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Agricultural Gangmasters

Volume 590: debated on Tuesday 9 June 1998

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asked Her Majesty's Government:What action is being taken to combat exploitative activities by agricultural gangmasters. [HL2176]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Lord Donoughue)

The Government have been very concerned about the activities of certain agricultural gangmasters who exploit workers, defraud the government and undermine the businesses of those gangmasters who work fairly within the law providing an essential service to the agriculture industry and ultimately the consumer. We therefore set up an interdepartmental working party to investigate the issue. Its report has now been placed in the Library of the House.

In light of the findings and recommendations of the interdepartmental working party and discussions with the industry, we are putting in place a set of measures to tackle the abuses by a significant minority of gangmasters of workers' rights and of non-compliance and fraud against taxation, National Insurance, benefit and immigration systems.

The Government are launching "Operation Gangmaster". This cross-departmental initiative will bring together the work of up to eight different enforcement agencies. The core of this pilot operation will be joint visits concentrating initially on illegal practices in Lincolnshire and East Anglia. Such visits have already occurred this season and one is in train today. This will be supported by general co-operation between enforcement officers alerting other departments to possible illegal activities. Departments will also co-operate in in-depth investigations into illegal gangmaster activities.

In addition enforcement officers in all relevant government departments throughout the country are being briefed on the legislative framework applicable to gangmasters; this will greatly assist strong enforcement and further cement co-operation between departments.

Additional support to Operation Gangmaster will be provided through the Government's Business Anti-Fraud Hot Line. Here the drive to identify fraudulent employers will be helpful in identifying those gangmasters who knowingly employ benefit claimants. Other measures being taken by the Government, including implementing the Working Time Directive and the National Minimum Wage, will contribute to improving the position of casual workers.

Importantly, for the first time, gangmasters, farmers and workers will all be informed of their rights and obligations through leaflets which are being issued widely today. These provide a comprehensive picture of all the relevant aspects of law relevant to gangmasters and the people they employ, covering responsibilities of several different government departments. No one should be in doubt as to their rights or obligations under the law, or be able to claim ignorance of the law, if caught abusing their workers.

I am delighted also that the agricultural and horticultural industries are taking their responsibilities seriously too. The code of practice being launched by the National Farmers' Union and the Fresh Produce Consortium today is an important step. It will be of great assistance to all farmers, growers and pack house operators in understanding the relevant law and best practice to be adopted. I very much welcome that the retail sector have given their support to this code as an initial stage towards controlling gangmasters.

For the longer term, the Government are continuing to examine the scope for registration of agricultural gangmasters and ways to assist the unemployed to take up seasonal agricultural employment more easily, reducing the temptation to work while on benefit and laying individuals open to exploitation by gangmasters.

This comprehensive approach, combining the strength of the several enforcement agencies and providing full information on rights and obligations to workers and employers, and the role the industry itself is playing to tackle the problem of abuse by gangmasters, is breaking new ground.