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February 24, 2012

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Don’t water down gangmaster laws, MP warns

The Government should give the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) an unequivocal vote of confidence and ensure that its powers remain robust, according to Labour’s Shadow business minister.

The Authority’s remit covers those who supply workers in industries such as agriculture, forestry, horticulture, shellfish collection, and food processing and packaging. Since its creation in 2004 – following the deaths of 23 Chinese cockle-pickers who drowned in Morecambe Bay – MPs from all parties have widely praised the regulator for the work it has done to protect vulnerable workers in these sectors.

In 2010/11, the organisation identified 845 cases of workers being exploited, revoked 33 licences, and undertook 12 successful prosecutions. However, the GLA and its remit are being monitored under the Government’s Red Tape Challenge and its review of workplace rights compliance and enforcement.

Debating the role of the watchdog in the House of Commons earlier this week, Shadow business minister Ian Murray MP said: “The Minister [for Defra] 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.”

Led by Richard Macdonald, a Government-commissioned review of how to reduce regulatory burdens on farmers and food processors was published last year and advocated that the GLA change from being a “heavy-enforcement body” to a “light-touch advisory body”.  The review also supported a move to self-regulation combined with ‘earned recognition’, whereby those who have a strong track record of compliance are rewarded by a reduction in the number of inspections – a principle that the Government accepted in its response to the review issued on Tuesday (21 February).

But Mr Lucas told the Commons that “all earned recognition does is divert attention away from where gangmasters may infiltrate in the future”.

Speaking at the National Farmers’ Union’s conference earlier this week, chair of the GLA Margaret McKinlay said the organisation is exploring earned recognition and other issues as possible ways of improving the service. She also invited industry feedback on whether it might be more appropriate to fine farmers, rather than pursuing a criminal prosecution, which is the only current recourse for the GLA if it finds people are in breach of gangmaster regulations.

During the Commons debate, Jack Dromey MP also raised the notion of giving the GLA powers to impose fines, as well as arguing for the construction industry to come under its remit.

He said: “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 monies for the public purse.”

In response, Richard Benyon MP, Under-Secretary of State for the environment, was non-committal, pointing out: “There is a lack of hard evidence about employment abuses in construction.”

While stressing that the Government endorsed the need for the GLA to enforce protection for vulnerable workers in agriculture, Mr Benyon insisted that there is room for improvement in how it operates. He explained: “It is clear, for example, that there are areas 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.”

He added that the GLA is currently running a pilot project in the forestry sector, aimed at applying a light-touch enforcement approach, and said the Government intends to outline proposals for the Authority, as part of the Red Tape Challenge, in due course.

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12 years ago

Story just shows the lack of knowledge MPs suffer from over Health & Safety!
Gangmasters Authority was in my opinion, a knee jerk reaction by politicians .
The HSE is the enforcing authority for cases such as this.
Giving a bureaucratic politically constructed entity ANY powers that will duplicate what Health & Safety Executive already possess, shows yet again the lamentable state of knowledge by politicians about an enforcement body which politicians appear to understand very little about.