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December 13, 2010

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Government to embark on employment-law compliance review

The Government has announced plans to review the arrangements it has in place to enforce various employment laws, including gangmaster licensing.

Business under-secretary of state, Edward Davey, revealed the plans while speaking in the Commons earlier this month as part of a debate on a proposed Private Member’s Bill to extend gangmaster licensing legislation to the construction industry.

Brought by Labour MP, David Hamilton, the Bill proposed to extend the remit of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), which currently covers only the agriculture and food-processing sectors, to the construction industry. Mr Hamilton told MPs: “The GLA has forced rogue gangmasters out of the relevant sectors, but not out of the economy. Our aim is to extend the GLA’s powers, and to transfer powers away from the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate (EASI), a failing body that does nothing to support or protect honest employers.”

Responding to the MP’s call, Mr Davey said an extension of gangmaster licensing is not the way forward but conceded there is a case to look at the Government’s compliance and enforcement arrangements to “establish the scope for streamlining them and making them more effective”.

The review, explained the minister, would consider whether “incremental improvements can be made to encourage further coordination and joint working, such as better legal information-sharing gateways and governance machinery, which would allow priorities to be discussed and set on a broader, cross-agency basis”.

He continued: “I envisage it considering whether online and helpline employment-law advice channels can be linked and streamlined. I also want it to look at the potential cost and operational benefits of enforcement models that would consolidate enforcement functions in a single body, or fewer bodies.”

A spokesperson from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) confirmed to SHP that “the enforcement functions within the scope of the review are restricted to: the national minimum wage’ employment-agency conduct regulations; gangmaster licensing; and those aspects of the Working Time Regulations that are enforced by government agencies (i.e. primarily, the 48-hour limits). Potential transfers and reassignments of these functions are within the scope of the review.”

Asked if cost is the primary driver for the review, the spokesperson denied that this is the case, adding: “The main purpose is to establish whether it is possible to make the Government’s compliance and enforcement arrangements work more effectively by, among other things, building on recent increased collaboration between the enforcement bodies following the launch of the single Pay and Work Rights helpline.”

The helpline was launched in September 2009 to provide a unified point of contact for both employers and workers. It gives advice on employment agency standards, gangmaster licensing, working-time legislation, the National Minimum Wage, and the Agricultural Minimum Wage.

TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, welcomed the Government’s focus on more cooperation in this area but cautioned: “Any future review should enable more joint working between enforcement agencies, but should not be used as a vehicle to cut resources, inspections, or enforcement. This approach will only assist unscrupulous employers and mean workers continue to face exploitation at work.”

Meanwhile, construction union UCATT attacked Mr Davey’s comments and his lack of support for Mr Hamilton’s Bill. The union said the minister failed to recognise that the EASI is an entirely reactive body, which cannot act until concerns of worker abuse and exploitation are raised, adding that this problem is more acute in construction where workers are hired to work on sites often for very short periods of time.

In contrast, said the union, the GLA is a “proactive body”, which will not provide a licence to a gangmaster or employment agency until checks have been carried out with several other government agencies.

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