HL Deb 18 May 1994 vol 555 cc242-5

2.50 p.m.

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many domestic workers admitted to the United Kingdom under the 1980 Home Office concession have to their knowledge suffered abuse, exploitation and quasi-slavery at the hands of their employers.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers):

My Lords, I am afraid that the information is not available.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I am bound to be disappointed by that reply. Is the noble Earl aware that during the past four years at least 1,000 cases of abuse have been known to voluntary bodies in London alone? When will the Government bring in safeguards for those domestic workers so that they receive adequate food, their wages are paid and they have reasonable employment conditions?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it is quite clear that if there are cases of abuse, that is much to be regretted. But anyone who comes to this country has the protection of the law of this country. If employees find that their employers are misbehaving, they can go to the police or to a citizens advice bureau. We shall certainly keep under review the arrangements for the admission of those people.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that many of the victims of this kind of abuse speak little English and do not know how to make complaints to the agencies which he mentioned? Is he not aware from his experience at the Home Office that there is an enormous amount of anecdotal evidence of widespread abuse by employers after resident domestics have been brought into the country under the concession? In view of that evidence, is it not time for a review of an exemption of a particular category of worker from the controls which apply to every other kind of worker in this country?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, people who come to this country under those special arrangements must have been in the employ of the employer for either six months or 12 months before they arrive. The noble Lord says that they do not speak English. But I remind him that when the domestic workers apply for entry clearance they are given a leaflet explaining where to go for help and advice. They are interviewed separately from their employer in a language which they can understand and in which they are told what their rights are. That is the position. We have gone a long way towards ensuring that people know what they are in for when they come to the United Kingdom. I assure the noble Lord that they come here only when they are already in the employ of people whom they know.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, that reply makes me wonder why we cannot have an answer to the first Question. All these people are interviewed on arrival or afterwards. You would think if somebody was found in the street it would be associated with the accent. When we debated this matter in November 1990. we were told that there were about 3,000 such people. At that time the noble Lord, Lord Reay, said that it was not possible to check the figure. I do not know whether it has been checked, but it should be. It is time that we had a few facts, because the allegations are extremely disagreeable.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the Question asked whether we have any information about people who have: suffered abuse, exploitation and quasi-slavery". We do not have that information in relation to domestic servants, any more than we have it in relation to turf accountants, ironmongers, dog handlers or anyone else. Statistics are not kept in that form.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a great deal of employment in the domestic field entirely apart from the people about whom he has spoken? People come to this country without a work permit and they work in the domestic field on the black economy. Following the earlier Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, would it not be marvellous if employment in the domestic field were treated like any other employment? It would then be possible to employ people legitimately to help the elderly, those who have young children or those who themselves need help for some reason.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am bound to tell my noble friend that no work permits are issued for domestic servants, and that has been so since 1980.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that many of these young people are told by their employers that if they complain to anyone they will be sent to prison? Of course, they believe that. Since we permit them to be brought here not for their own benefit but as part of the baggage of their employers, are we under no obligation to monitor what happens to them?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I believe that it is slightly abusive to refer to human beings as being part of the baggage of their employers.

Noble Lords

Well, they are.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, they are employed by their employers. If an employer comes to this country on a visit, the employee will be here for six months. If the employer is coming here to lake up permanent work, the employee will be here for 12 months. The employee must have been in the employ of the employer for some time before coming to this country. Therefore, the relationship between the employer and the employee is known. In order to ensure that those individuals know what is happening, the entry clearance officer sees them individually away from their employers, as I explained earlier. They are told their rights and they are given a leaflet to take with them. If the employer then says, "If you speak, you will go to prison", by reading the explanation in the leaflet the employee will be able to readdress his mind as to what action can be taken.

Lord Morris

My Lords, what can the term "quasi-slavery" possibly mean?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am not quite sure, but I sometimes wonder whether it might not apply to Members of the Government Front Bench.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, will the Minister accept that from his replies to the questions that have been put from all sides of the House he gives the impression that he does not believe that there is a problem? However, all those who have asked questions are convinced that there is a major problem, and I am among them. Would it not be fair to the House as well as to the people about whom we are speaking for the Government to agree to some kind of inquiry or study rather than using a somewhat "brushing-off" manner?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I do not wish to give the impression that I am brushing the matter off. But how can there be an inquiry without each employer who has brought an employee into the country being asked whether the employee is being treated properly? And I do not believe that that is the right action to take. It would be extremely bureaucratic and expensive. There is a problem with regard to anyone who breaks the law. Anyone in this country, either an employer or an employee, has the right of recourse to the law of this country.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, how can the Minister say, as he did a few moments ago, that the matter is always being kept under review when there is no evidence available to sustain such a review? How can he say that when he does not know and does not propose to find out how many cases of abuse there are?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, we are keeping under review the terms and conditions under which such people are allowed into this country. We are looking at that closely. One possibility is that before the servant travels to the United Kingdom there may be a requirement that a written statement is drawn up with regard to his maintenance and accommodation. We are keeping those matters under review.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, the noble Earl mentioned legal remedies. Can he explain to the House how they can be applied by a worker who is living on an employer's premises, who is locked into those premises and whose passport has been withheld by the employer?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, with regard to the withholding of a passport by an employer, the leaflet which the employee is given advises him that he should keep his passport in a safe place and that it is an offence to take a passport. The withholding of a passport may fall within the terms of the Theft Act if the employer is regarded as having the intention permanently to deprive another person of his property and if it is his intention to treat the thing as his own to dispose of, regardless of the other person's rights. Therefore, in that situation an employer is acting against an employee's interests. It is explained to the person concerned in the leaflet that he should go either to the police or the citizens advice bureau. The noble Lord gives an example of a person who is locked up and cannot get out of the house. That in itself is an offence.