[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 March, 2004, 16:54 GMT
Doubt over gangmaster law plan
Morecambe Bay
Some gangmasters 'are abusing workers with low pay'
New laws to regulate gangmasters after the Morecambe Bay tragedy may not be given enough time to clear Parliament, an agriculture minister has suggested.

A Private Members' Bill to licence gangmasters has won MPs' support since 20 Chinese cockle-pickers died.

Agriculture Minister Lord Whitty on Tuesday reiterated the government's backing for the Bill's principles.

But questioned by MPs, he refused to confirm it would be given crucial government time in Parliament.

Most Private Members' Bills never become law because they run out of parliamentary time.

Offence

The Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill was proposed by Labour MP Jim Sheridan before the cockle-pickers' deaths and last month received an unopposed second reading from MPs.

It sets out a system of registration and licensing for employers.

It would become illegal for gangmasters to employ people without having a licence - and it would also be an offence to use the services of gangmasters who did not have a licence.

Gangmasters would have to show proof of a licence before they could employ workers - and this would include information about pay and deductions.

Lord Whitty, speaking to the Environment and Rural Affairs select committee, said ministers were grateful for the Bill but it would be "premature" to promise it parliamentary time.

Home Office Minister Beverley Hughes later told the MPs that if everybody, including the government, supported the plans, there was no reason for them not to reach the statute books.

Lord Whitty also revealed that ministers did not meet until six weeks after the Morecambe Bay tragedy to discuss the gangmasters' issue.

Urgency?

The peer said he had immediately questioned after the tragedy whether gangmasters were involved in the cockle-pickers' deaths.

But he had only met Ms Hughes and Work and Pensions Minister Chris Pond on 18 March.

There had, however, been earlier "informal" talks.

Mr Pond told the MPs that the 18 March meeting had not been directly prompted by the Morecambe tragedy.

But ministers were constantly in touch, even if it was not through face-to-face meetings and there had been a "great deal of activity" over the tragedy, he insisted.

Delay?

An evaluation of Operation Gangmaster, an enforcement scheme, began last year.

The MPs wanted to know why six months after their committee raised concerns about the problem the results were still not ready.

That indicated a lack of urgency, suggested committee chairman Michael Jack.

Mr Pond argued the report would be finished by the end of the month and would be "thorough".

One minister?

At the same hearing, Ms Hughes said it was not yet known whether gangmasters were involved in the Morecambe Bay tragedy or whether the Chinese cockle-pickers were employed directly.

The government would be able to decide whether it could have done more before the tragedy once the inquiries were complete, said Ms Hughes.

But she warned that people should not blame government agencies for the deaths when responsibility lay with the people who had put the cockle-pickers in "terrible danger".

Geraldine Smith, Labour MP for the Morecambe area, told the MPs there should be one cabinet minister for immigration, asylum and migration.

"Of course I am concerned about delays in ministers meeting and discussing what was the worst industrial accident since Piper Alpha," she said.

Political will?

Both Ms Hughes and Mr Pond instead argued the current arrangements were more effective.

The Home Office minister said: "It is not possible when we need to have effective joint working to put every single official and policy areas in one particular department."

The important thing was to have a "joined up" effort, she said.

Later, shadow home secretary David Davis said new laws could take months to come into effect when only eight people had been prosecuted under existing laws in the last five years.

"If the political will was there, action could be taken immediately," said Mr Davis.




SEE ALSO:
MP presses for gangmaster licence
25 Feb 04  |  Politics
Calls for gangmaster licensing
07 Feb 04  |  Politics
UK action on gangmasters 'flawed'
13 Feb 04  |  Politics



PRODUCTS AND SERVICES

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific