the Minister agrees, as I notice he does not wish to intervene. Vulnerability plays into the hands of those who seek to exploit, such as unscrupulous employers. The more vulnerable workers feel, the less likely they are to come forward to report their abusers. Clause 8 increases that vulnerability and strengthens the hands of the gangmasters. I note that the Minister is again shaking his head. I would be happy for him to intervene if he can provide any evidence to suggest that that is not the case. When we took evidence from witnesses, we heard from many experts who said that this was the case; none said that it was not.
The clause, by threatening exploited workers with 12 months in prison if they are deemed to have committed the offence of illegal working, gives another crucial card to the suit of cards that gangmasters can play. It does not only affect those who have committed the offence of illegal working; it changes the psychology and relationship even between the employer and the employees who have not committed an offence. According to the National Crime Agency, in cases that it has taken up, 78% of those who have been exploited for their labour in the UK actually have the right to work here as EEA nationals. Rights awareness among those workers is low and their options are limited, which allows unscrupulous employers to hold the threat of removal over them.