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[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:52 am on 21st February 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

I was privileged to be asked by Members from across the parties, and by the industry, together with the then president of the National Farmers Union, Tim Bennett, to appoint the first chairman of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, Paul Whitehouse. He is a remarkable man who provided outstanding leadership in setting up what was, without doubt, the most effective of the enforcement agencies. It was governed by a board that brought together the other enforcement agencies and the totality of the industry.

The track record of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority is remarkable. The Hampton review pointed out that it has been impressive given its size, and indeed it has. Its achievements in raising standards throughout agriculture and fisheries were welcomed by the overwhelming majority of gangmasters, including the Association of Labour Providers. The authority has rightly driven rogues out of the industry, and recovered millions of pounds for the public purse, including by combating tax avoidance.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission was right to say that the Gangmasters Licensing Authority is the most effective of the enforcement agencies. Its approach to raising standards has been positive and underpinned by the unmistakable message that has been sent to rogue gangmasters and disreputable farmers—there are some—that if they break the law, penalties will be rigorously enforced.

If the Gangmasters Licensing Authority was powerful in the past, it is all the more powerful now because of the issues that it is tackling, which include labour and human trafficking. It works in close consultation with agencies that range from the Home Office to the police. Given the reasons why the GLA was set up, its success and the issues that it now tackles, it seems extraordinary that we should need such a debate because of the red tape review. We should start by celebrating the success of a remarkable organisation and ensure that it has continuing resources to do its job. We should not debate scaling back the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, but consider how we can make it yet more effective and extend its powers and scope.

I take the point that such decisions should be evidence-based. If we consider the evidence, however, there is a powerful case for extending the authority of the GLA into the construction industry. Evidence suggests that the same gangmasters found in agriculture and fisheries also operate in construction. Powers, including the ability to impose civil penalties, should make it easier for the GLA to act against disreputable gangmasters and recover moneys for the public purse. That is the debate that we should be having; we should not have to defend the GLA in the way that I am doing, albeit proudly. I therefore hope that the Government will seriously reflect on the red tape review and put beyond doubt any question mark over the future of the GLA.

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North

I suppose that it is right and responsible that we always check red tape. That is being done through the red tape challenge, the red tape review or whatever it is called. However, I am not aware of a single employer, during the time that we were negotiating, raising objections to the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004. Perhaps through my hon. Friend, I can ask the Minister whether there is any evidence of a single employer who has asked for the 2004 Act to be rescinded or for the authority to be merged into some obscure department.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. I remember a meeting in the House during the passage of the Bill that he addressed. I chaired the meeting. Sitting to my left was Gillian Shephard. Sitting to my right was the president of the National Farmers Union. Sitting to his right were two senior chief executives of two of the major supermarkets. Sitting to Gillian Shephard’s left were two gangmasters. It was a remarkable meeting. All of them were saying the same thing—the time had come to tackle what was a jungle, characterised by serious exploitation, because it shamed our society, and together we were determined to act to end that modern-day slavery.

The debate should be about considering how we make an outstanding organisation yet more effective, tackling exploitation wherever there is evidence of it, including in other sectors, and following the evidence into those sectors—the case in relation to construction is particularly powerful.

I will conclude by saying—this is not aimed at the Minister here today—that I have sometimes been involved in debates with Ministers who, when the word “regulation” is mentioned, hold up a clove of garlic in one hand and a cross in the other. Unashamedly, this debate is about regulation, but this regulation is right. It is effective. It tackles extreme exploitation. Ultimately, the debate is about what kind of society we want to live in. If what happened at Morecambe bay shamed Britain, there should be an utter determination to say, “Never, ever again.”

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton

I intend to start the winding-up speeches at 12.10 pm

Photo of David Hamilton David Hamilton Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons) 12:02 pm, 21st February 2012

I will not take up much time, Mr Dobbin. I did not intend to speak, because the previous contributions were so good, but I would like to make one or two points. We all come to the House with our own experiences from the lives that we led before becoming Members of Parliament. That is one of the characteristics that is strong in Parliament. I came here with nearly 20 years’ experience as a coal miner. The comparisons between the mining industry and the construction industry are stark. They are very similar, in that the numbers of deaths and injuries in each are extremely high. Like my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) and for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan), who spoke before me, I do not lean away from regulation. Regulation saves lives in many areas, and the construction industry is one of the areas that I believe is very important.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend Ian Murray, who initiated the debate, that the GLA should follow the evidence that comes forward. I will just make one or two observations. When I was unable to get my private Member’s Bill through—technically, it is still there, but I think that I am about 120th or so in the list—among the examples that I intended to raise was Pure Recruitment Solutions, based in Glasgow. Its licence was revoked in 2008. However, the company still operates and provides labour to a number of sectors, one of which is construction. The same is true of Prestige Recruitment Ltd. Its licence was revoked in 2007, but it still operates in a number of sectors, including construction. It is also true of Victor Wolf Ltd, which lost its licence in January of last year, and of ASAP Recruitment, which lost its licence the year before. It still works in various sectors, but not in agriculture.

The fact is that we close companies down in one sector and they re-establish themselves in another. I refer to construction unashamedly, because I strongly believe that the number of deaths and serious accidents in the construction industry can be reduced if regulation is applied. The regulation is supported by the representatives of the workers and by the honest employers in the construction industry. I meet them regularly, as other hon. Members must. People can go round the businesses in my area, where the building sites and so on are. Subcontractors are, by nature, local firms. However, in many cases, the subcontractors are being squeezed out of the market simply because labour is being brought in from other places. Bed and breakfast is included for those workers; their board and so on is included.

I remember my father telling me about the situation in the mining village of Newtongrange. Images of it can be seen in the Scottish mining museum. I am talking about a time just before the second world war. A person called Mungo Mackay owned all the houses in Newtongrange. He was also the coal owner. He gave the miners a rise and then put the price of bread up in the shops and put the rent up. It was a case of giving with one hand and taking away with the other.

The people who are being exploited today are the foreign workers who come in, but the situation is also completely unfair to local employers. It is about time that we recognised that if we want to make progress in this country and create an environment that is worth working in, we must ensure that the honest employers are protected and protect the workers at the same time.

I wanted to make one or two points, because the 2004 Act is under threat. We should be looking at extending the Act, not reducing it. We should be ensuring that we protect British workers. Disasters happen because of a sequence of events. I fear that one of these days there will be a disaster in the construction industry and then people will be concerned. I was part of the Bill that went through Parliament; my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North allowed my name to go down. I question whether the Bill would have been able to go through if the disaster in Morecambe bay had not happened. The reason why it received support across the board was the disaster that happened at that time. If it had not happened, there might have been difficulties in getting the Bill through. I do not want the same to happen in the construction industry. There are deaths and serious accidents in the construction industry on a regular basis. The numbers will grow if employers are unregulated. They will exploit that avenue. We should not be allowing that to happen.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Liberal Democrat, Southport

In the run-up to the Olympics in Athens, many lives were lost on the building sites. In the run-up to the Olympics in London, no such event or no event of such a size has taken place. Does that not help the argument that regulation on British building rates is at any rate better, if not good enough?

Photo of David Hamilton David Hamilton Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

There were a number of reasons for that. I can give the example of the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland—admittedly, that is not the best subject in the world to be talking about at present. Only one accident happened there, and the reason why only one accident happened was that at the beginning the contractor who got the contract sat down with the work force and the trade union movement and agreed with all the subcontractors a strategy whereby accidents were unacceptable. The problem is that very few employers of that magnitude take that view. That employer did it, and better than that, it was able to prove that the contract came in under budget and under time.

Let me contrast that with the Scottish Parliament. The Bovis company was running things at the Scottish Parliament. If someone walked on to the Scottish Parliament building site, they would hardly find an English-speaking worker, yet the signs were all in English. They had to go to serious classes and there were a number of accidents at the Scottish Parliament.

There are good employers and there are bad employers. I do not criticise all employers. However, if we un-regulate or do not regulate and employers recognise that there is a gap, they will go to that gap.

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North

We have been exceptionally lucky not to have had a Morecambe bay disaster on the Olympic site, but we cannot forget the fact that the number of deaths in the construction industry is rising. We must keep that at the forefront of our minds.

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton

Mr Hamilton has one minute left.

Photo of David Hamilton David Hamilton Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

I will just add this, Mr Dobbin. The other side of the coin is that every serious accident is one step away from a death. It should be recognised that the number of deaths could increase quite dramatically. I am an ex-miner. I recognise that disasters happen because of a sequence of events. I do not want such a sequence of events to happen in the construction industry, and one way of ensuring that it does not is by telling bad employers, “You’re not welcome.”

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 12:09 pm, 21st February 2012

I am pleased to speak in this timely debate. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to it, and I particularly thank my hon. Friend Ian Murray for introducing it. The red tape review is going on, and the Minister will have taken note of the passion and expertise among Opposition Members, who have spoken strongly of the support across parties and across civic society for the introduction of the original legislation, and I am sure that that support remains. He will have taken note of the genuine ambition that he should ensure that there is no diminution, weakening or dilution of the GLA as currently structured, and that, as my hon. Friend Jack Dromey said, the licensing regime’s proactive enforcement is not watered down.

We have had a good debate about where we go from here. That has been the nature of the debate; we are not trying to find the be-all and end-all solution. I hope officials and the Minister, in carrying out his departmental responsibilities and in his wider discussions across Whitehall, will take some of our messages away with them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South made an all-encompassing and powerful contribution. He put the case exceptionally well, and I will come back in a moment to some of his points. My hon. Friend John McDonnell referred to his role as chair of the PCS union group; I have previously engaged with him in that role. I commend him on his work, and on the constructive way in which he has always represented the interests of PCS union members. As my hon. Friend has shown, they can make a contribution to ensuring that we have better workplaces and better ways of working.

My hon. Friend referred to the criteria by which we could judge whether the GLA should move into other sectors. That is the sort of issue we need to debate. Under what circumstances, and judged against what criteria, could we say that the GLA’s great success, testified to today, could be replicated in other areas into which the evidence leads it?

My hon. Friend referred to the fact that licensing and enforcement powers are critical, wherever they are located in government. There is an active debate about what the most appropriate place is—concerns have been raised about whether the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills would be the right place—and whether the GLA’s core values would be best preserved in a Department that is simultaneously trying to drive down regulation.

The point was well made in the debate that there is good regulation as well as bad regulation. The great benefit of the way the GLA has been constructed and the way it has acted over the past few years is that it does the right thing in the right place at the right time. If hon. Members will excuse the comparison, it punches like a good Welsh bantam-weight—well above its weight. It has relatively few resources, it is very fleet of foot and it really packs a clout.

Tribute has rightly been paid to my hon. Friend Jim Sheridan for introducing the original private Member’s Bill, and for the work that he and others did to build tremendous consensus, which is sustained today. He referred to the necessity of proactive enforcement, and that is key. He put the case very well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington, has a great background in this issue, not as a Member of Parliament, but as part of the wider civic engagement through the trade union movement. He reminded us that behind all the debates about where the GLA goes is the human tragedy that inspired it, and that necessitates its continuation in a dynamic, proactive form. He talked about support extending from plough to plate, across all parties and across society. He also said that we can look at using the model we have to end the scourge of modern slavery, which still exists.

The GLA, which was established in 2004, was designed to do a number of things. One was to establish a level playing field across industry, so that we could avoid undercutting and take out rogue operators. It was about improving the working lives of the vulnerable, and its success in doing that has been proved. It was also about assisting in the battle against criminality and human trafficking.

It is important to set out the GLA’s successes, and we heard earlier about its measurable, tangible successes. The annual report for 2010-11 showed that 845 cases of worker exploitation were identified in that year. Some 91%—that is, 78 cases—of the GLA’s intelligence-driven operations identified serious cases of non-compliance. Thirty-six cases of unlicensed activity were uncovered, and 33 licences were revoked, with 12 successful prosecutions. The case for the GLA continuing its work is therefore still crystal clear; abuses are still happening. Even with the GLA’s dynamic, fleet-of-foot approach and proactive enforcement, there are still cases out there to be pursued and prosecuted.

The GLA has had a significant wider impact because of its deliberate efforts to go after high-profile cases with a high media impact to get the message out to rogue employers that they cannot continue doing what they are doing. That has been very successful.

There has been continuing support for the GLA. When surveyed in 2008, eight out of 10 respondents said they were in favour of licensing, while seven out of 10 felt the GLA was doing a good job. Only 18% described contact with the GLA as being in any way burdensome.

In that respect, does the Minister have a view about the GLA’s role on forestry? There has been great discussion with forestry employers and unions about whether forestry needs to be retained in the remit of the GLA as currently structured. Some have put forward the view that certification means it is very difficult to find unregulated, rogue operators in the forestry regime. Does the Minister think there might not be a case for forestry remaining in the current structure? I would be interested to hear his views on the issue, and particularly what discussions he has had on it with the unions.

Let me turn to the question of whether the GLA is efficient as well as effective. There is no doubt that it is effective. As to whether it is efficient, the organisations using the GLA as an example of how to implement an efficient regulatory control framework include not only the TUC, but the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, with its research reports, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, Oxfam, the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation, the International Labour Organisation, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Dutch national rapporteur on trafficking and the Harvard university programme. One after the other, they line up to say that the GLA is not only effective, but efficient. It does what it does leanly and with minimal resources. If it works so well, my question to the Minister is: why would the Government tinker with it without a darn good reason?

That is before we look at the issue of where the GLA should go now. In one sense, the debate is about the future of the GLA as currently formed and in the sectors it currently looks after. In another sense, it is about where the GLA goes from here. As we have heard from hon. Members, the TUC and others believe that there is a strong case for extending the GLA licensing scheme, and the Select Committee on Home Affairs said the same in its report on the issue.

Baroness Kennedy’s report for the Equality and Human Rights Commission commented:

“Another problem is that the remit of the GLA is currently confined to the oversight of labour in the food and agricultural sectors, while exploited foreign labour may now be found in the service and construction industries as well as in care homes. In our evidence-gathering it became clear to us that there seemed to be no good reason for the vital work of the GLA not being expanded to include these other sectors and to cover other forms of contract employment and outsourced work, and that employers who used such labour should hold some responsibility for wages and conditions.”

There have been other reports, such as Oxfam’s “Turning the Tide: How to best protect workers employed by gangmasters, five years after Morecambe Bay”. We have also had the TUC’s commission on vulnerable employees and the Health and Safety Executive’s report on deaths in construction, “One Death is too Many”. They all proposed that the scope of the sectors covered by the GLA should be under consideration for extension.

Finally, I recommend that the Minister reads, if he has not done so, the report by the TUC and the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, “The Hidden Workforce Building Britain”. One of the many examples in it concerns a UCATT investigation in July 2008, which showed that on a private finance initiative hospital site in Mansfield, workers were being paid a total of £8.80 for a complete 40-hour week. The union took the case to the employment tribunal. It was contested. The company is a large one, by the way, which carries out many large public sector contracts throughout the UK. It, of course, insisted that the workers were self-employed and did not come under the national minimum wage regulations. On and on it went. The GLA would be effective for that sort of anomaly.

The debate is a genuine one. We want the GLA to be safe in its current form, not weakened; and we want to ask what consideration is being given in government and Whitehall to extending its remit, and how that would happen. Where would that remit go, and is anything happening at the moment? There is strong support for the Minister to take the matter forward proactively, rather than simply putting it under the banner of the red tape review so that the GLA becomes diminished without our even considering its success and whether it should be taken further.

Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 12:21 pm, 21st February 2012

I start by paying tribute to Ian Murray for raising this important matter. I am desperate not to sound patronising; it is in the finest tradition of this House, when the Government are considering a way forward, for the Opposition—rightly—to push their view and to push the Government in the direction they want.

It has been a useful debate and a very good one, showing the passion that surrounds the issue, and reminding us that the Gangmasters Licensing Authority was created at the time of an appalling tragedy, which we must never forget. We narrowly avoided a repeat this year in the Ribble estuary when there was a bonanza—a sort of Klondike operation—for cockle-picking. Interestingly, as my hon. Friend John Pugh said, the GLA worked well in those circumstances with the local authority, the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority, the police and the Marine and Coastguard Agency to close down that activity. I deeply regret that the fishery had to be closed, but it was necessary because of the activities of certain people; in many cases it was individuals who were involved, but there was also some evidence of illegality. That is an example of the GLA working well with other agencies.

I am pleased to have a debate today about the future of the GLA. It is a body that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs sponsors because its remit is focused on agriculture and food processing. As has been mentioned, normally the Minister of State would have responded. However, today is a significant one in the farming calendar and he is attending the National Farmers Union annual conference in Birmingham. So, too, is the Secretary of State, who made a keynote speech at the conference this morning. In that speech she announced the publication of our response to the farm regulation taskforce.

As hon. Members would expect, the taskforce, which was chaired by Richard Macdonald, had a very informed view about the work of the authority and made recommendations on how the GLA might be improved. The GLA is also subject to continuing Government reviews, including one on workplace rights compliance and enforcement, and the red tape challenge, which have been mentioned by hon. Members. The review process is under way and the views that have been expressed today, very eloquently, will be considered as part of that. We have already announced, and confirmed in our response to the farm regulation taskforce, that we endorse the need for the GLA to enforce protection for vulnerable workers in the relevant sector—those who are least able to take action on their own account. I hope that that offers some reassurance to hon. Members.

I want to take up some of the points that were made, and I have already alluded to cross-agency working; we must not think that the GLA operates in a bubble. It is vital, particularly when it works in areas of high criminality and large amounts of money—where there can be criminality through the supply chain—that it should work with other agencies. That holistic approach is important. Ian Lucas talked in an intervention about health and safety legislation and I would link that with the point made by Jack Dromey about regulation and where the Government sit on those two matters. I assure him and other hon. Members that there is no clove or garlic or cross in my hand. We are not talking about no regulation, or less regulation per se; we are talking about better regulation. We are not talking about ending health and safety legislation through any Government review or challenge. What we want is regulation that is better, more fleet of foot and less cumbersome, but also effective. We want to provide that for employers, who will hopefully, in the future, employ people who are currently unemployed; and we want it to be part of the rights of workers, wherever they come from.

We will continue to look at what more the GLA needs to do to tackle non-compliant high-risk operators while also reducing unnecessary burdens on those who are compliant. Those are complementary and mutually reinforcing goals, which we are keen to bring about. We are actively looking at what needs to be done to ensure that they happen. We are not—with respect to the GLA and employment law more widely—removing essential protections for vulnerable workers. What we are doing is about ensuring that there is a legislative framework that safeguards workers’ rights while reducing onerous and unnecessary demands on business. I hope that hon. Members understand that. That is surely an objective we all can, and should, share.

It is also important that the GLA should continue to be supported by industry, including by retailers who work with the authority because they want to maximise assurance about the proper working of the supply chain. I entirely take the point that was raised by hon. Members about good farmers, employers and businesses being disadvantaged by those who act illegally. It is important that we understand that. The GLA should also be supported by labour providers and other employers, who need to be able to operate on a level playing field, where good employers are not undercut by those who seek to gain a competitive advantage by flouting the law and taking advantage of their workers.

I am happy to recognise that the GLA is widely regarded in many circles as having brought about significant improvements to the treatment of the most vulnerable workers in the areas it regulates. I join John McDonnell in paying tribute to the staff of the GLA, and to those who were at its birth and campaigned for it. Often the workers about whom we are concerned share a number of common factors: they have no fixed place of work; they are located in rural and less accessible settings; they are undocumented and often unsupervised labour; they are low-skilled migrant workers with little or no working knowledge of English, and accommodation or transport is provided as part of their employment. However, the GLA’s experience of operating under the terms of the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 suggests that there is room for a number of improvements. It is clear, for example, that there are areas that it covers that are dominated not by the presence of vulnerable workers who are at risk, but by skilled workers who are articulate and more than capable of enforcing their own employment rights.

Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am conscious of the time, and I want to get on to the point about the construction industry, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

The issue I have just outlined is one of those that we want to look at in more detail as part of the ongoing red tape challenge process. We want to come forward with proposals on it in due course. Building on the successes it has already had in improving its operations, the GLA is running its own pilot project in the forestry sector, designed to apply a light-touch enforcement approach. To answer the point made by Huw Irranca-Davies, the forestry regulation taskforce will report shortly, and make some recommendations, which will no doubt be of great interest to him.

There was some talk in the debate about the construction industry, which is obviously not an area covered by my Department. However, the industry has made significant improvements in the past 10 years in the number of serious accidents and fatalities. I cannot say that about agriculture, which is the industry I come from. I am not proud of that. I am happy to debate the issue when we have more time, but the Government are considering the issue of enforcement as a whole, across Government. No doubt the statistics will be part of that. We are not talking just about safety in the sense of health and the number of fatalities in an industry, but about exploitation, which is more complex and requires a more nuanced approach. There is a lack of hard evidence about employment abuses in construction. It does not feature in the Low Pay Commission’s top 12 low pay sectors. According to data from the annual survey of hours and earnings, only 0.7% of construction workers were paid at the national minimum wage rate in April 2009. Pay is sometimes below union-negotiated rates but above the minimum and not illegal. The issue then is not about extending the scope of the GLA—