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Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I find the amendment interesting and in many ways it is a good one. There is a parallel between it and the driving licence. If you are in an accident and cannot produce a driving licence instantly, you are given a little time to do so. Then, listening to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, I was concerned because I felt that he argued against himself. He said that an employer might want someone in a hurry who would come in for a short time, a few days, and go again. That would be no use because the person would be gone before the two weeks were up. So it would not apply to someone who came in on short-term or relief employment. That person would have to bring some type of document with him if he were coming for a few days, as the noble Lord suggested. However, for someone entering longer term employment, there is a case. Often people cannot produce documents in an instant, when they should. The parallel with the driving licence after an accident is interesting.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the amendment would provide an employer with a defence if he could show that one of the specified documents had been produced to him within two weeks of the employment starting. At present the clause specifies that the document should have been produced to the employer before the employment began.

As I explained when we discussed a similar amendment in Committee, the suggestion that there should be a period of grace allowed to employers within

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which they could establish their defence was put forward by a small number of those who responded to our consultation document on the prevention of illegal working.

The main reason put forward in support of this amendment is that a period of grace would prevent the introduction of potential delays into the recruitment process while documentation is requested. I know that this has been a concern to some employers, although we believe that that concern has been exaggerated. I can understand why some employers, and others, have found the idea of a period of grace attractive.

However, while I can understand the concerns of those who seek a period of grace, I believe, as I said during our earlier discussion in Committee, that it is not unreasonable to assume that Clause 8 will have an effect on the recruitment process. At present there is no need for a person to carry certain documentation when going for an interview unless it has specifically been asked for. As a result it will therefore rarely be available.

Our expectation is that such documentation will be readily available in many more cases in the future because it will be understood that the offer of employment may be dependent on its production. This will tend to concentrate the minds of those seeking employment. It will be a matter for employers when they choose to request the documentation. But it would be satisfactory for the purposes of this clause if the documentation was presented when the new employee turned up on the first day.

For the vast majority of people it should be a straightforward matter to produce one of the specified documents. Evidence of a national insurance number will be provided by a wide range of different documents, including the P45. If such evidence is not available, most people keep documents like passports or birth certificates in a safe place. Letters issued by the Home Office to asylum seekers and refugees will also tend to be kept in a safe place.

I do not accept the contention put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in Committee that it is likely that black people will have more difficulties in arriving with the relevant documents than will white people. Those who will have very real problems will be those who are not entitled to work here--perhaps because they are here illegally or here as a visitor and prohibited from working.

I explained during our previous debate why the then suggested two-month period of grace would seriously weaken the impact of Clause 8. However, even a shorter period of grace would significantly weaken its impact.

It could certainly provide a loophole which could be used by unscrupulous racketeers trying to evade the impact of the clause. If we made it 14 days, they would employ people on a 13-day basis; if we made it seven days, they would employ people on a six-day basis; if we made it 24 hours, they would employ people on an hourly basis. The loophole is there, whatever period of grace is determined by noble Lords opposite.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, referred to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister having come back from the Florence Summit referring to flexibility. I

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believe he made a point, and I support him in that. But we are protecting jobs in the labour market for the people in this country who have a right to those jobs and not for the racketeers or those who are working here illegally. To the noble Lord's accusation that, "the noble Lord and his friends are on the side of the small employers", I would say that those who are on the side of this amendment are on the side of the racketeers and on the side of those working illegally--

Earl Russell: Order!

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am not out of order. We have here an offence against the racketeers who are exploiting very vulnerable people who come here and are taken advantage of, very often at very low wages, and exploited in the workshops of those companies. We are saying that this offence deals quite explicitly with that. Those who oppose making this an offence to catch people like those racketeers, frankly, must be on their side if they are not prepared to support the Government in making it an offence.

More sig--

Earl Russell: My Lords, the noble Baroness has impugned our honour. I will ask her to withdraw that remark.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, as a former Minister of State at the Home Office, I simply cannot accept the allegation that Members of the Front Bench of the Opposition parties are engaged in supporting racketeers. We understand about racketeers; we have no time for them; and we certainly do not wish it to be implied that we will give them any kind of support at all. I must ask the noble Baroness to withdraw that remark.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I have to respond to that with a direct retort. If the noble Baroness is serious, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is also serious, what are they going to do about the racketeers? What are they going to do about those employers who exploit the vulnerable in the workplace, who do not have to pay them very well or treat them very well because they are not caught by these measures? The intention is to put this measure on the statute book to deal with that explicitly.

We have given an absolute assurance to the small businesses in this country, most of which will not be caught by these measures. Already in their everyday practices most have a defence against this offence and will have no problems with it at all. We will operate a light touch and we will be serious in that. We will produce guidance which will be user-friendly for the majority of small businesses. But the measure is quite specifically to catch the unscrupulous. If the noble Baroness and the noble Earl are serious in that, and if the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, is serious, they will support us in putting a measure on the statute book that will catch those racketeers. That is what we intend to do; and I stand by that.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, it would be perfectly possible to

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reach agreement on an amendment at Third Reading that would meet both our needs. Many honest and decent small employers represented by the Federation of Small Businesses have asked us to raise this matter since they believe they will be caught by the Government's net. We must ask the Government to consider whether federation representatives would themselves try to allege that small businesses would take part in an attempt to help racketeers. It is a serious allegation, not just against Members on the Front Bench of the Opposition parties but against the Federation of Small Businesses itself. I am sure that the Minister does not wish to make such an allegation.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I certainly do not want to make that kind of accusation against small businesses. As I began by saying in response to this amendment, I believe they are the backbone of economic generation and activity in this country. I do not demur from that. I also believe that the majority of small businesses have absolutely nothing to fear. I further believe that most small businesses, in their normal recruitment practices, look for a national insurance number or a P45 and they will not be caught by this measure. I also believe that, even if those small businesses accept those documents in good faith and they then turn out to be forged, unlike the way in which the noble Lord initially addressed this amendment, they will not be caught by this provision. They will have a proper defence, because they will have looked at the document. If it is fraudulent, it will be a matter for the applicant to answer. He will be in breach of the law, not the employer.

We have further said that we will do what we can to operate a light touch on employers. And we have said that we will produce the friendliest user-friendly information and guidance to small businesses, and will produce a helpline for them to contact if they are in any difficulty about recognising a bona fide document. We will go a very long way to recognise the difficulties and to reduce the burdens on small business. But we are deadly serious in making sure that people do not use the system to work here illegally. We shall make absolutely certain that we do not have any truck with racketeering in this country. This part of the clause is there because we believe it will catch those who exploit the most vulnerable people.

8.45 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I did not intervene in the Minister's speech because I try to avoid that if I can. However, I want her to know that my noble friends and I share the resentment expressed by the Liberal Democrat Front Bench about what is more than an implication that we are supporting racketeers. It was a direct statement that we are supporting racketeering. It was as clear as that, and Hansard will show it to be so. That is not easily forgivable.

I often wonder whether the Conservative Party knows anything at all about the way business operates. I often wonder whether its members are not living in a dream world of what they think is Adam Smith economics but in fact is probably monetarist economics of the most

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extreme and theoretical sort. Have they ever been to the hotel and catering jobcentre just north of Oxford Street on the Corner of Mortimer Street and Wells Street in the early morning? Do they know how hotel and catering workers are actually recruited? The hotels, restaurants and others send out a call at six o'clock or seven o'clock in the morning for x number of people to do washing up, or to be supplementary waiters, or sous-chefs, or whatever it may be. These people have to be taken on at a minute's notice, not half-an-hour's notice. They have to be there to fill a job. Do the Government know what happens when farmers recruit fruit-pickers? Do they think that fruit-pickers, when they arrive, will come with their passports or their P45s? When the cherries, plums or whatever are ripe, these people have to be recruited at the time; and they will be recruited at the time. For the Minister to tell us that the effect of Clause 8 will be that employees will have to be more responsible in bringing their documents with them when they come for jobs is a denial of common sense and of the way in which the employment market actually works.


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