It is a great pleasure to have secured this Westminster Hall debate under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I am delighted to have been given time by the House to hold this timely debate on a very important authority.
I start by paying tribute to a number of hon. Members who have done so much in this area. First, I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan), whose 2004 private Member’s Bill commenced the legislative process that created the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who was the Minister responsible for taking the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 through the House of Commons, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), who has been a champion of vulnerable workers, and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority in its various guises, for many years before becoming an MP.
It is also appropriate to pay tribute to the trade union movement, which has championed the cause of vulnerable workers for many decades and has been a stalwart defender of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority when it has been attacked by this Government. I should also pay tribute to everyone who works in the authority for doing the incredibly challenging and difficult job of making sure that workers are not exposed to exploitation.
I should remind hon. Members why the Gangmasters Licensing Authority was created in the first place. It was created as a result of tragedy: the drowning of 23 cockle pickers in Morecambe bay in 2004. The deaths of the Chinese cockle pickers put back into use a word that had almost been forgotten in British public life since the 1960s: “gangmaster.” A Chinese man who had organised the group was described as their gangmaster and was later found guilty of the manslaughter of 21 of those who had drowned. The incident led to a wider debate about those who organise casual workers and sometimes exploit them. It resulted in the creation of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to regulate that form of labour.
The new legislation was groundbreaking, as it was widely assumed that working gangs and gangmasters had disappeared. In agriculture, European migrant labour has generally moved from areas with smaller farms to places where prices and wages are higher. That movement created the gang system, particularly in the eastern counties of England, where accommodation for permanent farm workers is scarce and there is high demand for seasonal labour. So the gangmaster was alive and well, had been exposed through tragedy, and was often linked with organised criminal activity.
New versions of the old exploitation developed over time, encouraged by the relentless pressure to cut food production costs. The new licensing authorities are attempting to prevent exploitation, but the poverty of some countries compared with Britain will sustain such a system in the future. Once it was Irish migrants; now they might be Latvians or, as we saw with the cockle pickers, Chinese. What continues is the movement of migrant agricultural labour and the abuse-prone gangs that have historically always been associated with such labour.
Once the Gangmasters Licensing Authority was established, it was supported by a coalition of national retailers, food industry representatives, labour providers and trade unions. Crucially, there was cross-party support in this place for the regulation of those who supply labour in the areas of agriculture, forestry, horticulture, shellfish gathering, food processing and packaging. However, we are not simply talking about a piece of employment legislation that the Government would have people believe is a burden on business. This is a life-saving body that safeguards the welfare of workers, while regulating the providers of such workers and protecting some of the most vulnerable workers from exploitation, abuse and modern-day slavery.
As stated in many independent reports—I shall mention just a few—the GLA has been a huge success. Independent evaluations conducted by Sheffield and Liverpool universities have confirmed the effectiveness of GLA enforcement. In a survey of licensed gangmasters in 2008, eight out of 10 respondents were in favour of licensing; seven out of 10 felt that the GLA was doing a good job; and only 18% described their contact with the GLA as burdensome. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has had a major research programme on forced labour for several years, and much of its work has touched on the GLA and the role it plays. What it says sums up the GLA:
“To put our position simply, we are big supporters of the GLA. All of our research and contacts with businesses, employers, unions, campaigners—everyone—suggests they are doing a vital job. They are a hugely effective tool in preventing contemporary slavery. Indeed, there is a case for expanding their remit out with the sectors they currently regulate.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into human trafficking in Scotland commented that:
“Apart from the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), the Inquiry did not identify evidence of regulators linking anti-trafficking efforts with their work”.
Crucially, the Hampton report, which looked at reducing regulatory burdens on business, and which led to an inspection programme covering all regulators, strongly endorsed the GLA’s approach, concluding that:
“The GLA’s impact in improving working conditions for some vulnerable workers has been impressive, particularly in view of its relatively small size.”
That report was endorsed by the Institute for Human Rights and Business, the Ethical Trading Initiative, anti-slavery organisations, the Association of Labour Providers, the Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility and, of course, Oxfam.
Since its inception, the GLA has protected workers by ensuring that they receive their pay and holiday rights, and that they work in a healthy and safe environment. Inspectors also check that vulnerable workers are not housed in substandard conditions while being charged excessive rents. The GLA has played a central role in reducing human trafficking in the UK. The authority also helps to recover unpaid tax and national insurance, thereby increasing revenues for the Exchequer.
According to the GLA’s annual report last year, 845 cases of worker exploitation were identified. The financial cost of that exploitation amounted to £2.5 million. Some 91% of the GLA’s intelligence-driven operations identified serious cases of non-compliance. Some 36 cases of unlicensed activity were uncovered, and 33 licences were revoked. There were also 12 successful criminal prosecutions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does not the GLA’s success mean that the problem is being moved across to the construction industry? A major problem is that there is no regulation in the construction industry to match the regulation that the GLA provides for other industries. Therefore, there is a good argument to say that the GLA should be expanded to cover the construction industry. That would help to deal with the industry that has the highest rate of accidents in the UK.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. He has a private Member’s Bill on extending the GLA’s remit to construction workers, but because it is low down on the Order Paper, it will never be passed. I hope that the Minister will say in his response whether the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will examine the possibility of extending the GLA to cover other areas. The forestry and agricultural industries are becoming more regulated, gangmasters are becoming licensed, and the GLA has been successful, but there has been a migration of exploited labour into other parts of industry. I may mention that later.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good case. I was co-sponsor of the Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill 2004 with the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan), who should be congratulated. Would he add to the many benefits he has listed as having resulted from the GLA’s introduction those relating to farmers? They feel much more reassured that they are dealing with gangmasters on a sound basis. Also, the many legitimate gangmaster operations in existence know that the GLA is driving the illegal trade out of business altogether.
I am grateful for that intervention and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on co-sponsoring the 2004 Bill. The point he makes is critical. This is not just about protecting vulnerable and exploited workers; it is about cleaning up supply chains. That feeds right into the argument about good business being rewarded for doing good things, and the need to support initiatives that get rid of businesses doing bad things. It is crucial to recognise that it is good for good businesses to be involved in initiatives such as the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. That emphasises the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton) about potentially extending the GLA to other areas, and clearing up the supply chains to which the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) referred.
The GLA has discovered a number of cases where trafficking for financial benefit, linked directly or indirectly to labour exploitation, is to the fore. Some of the activity appears to have direct links to the targeting of vulnerable people in homeless refuges in the host country, and to persons of interest to the police in their host country. Workers are sometimes left in a no man’s land: they have no means of supporting themselves in the UK, but are unable or unwilling to go home. They are exploited; to work in a promised land, they pay up-front fees that they are never likely to be able to repay.
I have some examples that give the issues a human face. The GLA has discovered workers living in squalid accommodation; the rent is often high—above the market rate—and deducted at source. One person described 12 workers living in a caravan with no water, sanitation, lighting, heating or cooking facilities. Another talked about 30 workers who lived in a structurally dangerous two-bedroom house; they were subject to summary eviction by men wielding baseball bats if they complained.
Transport problems were an issue. Those problems included unreasonable wage deductions for transport, and unsafe vehicles. The GLA uncovered the case of a worker who lost a leg when an unroadworthy van was involved in an accident. The gangmaster’s licence was revoked, and he could no longer provide farm labourers, but two weeks later he was back in business, supplying builders’ labourers. That highlights the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian.
An eastern European worker discovered on a farm in Cornwall was promised a job in Scotland, but was then sold to another gangmaster. Having worked all week for £5, they were told that they owed the gangmaster £6.17 in costs, which of course they did not have. They were obliged to keep working to pay the debt, which continued to accrue, resulting in bonded labour.
Those are just some of the human examples of what happens in an unregulated trade, but the GLA is identifying exploited workers in contemporary slavery and is able to do something about it. The question that people will ask is: are UK companies involved? The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that some, possibly many, UK-based companies rely on supply chains that involve the use of slave labour, both in the UK and abroad. The complex chains of subcontracting through a variety of labour agency networks, both in the UK and abroad, mean that many companies are unaware of, or can deny knowledge of, the conditions under which their goods are produced.
The UK supply chain is inherently based on a low-cost, labour-intensive business model. The GLA identified that price pressures from competition have led to a culture where gangmasters and labour users will exploit the most vulnerable link in the chain—the worker—to protect their profits. They will often accept a charge rate that, realistically, does not allow the labour provider to meet legal requirements. Workers are being paid below the national minimum wage so that labour providers are able to make a meagre profit by charging an unrealistically low amount.
The GLA has sought to tackle this insidious problem by developing a protocol with supermarkets and suppliers—a point was made by the hon. Member for St Ives about clearing up supply chains—that allows for the exchange of information. It has garnered the support of the majority of key retailers in the food sector. By working in partnership with supermarkets—that is key—the GLA has been able to encourage them to deal with allegations of exploitation in their supply chain, and to establish an audit standard for labour supply; that allows them to clear up their supply chain. The protocol is supported by every major supermarket in the UK. It is welcomed by them as a way to allow them to monitor their supply chains.
What is the future of the GLA? I welcome Ministers’ announcement that they do not intend to abolish it. Nevertheless, the Government are considering limiting its role, and the role of licensing remains under review. The Minister needs to be crystal clear that there will be no watering down of the GLA and its powers. This is not about counting paper clips, but saving lives, preventing exploitation, promoting clean supply chains, exposing organised criminal activity and undermining human trafficking—there could be no greater cause. The GLA is especially important in difficult economic times when labour supply exceeds demand and the pressures on work increase.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a frightening aspect to the rhetoric we hear from the Government about health and safety, and health and safety legislation in particular? Will he ask the Minister to give an assurance that the Government believe that health and safety legislation is necessary to protect individuals at work? Some of the rhetoric on this issue, particularly from the Prime Minister, is deeply worrying.
The Minister has heard that challenge on health and safety. The red tape challenge website, which I am sure every hon. Member has dipped into and had a look at, is wide-ranging. The first line of every category, including the Equality Act 2010 and health and safety legislation, poses the question: “Should this be scrapped?”. I appreciate that it is a consultation, and that the Government are looking for ideas and views on the current make-up of regulation, but there is no greater challenge than maintaining health and safety regulations to protect workers whose lives or safety may be at risk. I hope the Minister will tell us categorically that some of the questions in the red tape challenge are challenges to seek answers, rather than an overall strategy to diminish workers’ rights and health and safety regulation.
To date, the Government have been rhetorical about the dilution of workers’ rights, but a statutory instrument changing the unfair dismissal period has been laid before Parliament and will come into effect in the next few weeks. There have been leaked reports from No. 10 Downing street about making it easier to fire, rather than hire, people. There is anti-regulation sentiment and rhetoric coming out of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, with its “one in, one out” policy on regulation. There is real concern that some of the enforcement actions that are critical for protecting vulnerable workers and good businesses through such authorities as the GLA are being challenged.
The Macdonald report suggested an end to gangmaster licensing completely, and a move to a system of self-regulation combined with “earned recognition”. It also suggested that the GLA should change from being a heavy enforcement body to a light-touch advisory body. I am not sure that anyone would deny earned recognition to good businesses, supply chains and supermarkets who are working in partnership with the GLA, and to the good farmers who want supply chains cleaned up. The problem is that all earned recognition does is divert attention away from where gangmasters may infiltrate in the future.
There is significant confusion about the future, what with the red tape challenge and what has been termed the star chamber process. That was highlighted by the Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, who said initially:
“I am pleased to say that the need for the GLA to enforce protections for vulnerable workers in its sectors”,
which is crucial,
“was endorsed by the red tape challenge ministerial star chamber, although it recognised that the GLA needed to better target non-compliant operators and reduce burdens on the compliant. The GLA will of course continue to be monitored under the Government’s ongoing reviews of public bodies and enforcement agencies.”
That is not particularly clear. In a later exchange on the same question, he says of the star chamber process and the red tape challenge:
“From my knowledge of star chambers…they are where conflicting views which may need to be resolved are discussed in an informal way. That is exactly how the star chamber has functioned in this way.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 December 2011; Vol. 733, c. 993 and c. 995.]
I hope that the Minister will clear up some of the confusion this morning on the Government’s view of the GLA, and on the perceived and reported fight between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and BIS on the where the GLA should sit. It is right that it sits with DEFRA in its current guise. It should not be transferred to a Department that is considering deregulation and stripping out the safeguards put in place by the GLA.
On that point, the hon. Gentleman appears to be contradicting himself. On the one hand, he is saying that the GLA should be extended to the construction trade and other trades. On the other hand, he is saying that it should remain in DEFRA. If it goes beyond the parameters of the operation of DEFRA, does he not agree that it would be appropriate to rest the body in another Government Department?
I was about to come to that. I agree that that seems inherently contradictory, but the key fact about the Gangmasters Licensing Authority sitting in DEFRA is that it is there to do a particular job, which it is doing rather well. Moving the GLA from DEFRA to BIS would be putting it into a Department that is looking at deregulation and is running the red tape challenge. A previous Under-Secretary at BIS—now the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change—has made clear remarks about where the GLA should sit and what its function should be. Indeed, he initiated the Macdonald report, which recommended a light-touch regulatory approach. If the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) commits the Department at least to examining the extension of the powers of the GLA, there might be an argument about which Department it would sit in, but my point is that in this particular confusion, DEFRA is the best place for the GLA to sit. Moving it to BIS would merely be an act of deregulation, rather than showing support for an organisation that is prone to be hugely successful.
Will the Minister at least examine the possibility of not diluting the GLA, but extending it to other areas? We have heard about similar problems of exploitation and unlawful practices in construction, the social care sector and hospitality. There is evidence that the limited GLA remit has led to the displacement of rogue operators from GLA sectors into other parts of the labour market—the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian. The Trades Union Congress has identified a strong case for extending the GLA licensing scheme, a view shared by the Select Committee on Home Affairs in its report on “The Trade in Human Beings” back in 2009.
There is also support for an extension to the GLA’s remit in the business community; that is critical to where the GLA currently sits in the Government’s thinking. Nearly three quarters of the gangmasters who responded to the 2008 survey by Liverpool and Sheffield universities, which I mentioned, said that the GLA scheme should be extended to other sectors—either to all sectors, or especially to the construction and hospitality sectors. That is significant, because many gangmasters operate in other sectors that are not subject to GLA regulation, most notably non-food manufacturing, distribution, cleaning and construction. Good business wants a level playing field, which can be delivered only by dealing with this contemporary slavery.
Recently, controversy has surrounded areas that the GLA has looked at, such as dairy farming, but the courts have recognised that, again, it is clearing up the supply chains. There is also a strong view that forestry should be removed from the GLA remit, but does that not provide a reason to allow the GLA to follow the evidence of gangmasters into any industry? I pose that question to the Minister. That way, gangmasters, rather than the industry, become the issue. Let the evidence follow the crime, if the evidence is there to investigate.
May I draw attention to my hon. Friend’s point about the support of the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the TUC? There is other support, too; the Select Committee on Work and Pensions took evidence in Midlothian many years ago, and the construction industry was represented there. It felt aggrieved about what was happening. Good, honest employers are having to compete against some unruly organisations, and they feel that they are in a deficit position as a result. It is important that we recognise that good employers also want regulation.
Absolutely. I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. His private Member’s Bill, which I have already mentioned, looked at similar aspects of the construction industry. The critical point is that good businesses want good regulation—this is not about the amount of regulation—to clean up the sector, so that those good businesses benefit, as they deserve to benefit. As my hon. Friend said, “unruly organisations” and employers can then be rooted out, protecting not only workers but the industry. That is key, and it is why supermarkets have been so keen to work in partnership with the GLA, to bring that together.
May I summarise for the Minister some of the questions to which I would appreciate an answer? I am grateful for his presence—the Minister with responsibility for the GLA is otherwise engaged. Will he at least guarantee that there will be no watering down of the GLA regulation and enforcement powers? Will he keep resources in place, because the GLA is needed more now, in tough times, than in better times? Will the ministerial team at least examine the evidence for the GLA going into other sectors and, perhaps, following the evidence, rather than dealing only with particular sectors? Will the Minister look at the potential for more flexibility for the GLA, perhaps making it self-financing or providing it with the powers to examine other industries in less stringent terms, so that it looks not just at criminality? For example, I mentioned the dairy farmers: a slap on the wrist might have been more appropriate than a proper criminal process in that case.
There is widespread evidence that the GLA and the licensing system have been effective in raising standards in the fresh food processing sector, and other sectors covered, and in protecting some of the most vulnerable workers in the United Kingdom. The confusion and uncertainty on the part of the Government are not helpful, and the red tape challenge has proven that confusion can reign in such matters. Finally, let me return to where I started: the Gangmasters Licensing Authority was set up on the back of a horrendous tragedy. Any reduction in the remit of the GLA would put vulnerable workers at risk of exploitation, modern slavery and perhaps even death. Let us not scrap something that works.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) on securing this important debate.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan), who is present and who was responsible for the original proposals, which went through the House of Commons and into legislation. I followed and supported his private Member’s Bill, turning up on a few Fridays to ensure that it ran the course. That might seem strange, because I represent a seaside constituency, but it is one that has a large agricultural hinterland. It was obvious to me, when he was promoting his Bill, that something needed to be done. I was acutely aware of a number of workers whom I saw around the town who were there illegally or were trafficked—they were certainly not treated at all well. In many cases, they were appallingly housed. In one celebrated case, a large number of Russians were found in a big house in Southport in conditions resembling the black hole of Calcutta. Those who were better housed might still be extraordinarily badly treated, with their rent often deducted from the pittance they were paid; every conceivable regulation for houses in multiple occupation was violated by gangmasters who often owned the property concerned.
It was also apparent to me at that time that there was some criminal involvement. Conversations that I had with the police and immigration authorities indicated that that was indeed the case. Clearly, from conversations that I had with valid employment agencies operating properly within the law, the situation was also a considerable restraint on their trade and was a problem in the labour market. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh South said, such people were breaching the law not only by using illegal labour but by not paying full taxation or proper national insurance. It was rather puzzling, when looking at the accounts of some large agricultural suppliers, as to how much they managed to get done with so few people seemingly employed on the books. That was before the Morecambe bay tragedy, which focused people’s minds on the seriousness of the issue and on how right the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North was to bring it to our attention. Had people acted sooner, we certainly would not have had that tragedy.
I had a foretaste quite recently of what might still happen in the absence of a similar piece of legislation. Southport has a long history of shrimping, but we had a bonanza—almost a freak of nature—of cockles and other shellfish quite recently. It was a sudden surge, perhaps because of some tidal movement. However, it became well know that in the northern part of the constituency an awful lot of money was to be made from prestigious restaurants by going there quickly, taking appreciable risks and obtaining what was there. The local authority took the matter under control very effectively, but it was obvious in the circumstances that many strange people were suddenly showing up in town, and were prepared to take appreciable risks on behalf of themselves and those they employed in trying to obtain a quick financial return.
I wholly support the thrust of the legislation. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh South said, it prevents a number of wholly undesirable activities. It prevents people from being treated badly, and prevents abuse of health and safety legislation. It even saves lives. It is not an underestimate to say that lives would be put at risk in the absence of proper supervision of the gangmaster business. It certainly ensures that more taxes are paid than would otherwise be the case, and it goes a long way towards cleaning up the supply chain, which has been fairly murky in the past. I have no real evidence for this, but I am fairly confident that supermarkets were receiving vegetables that had been provided through gangmaster chains that required some inspection, to say the least.
At the moment, the Government are against red tape, as we all are. No one makes a case for red tape. The issue is what is meant by red tape. There is no clear definition. I am told by people in the Department for Transport that they were asked to look at traffic regulation orders as a sample of red tape, which shows how vague and blurred the definition is. If it means over-regulation and unnecessary regulation, we are against it in principle, but what we are discussing is not an example of that. There is clear evidence that an authority such as the GLA is needed, and I would be sorry to see it abolished.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh South has made a case for an extension of the GLA’s remit, and I am slightly wary of that. He drew a valid distinction between dealing with gangmasters as an industry-specific issue, and dealing with them in terms of the business model involved. My instinctive preference is to look at the industry-specific aspect.
I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the construction industry. Many foreign companies come to the UK and bring their employees with them. The very problem of employment and accommodation to which he referred exists here now. Such companies give with one hand, and take away with the other. They pay wages to their employees, but then increase the rent for their accommodation. That happens now in the construction industry, and it goes against local British firms that are trying to get into the market and do a fair job with people they care about: their employees. The regulations should apply to foreign employers, and ensure that exploitation does not happen.
The hon. Gentleman has slightly anticipated me. There is a prima facie case in the construction industry, and there has long been a history of gangmaster behaviour, which used to be called the lump. Building firms sometimes employ people as a gang instead of employing them individually to avoid some of the penalties that might be incurred because work on a building site is intrinsically risky. A construction firm might incur liabilities, but sometimes, by arrangement, they fall on the gangmasters, who accept no ultimate liability whatever.
There is a decent case for including the construction and agriculture industries, but it becomes more difficult in the catering industry, which the hon. Member for Edinburgh South mentioned. We seem to be moving into territory where we may be imposing on an industry regulation that, strictly speaking, is unnecessary.
Perhaps I could provide some clarification. I examined whether there should be an extension to other industries, but I particularly asked the Minister to examine whether it would be appropriate for the GLA to cover other industries, rather than saying that it should have a blanket involvement. I was asking for some proposals from the Government, and whether it would wise and prudent to do so.
The hon. Gentleman makes an entirely valid point. He is suggesting a benchmark or threshold that must be met before imposing additional regulation. Surely, that benchmark or threshold has been met in the agricultural industry. In my view it has certainly been met in the construction industry. Removing existing controls when there is clear evidence that they are needed would be regressive and wholly detrimental to the interests of British commerce and to the people who work in those industries.
I shall be extremely brief. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) for introducing the debate. I know that it is customary to do so, but I genuinely want to. He expressed eloquently and concisely why we are here. I agree that any Government must regularly review the organisation of workers, so I welcome the review of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, but it is important to consider very carefully its three aspects.
First, is the GLA still necessary? I do not know of any organisation or political party that argues that there is no longer a need for it. Employers have come forward to argue that there is a continuing need for it, as have trade unions across the piece, and many civil society organisations that helped us campaign for it to be set up. Anyone who doubts whether the GLA is needed should go on the website, which describes examples of continuing and horrendous exploitation, some of which have been cited today.
Sometimes in this House, we do not thank people enough. We have heroes among us today: those hon. Members who campaigned long and hard to achieve the breakthrough in the legislation that established the GLA. I want to put on the record my thanks to them on behalf of all those people who have enjoyed the benefits of the GLA so far. I chair the Public and Commercial Services Union cross-party parliamentary group that represents staff who work in the GLA. I have met the staff, and they have explained some of the issues that they have encountered, and some of the remedies that they have been able to introduce to tackle exploitation.
The first issue is that the need continues. The second is whether the GLA has the right powers and appropriate terms of reference. At one point, a lobby was building up, certainly in the farming community, which feared that the GLA might have too many powers, but that is wrong. The farmers are not inspected; the inspection falls on the gangmasters, not the farmers. There is no additional burden on farmers. The argument that is coming across is that those who work in agriculture have supported the GLA for its maintenance of standards and prevention of exploitation.
The issue that has arisen today is that the GLA has too few powers. It does not cover enough areas of industry. I understand the concern of the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) about creeping and additional red tape, but I want to give two examples of anomalies that arise when powers are ineffective. In one instances, GLA officers went to scrutinise the conditions of workers in a bottling factory. They could scrutinise the conditions of the workers who were bottling fruit juices from farm-grown crops, but they could not take any action for workers who were bottling water on the production line beside them. There are anomalies in the powers.
Another example is a gangmaster who was guilty of malpractice in the agricultural sector, and then boasted of moving into the care sector. I understand the concerns that have been raised, but as we review the GLA, we must state the criteria that determine whether we move into other sectors and industries. It is clear that we must overcome the anomalies of gangmasters being found guilty of malpractice in one area, and then setting up camp to exploit workers in another. What came out of discussions with staff on the ground and other organisations is that there are real difficulties in securing adequate prosecutions. We need to look at the GLA’s powers of investigation and its ability to prosecute.
My third point is about staffing resources and location. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South regarding location, that it does not matter which Department, as long as it does not go to a Department that does not give it sufficient priority. That is the anxiety about moving into the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. There has been some argument about the merger of the GLA with the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate. The worry about that is that that is an advisory body; it is not an enforcement and licensing authority. A merger of that sort, undermining the GLA’s licensing and enforcement powers, would be severely detrimental. It would certainly contradict the original intentions of the legislation. That is why there is a protection to keep it in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and why there is anxiety about any lessening of its role as a licensing authority.
There is also an issue about staffing and resources. The GLA, like every other Government body, has been subject to cuts, staffing freezes and so on. We have to be careful that the staffing cuts made so far or threatened in the future do not undermine the role of the GLA. I would welcome the Minister’s looking at that, so that the organisation is adequately staffed.
Finally, I want to commend the staff and management of the GLA for their excellent work. They have outlined some horrendous examples of gangmasters’ operations in this country. They have tackled them and won the support of employers and trade unions alike.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) on securing this important debate. I am concerned that, almost eight years on, we are still talking about the threat of the GLA legislation rights being diluted. That gives me serious cause for concern and I think we need to move forward.
I thank the staff at the GLA—in particular, the former chairman Paul Whitehouse, who got the agency up and running and hit the ground running. He has certainly done a very efficient job. I also thank the National Farmers Union. A strange coalition of trade unions came together to fight and organise for a GLA. I think that it was the first time that the TUC and the NFU have campaigned on the same side. The Transport and General Workers Union, as it was known then, was at the heart of the campaign, under its then national secretary, now my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), who helped drive the legislation through.
The legal gangmasters also played an important role in introducing the legislation, as did the legal employment agencies that were right behind it from the start. There was cross-party support from Conservatives, Liberals, Labour and so on. That was extremely important. Last, but perhaps not least, we eventually managed to convince the major retailers that it was to their benefit to have some credible employment legislation and not to exploit farmers, as they were doing at that time. Eventually, they did come on board.
In practical terms, my contribution to the debate on migration and employment rights has been to take through Parliament the private Member’s Bill that became the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004. I would like to run briefly through the main points of the Act, before I highlight some of the challenges that lie ahead in ensuring that the Act does exactly what it says on the tin and why it must be retained.
The Act introduced a licensing, registration and auditing scheme for the providers of agricultural and horticultural work, shellfish-gathering and in the food-processing and packaging industries. Many people think the Act was drafted as a response to the Morecambe Bay tragedy. That is not factually correct; it was drafted before that tragic event. However, the introduction of the Bill stands testimony, in memory of those poor Chinese people who died. That tragedy was the catalyst that made the Government of the time accept the Bill.
The Bill was drafted as a response to the deregulation that led to the loss of so many lives on the sands of Morecambe Bay. Years of deregulation had left rogue operators beyond the reach of the law and vulnerable workers, especially migrant workers, beyond the protection of the law. The Act was therefore designed to regulate the activities of gangmasters, to drive the rogues out of business, put the criminals behind bars and stop the exploitation of migrant and indigenous workers.
I will quickly walk through the details of the Act to show how it has delivered on its key objectives. First, we have always argued for the widest possible scope. That involves closing down any loopholes or rat runs through which rogue gangmasters might evade the law or escape licensing. The Act applies to the whole UK and, as I said, covers agricultural and horticultural work, shellfish-gathering and the processing or packaging of any products derived from those industries. It defines a gangmaster as anyone employing, supplying or supervising a worker in those sectors. It also applies to gangmasters, whether based in the UK or offshore, and all subcontractors. It also covers employment agencies and employment businesses if they operate in the sectors covered by the Act.
Secondly, we have always argued for a robust and effective body to regulate gangmasters and enforce the licence conditions. The Act set up the GLA, chaired by former Chief Constable Paul Whitehouse, and run by a board of key community and industry stakeholders, from Departments such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office, and from enforcement agencies such as the Inland Revenue. It set licence conditions and the licence fee and established a public register of licensed gangmasters. It also has the ability to carry out investigations of abuse by gangmasters and the power proactively to enforce the licence conditions, with a line of accountability leading from the GLA, through the Secretary of State to Parliament.
Thirdly, the Act provides for effective enforcement by creating offences that will help to bring about a real culture change in the industry. The offences are operating without a licence, obtaining or possessing a false licence, using an unlicensed gangmaster and obstructing an enforcement officer. The Act also amends the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, so that the assets of convicted gangmasters can be seized, and it also amends the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to make operating without a licence and possession of a false licence arrestable offences.
The Act carries penalties with real deterrent value: 12 months in prison for operating without a licence or possessing a false licence; up to two years’ imprisonment for a second offence; and up to 10 years’ imprisonment for a third offence. Out of the 30 sections of the Act, section 26 may be the most important in protecting migrant workers:
“A person is not prevented from being a worker for the purposes of this Act by reason of the fact that he [or she] has no right to be, or to work, in the United Kingdom.”
In other words, regardless of whether a person is regular or irregular, documented or undocumented, indigenous or migrant, if they work in the areas covered by the Act, they are legal workers.
Not only are people protected by the conditions attached to the gangmasters licence, but they are also entitled to the rights and protections offered by UK employment law. Under the Act, there is no such thing as an illegal worker—a worker is a worker is a worker—and that is a huge advance in the rights of migrant workers in this country. It is also an important step on the road to building a just and humane system of managed migration.
That is what the Act does and how it works. However, getting an Act on to the statute book is not the end but rather the beginning of the process. If this country is to prosper economically, socially and culturally, we must have a just, humane and well-managed migration policy. A key ingredient of such a policy must be the opening up of legal routes for migration by ensuring that every migrant worker who comes to the country can earn a decent living in well-regulated, safe jobs that are free from exploitation. The Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 is legal proof that we have the political will to do that in the UK. We do not have to let vulnerable migrant workers fall prey to criminals who run the black economy, and that is not only my opinion, but that of legal businesses that operate in the industry.
I am conscious of the time, Mr Brady, and that other hon. Members wish to speak. I will therefore conclude by saying that there is an overwhelming case for the Act to be extended, starting with the construction industry—my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton) spoke about the problems faced by legal employers in that area. There is also an argument that exploitation takes place in the service industry, and many of the main hotels in the country will be staffed by illegal migrants or people who have been organised by gangmasters. There is therefore an overwhelming case, not only in the construction industry but also in the service sector, that if we are to be a decent country that treats people with respect, the Act should be extended to other industries.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) for initiating this debate.
I want to tell a story about what happened in February 2008. Five years after the Morecambe bay tragedy, a commemorative event was organised by the Chinese community in London. Given my involvement in the Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill and its passage into law, I was asked to attend. Two young Chinese women read out letters from relatives of those who had died at Morecambe bay. I do not mind admitting that I, together with everyone else, was in tears as we heard heartbreaking stories of Chinese workers who had come to build a new life in Britain, ringing home on their mobile phones. One story in particular always sticks in my mind. The daughter said: “He was weeping. He asked me to quickly get his mother and his wife. He wanted to say farewell because the water was lapping at his chest. He knew that there was no way out and that he was about to die.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) did the cause of social justice in Britain an outstanding service by taking through the Bill, and he is right to say that its origins predated Morecambe bay. However, the appalling tragedy of February 2003 brought together the country, all political parties, communities and the industry, to ensure that never again would we have a Morecambe bay tragedy. There was a remarkable coalition of support from Plough to Plate and the National Farmers Union to the supermarkets, and there was also a remarkable all-party coalition. I remember appearing on many platforms with my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North and with Gillian Shephard, who was then a Member of Parliament and spoke in support of the Bill.
At the time, I was deputy general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, and I saw an utter determination across party politics and throughout the industry to end modern day slavery and ensure the fair treatment of workers and fair competition. There were honourable gangmasters such as Zad Padda, who spoke out and complained bitterly about how difficult it was to be a reputable gangmaster in what he described as a jungle. Workers were not only treated unfairly, but reputable gangmasters were undercut. The legislation sought to reassure decent farmers that they were using reputable gangmasters and assure shoppers in supermarkets that the goods they were buying were not the product of modern day slavery. It was the most complex private Member’s Bill in 30 years, but it became law.
[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]
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.
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.
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.”
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 the Member for Edinburgh South (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.
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 sites is at any rate better, if not good enough?
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.
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.”
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 the Member for Edinburgh South (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 the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (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 the Member for Hayes and Harlington (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 the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (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.
I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (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 the Member for Southport (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. The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) talked in an intervention about health and safety legislation and I would link that with the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (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 the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (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.
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 the hon. Member for Ogmore (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—