Steve Barclay is the Member of Parliament for North East Cambridgeshire and a member of the Public Accounts Committee. He writes at www.therealyesminster.com on value for money issues. Follow Steve on Twitter.
If you drive along any road in my rural constituency in the Fens it is unlikely you will get far before you come across a group of agricultural workers in the fields. It is amongst these crops destined for your local supermarket that you will find an answer to some of the problems caused by European migration.
A report published by the Joseph Rowntree foundation last week found that migrant workers continue to live in a climate of fear, poverty, subjected to inhuman conditions and indebted to gangmasters.
But these are not the only consequences; the exploitation of migrant workers is also linked to poor accommodation, often in overcrowded houses. This in turn feeds in to increased levels of anti-social behavior for local residents living next to houses of multiple occupation, or with groups of young men drinking cheap alcohol on the streets.
Even if they want to, Ministers cannot control the free movement of EU citizens from Eastern Europe, but they do have the opportunity to prevent some of its worst consequences.
The Gangmasters Licensing Authroity (GLA) narrowly avoided the axe during the bonfire of the quangos. Yet it currently is in limbo, with the wrong powers and lack of staff to have much impact, whilst at the same time not being scrapped or merged to save money.
The effectiveness of the GLA is undermined by the absence of civil penalties to hit criminals quickly in their pockets where it hurts. Whilst on the surface they appear to have very strong powers – offences can carry up to ten years in prison – in practice the higher level of proof and time involved in such criminal prosecutions means it is rarely used.
There have only been 39 prosecutions for gangmaster related offences in the past 5 years. Even when exploitative gangmasters are brought to court under the time consuming criminal sanctions, they are likely to face small fines. One such illegal gangmaster based in my constituency was fined just £150 after the GLA incurred the significant cost of a criminal investigation.
91% of operations by the GLA identify serious non-compliance, which suggests the scale of the problem is significantly greater if more inspections were carried out. Last year it issued 293 warning notices, but no fines were attached to these warning notices meaning they offered little deterrent.
Fines will deter this criminality, making it more difficult for gangmasters to prey on migrant labour. It will also address the inconsistency that employing an illegal worker can lead to a fine of up to £10,000 from the UK Border Agency, yet operating as an unlicensed gangmaster carries no similar sanction.
Civil penalities alone will not provide a sufficient remedy. Most illegal gangmasters know they will not be caught.
There is chronic understaffing within the GLA which gives the illusion of activity when often there is none. In an area covering 12 counties including Cambridgeshire, there are currently only 6 inspectors. These inspectors have to cover inspections of licensed gangmasters, intelligence gathering and information campaigns to identify illegal gangs, dealing with language complications, not to mention significant travel distances with one inspector covering the equivalent of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk having to range across 3,256 square miles.
So there is currently a failure of enforcement due to a lack of staff, a strong sense of criminality being underreported, and a failure of deterrence when illegal gangmasters are caught.
As with so much regulation under Labour, we have rules which adds cost to honest, compliant businesses and fails to enforce against the criminal. We need more inspectors on the ground to identify illegal gangmasters abusing vulnerable workers, and civil penalties so that those who profit from their work can be hit in the pocket.
Such a change will safeguard some of the most vulnerable workers in the UK, ease community tension from the fallout surrounding Eastern European immigration, and punish criminals profiting from their wrongdoing.