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Volume 733: debated on Monday 12 December 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will ensure that the enforcement of the rights of vulnerable workers protected by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority will not be weakened as a result of the red tape challenge.

The Government are committed to protecting the rights of the most vulnerable workers in all sectors. I am pleased to say that the need for the GLA to enforce protections for vulnerable workers in its sectors 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.

I thank the noble Lord for that encouraging reply. As he will be aware, the GLA’s remit is limited to the agricultural sector. Currently, if the GLA finds that a business is engaged in abusive behaviour and practices operating in other sectors as well as agriculture, it has no powers to take action. I wonder, given the confidence in its effectiveness, what the Government are doing to ensure that the GLA can take a leading role in multiagency actions which tackle the abuse of vulnerable workers.

The noble Baroness can be reassured by the fact that the GLA works with a number of enforcement agencies, particularly as a partner in the Government’s human trafficking strategy. However, there are principles that underline the red tape challenge’s review on employment. The Government’s workplace rights compliance and enforcement review is now considering an enforcement architecture which would cover all workplaces and vulnerable workers, and how that can be made as effective as possible. This is part and parcel of the way in which the GLA may well be able to provide particular expertise to that body.

Given the success of the GLA, which has just been admitted in the industry that it manages and looks after, why can its remit not be extended to the construction industry? Why should the construction industry, which is as full of gangmasters as agriculture and farming, be exempt from the kind of activities that the GLA does on behalf of workers?

I think that I have just given the noble Lord the answer to that question. Indeed, there is a review of all vulnerable workers across the piece. Noble Lords will accept that there needs to be balance. We do not want employment to be so difficult and complex that people are discouraged from taking on employment, but we all have a duty to make sure that vulnerable workers are properly protected.

My Lords, it is welcome that the Government have protected the budget of the GLA during this financial year. In the light of that support, is it clear that Defra will remain the lead department in order to ensure that the vital work that the GLA does to support vulnerable, low-paid, low-skilled workers will continue?

I have made it clear that Defra values the GLA and sees it as being a particular responsibility to make sure that it is properly funded. Not only is its budget protected for this year, it is protected for the next four financial years in its enforcement activities. I hope that noble Lords are reassured by that and the determination of the department to make sure that it is effective in performing its task.

My Lords, last month, when I raised the issue of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority in Questions, I was much reassured by the Minister’s answer that the authority would remain free-standing. In his answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, he talked about a new “enforcement architecture”—that was the pithy phrase he used. Does that mean that the position has changed around its remaining free-standing? If so, what has changed that the Government want to weaken the focus of this highly effective body?

There is no way in which the Government wish to weaken the focus of this highly effective body. The previous questions pointed out that there are experiences that the GLA has in its field which could well be useful in other fields of employment. That is why my honourable friend Ed Davey, in conducting his review, is looking at the GLA to see how its practices can be incorporated into a broader brief.

My Lords, I am sure that the House was very interested to learn that the red tape challenge has a ministerial star chamber. Will the Minister tell us how many other ministerial star chambers there are in government? Is there one on the European Union?

From my knowledge of star chambers, which is rather limited to history books and the like, 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. I am not suggesting for a moment that the European issue could be resolved quite so easily.

My Lords, “GLA” has another acronymic provenance. Will my noble friend see if it is possible to avoid duplication of acronyms when they occur for bears of very little brain who find it very difficult to follow?

Unfortunately, the first letters tie up with the Greater London Authority but as far as I am concerned the GLA is the Gangmasters Licensing Authority.

My Lords, in view of the very helpful comments of the Minister, is Defra the right department to be carrying this forward?