HC Deb 21 May 1997 vol 294 cc677-83 12.59 pm
Sir Richard Body (Boston and Skegness)

I congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your election. I shall try not to trespass on your patience too often. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) on his appointment to a Department with which I have had a love-hate relationship for many years. I hope that he will enjoy his time there and play an active part in reforming the common agricultural policy.

A large proportion of our vegetables is produced in south Lincolnshire. As it is a seasonal industry, there is an obvious need for casual labour on a considerable scale. Many thousands of men and women are engaged in harvesting the vegetables and, increasingly, in processing them in factories. To give the Minister an idea of the scale, one factory requires more than 2,000 men and women to work on a casual basis most days of the year.

Obviously it is necessary to organise many thousands of people into the various farms and factories where they are required. That is the role of the gangmaster, who enters into an agreement with the farmer or factory manager to organise a certain number of people for a certain number of days. The gangmaster receives a lump sum and it is up to him or her to pay the gangers what he or she thinks fit.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the system. It worked very well for a long time, until unemployment took off and more than 1 million people in south Lincolnshire became available for casual work. They come from as far afield as Sheffield, Doncaster, Grimsby, Mansfield and even Birmingham. The people who recruit them are different from those who previously undertook such work. According to the Department for Education and Employment, there are now about 800 gangmasters, who fall into two categories. The first comprises those whose names, addresses and telephone numbers can be found in the Yellow Pages or the telephone directory. They can be easily identified by Government Departments and, generally speaking, they engage local people. They often employ their friends, relations and neighbours. They depend on having a good reputation, and over the years they have tried to do an honest job. If they were not honest to their friends and neighbours, they would not have gangs. However, their position has become almost untenable because of the other category of gangmasters who are in the vast majority—there are only about 50 or 60 in the Yellow Pages—many of whom have criminal records and continue to commit acts of dishonesty and violence.

There is such fear among the gangers that it is impossible for me to recount the experience of any ganger. One honest gangmaster who provided me with information was warned not to speak to me again. He was told that, if he did, he would be punished. He ignored that threat and gave me more evidence about the criminal activities of the other gangmasters. Having done that, he was punished. The other gangmasters took a puppy that he had recently acquired for his family and cut off its paws. Needless to say, he has given me no more information. Indeed, none of the honest gangmasters is willing to be forthcoming about the activities of the others.

We are dealing with people who have a disdain for the law of our country and do not hesitate to use some pretty bad methods of recruiting gangers and to treat them badly. I shall not go into detail about what goes on in the fields and the factories, but there are many cruel and obscene practices that cannot be justified.

This state of affairs has continued since unemployment rose, making it possible for disreputable gangmasters to recruit men and women who have been on social security and are willing to come to Lincolnshire, often making a long journey in transport provided by the gangmasters. Many of them get up at 4 o'clock in the morning to earn a miserable rate of pay.

The result is unfair competition. Wages are almost the only variable cost in producing and processing vegetables. Farms and factories that can reduce their wage costs can hold down their prices. As the Minister knows only too well, about five major supermarket chains are competing with each other and trying to keep down prices, with the result that at the end of the chain gangers are working at a derisory rate of pay.

The position has become worse in the past 12 months. Not only are gangmasters recruiting people who are on social security, but they have agents in eastern Europe—in Poland, the Ukraine and even Russia—who are bringing illegal immigrants to Britain. I cannot say how many there are, but it is certainly an appreciable number. Those people are told that, if they come to England, they can earn as much in one day as they get in one week in their own country, and that is true.

A number of evils are being committed. Apart from illegal immigration, there is massive social security fraud. One cannot quantify the millions of pounds that have been lost, but one sub-postmaster in my constituency has calculated that, even in his area, it must cost the system about £500,000 a year. Fraud is being perpetrated on the Inland Revenue and on Customs and Excise, but, above all, there has been a great depressing effect on wage rates in my constituency. It means that men and women in my constituency are better off on social security than doing a reasonable job. Only their self-respect enables people to continue working in appalling conditions as gangers on the farms and in the factories.

I feel sure that the Minister will be persuaded that action must be taken. The previous Government took a number of steps, none of which has succeeded. In the past, gangmasters were licensed, but licensing came to an end when there was full employment. There was no need for any control over gangmasters as, on the whole, the system worked successfully. However, the position has now completely changed and I can think of no solution other than a return to licensing.

The Minister may know that I introduced a Bill for the licensing of gangmasters. Up to now, I have not revealed that it was drafted for me by an official of the Transport and General Workers Union; I therefore hope that the Bill will be treated more sympathetically if I reintroduce it. If the Government cannot support such a measure, I urge them to think of taking some steps to overcome the evil to which I have referred. The previous Government tried; they took a number of steps, but they all failed. I urge the Minister to reconsider licensing.

1.9 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker)

I should first associate myself with the comments of my colleagues on the Treasury Bench and other hon. Members in congratulating you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your appointment as the First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. Having served under you in Committee, I know that you will serve the House in your onerous task with distinction. We understand the great sacrifice that you, as a Member of Parliament, have made in order to fill the post that must be filled. We are therefore doubly grateful to you and your colleagues in the Chair for taking on such an awesome responsibility.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body) on taking this early opportunity to raise an issue that over the years I have been an hon. Member—not as many years as him—he has raised many times. I have occasionally been present when he has raised the issue during Question Time as well as in a ten-minute Bill. Since I knew that he had obtained this debate, I took the opportunity over the past 24 hours to check in Hansard the written questions that he has tabled on the matter. He comes to the issue with a long and dedicated experience of concern for his constituents.

I hope that the issue is not partisan in any way. It is one of fairness and of justice for our citizens who work in the agricultural and farming industry. I share the concerns expressed. If unscrupulous people are at work—the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness painted a very sorry tale of the production of food in Britain—they must be rooted out, and rooted out vigorously.

As the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness rightly said, agriculture and horticulture depend on a large number of casual or seasonal workers. Many years ago—longer than I care to remember—I did a couple of weeks of fruit picking up in Scotland. I understand the concerns and why the job is highly seasonal. I understand that, during some weeks, up to 14,000 people a day are employed on a casual basis to pick food. The task obviously needs to be done that way.

As the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness also rightly said, it is astonishing to learn—I have seen some of the newspaper advertisements—that, due to high levels of mass unemployment, especially in urban areas, which has gone on for a decade or more, people have been bussed into the Lincolnshire fields from as far afield as my own city of Birmingham. I shall return to that matter.

The organisation of employees by gangmasters is not, as the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness said, inherently bad. Gangmasters must—we will ensure that they do—operate within the law. The law must be enforced without exception. There is therefore a need to look at the legal framework. I shall spend a few minutes detailing some aspects of it, before I turn to more positive remarks.

A range of legislation regulates the employment of workers by gangmasters. All agricultural workers must be paid the appropriate minimum wage. Agricultural work is the only area in which there is a statutory minimum wage for each hour of work.

Ms Gillian Merron (Lincoln)

Does my hon. Friend agree that many of the problems associated with pay, to which the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body) referred, would be alleviated by the introduction of a national minimum wage, especially since in my constituency and throughout Lincolnshire workers earn on average £40 a week less than is earned by the average British worker?

Mr. Rooker

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her election to the House. I campaigned for a national minimum wage when we last had a Labour Government, so I understand the difficulties and the need for it. Agriculture and horticulture is the one area with a statutory national minimum wage regulated by law and approved by the House, yet the law can be flouted in the extreme, as my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness have highlighted.

The national minimum wage in agriculture applies regardless of whether people are employed directly by a farmer, a gangmaster or a contractor. It applies to everyone who works on the farm, including those undertaking packhouse activities for crops grown on that farm. Provisions for people working away from the farm are slightly different. People on piece-work are sometimes told by gangmasters that the minimum wage does not apply to them. They are lying; the minimum wage does apply to such workers and they must not be paid less than the overall minimum required for the hours that they work.

Enforcement of minimum wage legislation is, of course, conducted through the criminal courts. One of the snags, however, is that we as enforcers have only six months after the event to take effective action in court. That presents a serious practical problem. I shall highlight one example of that.

As Channel 4's recent programme "A Bitter Harvest" highlighted—I have not seen the programme, but I have read the transcript and reports—someone may spend months researching a matter. Months therefore elapse before all the activities are recorded, produced and shown on television. That can cause problems for the regulators in rooting out perpetrators of events shown on our television screens. My officials are considering all aspects of that programme and enforcers across the Departments are considering whether any action can be taken as a result of the events highlighted in the film. We may be caught by the fact that the events took place more than six months ago. I do not deny that difficulty.

Other problems in enforcement relate to lack of records of hours worked or payment received. Workers are sometimes unwilling to be witnesses. Given that good gangmasters cease to be witnesses due to threats of intimidation from thugs and spivs, we should consider how workers feel when they want to complain. It is absolutely impossible for them to do so for fear of intimidation.

Gangmasters are subject to other legal provisions. Gangmasters supplying workers to work under the direction of farmers are subject to the Employment Agencies Act 1973, and the penalties for infringement are harsh. The Department of Trade and Industry must follow up complaints. In the worst cases, offenders may have to cease operations as an employment agency or business for up to 10 years.

Gangmasters are also expected to comply with relevant tax and national insurance legislation. I know that my colleagues in the Department of Social Security will be looking at that. The agricultural compliance unit in the Inland Revenue was set up to ensure that taxes and national insurance are collected. That is one angle of enforcement. There are also provisions to prevent the harbouring and use of illegal immigrants. Enforcement can lead to the deportation of illegal workers or the imprisonment of operators. I would certainly support the latter as the first priority. It is the one way of stamping out that activity.

The use of illegal immigrants presents all kinds of opportunities for the exploitation of workers because of lack of knowledge of the English language and a fear of complaining. Such workers can be kept in appalling accommodation. Indeed, as we have seen recently, casuals employed by gangmasters can, over several weeks, end up owing gangmasters money, because gangmasters charge for transport and, perhaps, accommodation. We, in 1997, almost have tied labour in this country, since the longer such workers work, the more they owe the employer. That is outrageous and we must take every possible step to rule it out.

There are proper arrangements for seasonal workers under the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which of course allows foreign workers into the United Kingdom to undertake agricultural work. Such practice is quite normal. Up to 10,000 young foreign, non-European economic area workers may come into the UK to undertake work for up to six months between May and November—the key season of the year.

A single operator may at the same time commit offences against each of the several disparate legal requirements. Such requirements are regulated by more than one Department, and there are therefore difficulties. There have clearly been difficulties in the past, which I hope my colleagues and I can eliminate in future.

The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness highlighted the fact that abuse of the law can be tempting to people who are in receipt of social security benefit. They can go into work that is not subsequently declared. Pressure of mass unemployment in urban areas has caused that. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that, if the abuse occurs widely—which it does in his experience in Lincolnshire—the effect on the local rural economy and on the level of wages for the indigenous population is catastrophic. That has a knock-on effect and leads to rural deprivation on a grand scale. I represent an urban area, but I understand that our rural areas are not like the pictures on the front of chocolate boxes. In 1990, I made a speech from the Opposition Back Benches about rural deprivation. I understand that the problem can be as serious as in the inner cities; however, because it is more disparate and diffused, it is not highlighted in the same way.

Sir Richard Body

On the subject of enforcement, and given that more than 700 cowboy gangmasters operate in urban areas and elsewhere, how can the Government identify and monitor them? They are fly-by-night characters who act as gangmasters for a couple of months, make a lot of money and disappear on holiday or to prison.

Mr. Rooker

The hon. Gentleman is right and the Government must address the issue. Local task forces of enforcement agencies are set up to tackle the problems. They can involve the police, together with enforcement officers from the immigration and nationality directorate, the Department for Education and Employment, the Department of Social Security and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The focus must be to catch the operators, and we need to consider what more can be done.

All the produce ends up on the shelves of our shops and supermarkets, so the food sector has a responsibility. The great supermarket chains are sensitive to bad publicity when they are accused of exploiting workers in the third world. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness has described third-world conditions for the people who work on the land and the local population in Lincolnshire. Those who buy from the farmers have a responsibility to ensure that farmers use good gangmasters and not spiv gangmasters. I will ensure that the food industry addresses that issue.

Sir Richard Body

It has failed so far.

Mr. Rooker

Yes, but we have a new broom and a fresh mandate. Our instincts are different and we want to solve the problem. The British Retail Consortium has approached the National Farmers Union about the introduction of a code of practice to control the activities of gangmasters. I am in favour of codes of practice, but I will review every code of practice issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to ensure that they do not undermine the regulations approved by the House. Codes of practice can be of benefit, but they can be used to avoid enforcement.

The NFU issues guidance already to farmers on the employment of casual labour. Not every farmer is a member of the NFU, and we must try to reach those non-members too. The NFU has also set up a working party that is addressing the issue of gangmasters more directly. It will propose a code of practice and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will comment on that.

There are many anecdotes about abuse of the system. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness has given hard evidence of such abuse, but it is always difficult to provide that hard evidence in a court of law. Legislation is available to deal with the problem, but the question is whether it is being used. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the issue in the early days of this Parliament. The problems caused by some gangmasters have long been known, but the nature of gangmasters has changed. We must examine whether the existing legislation covers the new type of gangmaster.

As a first step, I will consider the existing laws and whether they meet the current situation. I will ensure that they are enforced in as concerted a manner as possible. Voluntary codes of practice may have a role to play. The issue reached my desk only in the past 24 hours, but I will also inquire why the old gangmaster licensing system was abandoned in 1951. People then had prospects of full employment and nobody envisaged people being bussed from Birmingham, Manchester and Wolverhampton to the fields of Lincolnshire. The problem of the exploitation of illegal immigrants and people from eastern Europe was also non-existent. Harvesting was a family and community affair to get food into our shops.

I will give the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness a commitment that I will discuss the matter further with my ministerial colleagues in the Home Office, the Department for Education and Employment, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Social Security and the Inland Revenue. When I have concluded those discussions, and—I hope—found a way forward, I will be in touch with the hon. Gentleman. I am grateful to him for requesting this debate.