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Lord Renton: As a native of Kent and now living in East Anglia, I remember in my youth seeing the hop-pickers and fruit-pickers who came from the East End of London in groups. Now in Huntingdonshire for some years, all potato harvesting on a large scale has been done by contract hands and it is rare that a gang is employed for more than one week at a time. Amendment No. 89 deserves some consideration from
Lord Dixon-Smith: I look forward to hearing what my noble friend the Minister says in response to this amendment. I am another East Anglian. I am no longer involved in the business of employing casual labour for the picking of vegetables, potatoes or fruit. But this is not exclusively an agricultural problem and I shall return to that in a moment.
Short-term employment is not unknown, as has already been mentioned this evening by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, in the construction industry where not least of the problems is identifying who the prime employer is. Is it the prime contract holder who has responsibility--dealing for the moment with the construction industry--for the total site, the design and the construction of the total project? Or, as is so often the case, is it a subcontractor who is being employed in order to plaster the walls or to put the wiring into the building? He may have a deadline to finish the work by Saturday night and decide to take on three extra people to complete the work. In that instance I would hope to hear from my noble friend that the prime contractor is exonerated and that it is the responsibility of the subcontractor to ensure that the workers comply with the responsibility required by the law.
If one comes back to the agricultural situation and draws a parallel example, one may have a situation where a landowner employs a gangmaster who provides the labour. It is quite clear that the gangmaster is in the position of the subcontracting employer and should properly be held responsible for the bona fides of those he brings onto the landowner's field. The other side of the argument is that if the landowner himself owns an old banger of a bus which he drives around the local villages, filling it with various local people, then the responsibility lies in his hands.
This form of employment is already well recognised and well known to the DSS, who have been trying to deal with the scores of people who are here today and gone tomorrow. Although it is somewhat unusual at the moment in East Anglia, occasionally it rains and it is not possible to work. This is therefore a real problem and I hope that the Minister can give a somewhat sympathetic response to the specific difficulties of this rather irrational, illogical but nonetheless essential type of employment.
Lord Renton: Before my noble friend sits down, I think he may wish to make it clear that in the context of this clause it is the gangmaster and not the farmer with whom the gangmaster contracts who is the employer.
We have a similar difficulty in the construction industry. There may be gangmasters there--I do not know--but there is still that type of problem. Surely the Government do not want to make it impossible for people to be employed on a casual basis when that is the way in which that type of employment works best. It seems to me that there is a point here. The National Farmers Union accepts the point. I hope the Minister will make some concession.
Lord Dixon-Smith: I hoped I had made my point perfectly plain, but I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was listening. I thought I said that where a farmer undertook this responsibility for himself he carried the responsibility himself.
The Earl of Balfour: Perhaps I may add a few words. In Scotland a substantial number of people from southern Ireland are employed on the casual basis just described. They never seem to possess any papers about anything.
Lord Dubs: I thank the noble Earl for supporting the point I made in relation to an earlier amendment. Perhaps I may turn to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. I can assure him that I was listening. He said that it was the farmer's responsibility. My point is that when a farmer in Kent takes on a casual worker to harvest crops it is very difficult to expect the farmer to go through the processes required by the Bill. If labour is taken on in that casual way it will be difficult to impose on the farmer the burden of dealing with the documentation that is required. Whether it is the farmer or the gangmaster, the strength of the criticism of the Government's proposal in relation to this matter stands.
Baroness Blatch: The amendment would provide an additional defence in some circumstances for those employing people on a casual and short-term basis. Under its terms an employer would not be guilty of an offence under Clause 8 if he could prove that the employment concerned was of a casual and short-term nature and that the number of employees involved was such that it was not reasonably practicable for the employer to obtain a document from the employee concerned.
The amendment introduces a degree of uncertainty into what would otherwise be a clear-cut matter. Employers would be required to weigh the reasonableness and the practicability of making checks in the light of the number of employees involved in casual and short-term employment. Having done so, they could still not be sure that in seeking to rely on the
It would also weaken the impact of Clause 8 by potentially removing from its ambit a significant number of casual and short-term employments where the employer judged it impracticable to make the necessary checks. It would provide a loophole which could be readily exploited by unscrupulous racketeers trying to evade the impact of the clause. All they would have to do would be to engage sufficiently large numbers of those not entitled to work and make sure that they worked on a casual basis. We believe that employers must have clear and objective guidance if what is required of them under Clause 8 is to be kept to a minimum. The amendment would not enable us to provide such guidance.
The Government recognise the difficulties faced by the agricultural and horticultural industries in particular in securing sufficient casual workers who are legally entitled to do such work. The seasonal agricultural workers' scheme, which enables overseas students to work on farms from May to November each year as part of a youth mobility scheme, provides such a source. But we accept that the present quota of 5,550 falls short of the industry's needs despite efforts to improve recruitment from the resident labour force. We have therefore decided that from the 1997 season that quota will be increased to 10,000, which represents a rise of more than 80 per cent. We believe that that will substantially increase the number of people legally entitled to do seasonal agricultural work and as such will significantly reduce the industry's problems in making checks on casual workers. In the circumstances I hope that, with that concession, my noble friend will not wish to press the amendment.
Viscount Addison: I thank my noble friend for that reply and all Members of the Committee for their contributions. I am very pleased that the few crumbs of comfort that I thought I might have have turned into something more desirable. However, I am rather worried that 10,000 Australian illegal immigrants may turn up in East Anglia. That does not seem to be very many when we consider the figures we heard earlier. Will there be any flexibility? Will my noble friend give me a little more comfort in possibly increasing that number if there is a need?
Baroness Blatch: My noble friend knows a good deal about Kent and my noble friend Lord Renton and I know a good deal about East Anglia. There will be constraints in East Anglia because horticulture in particular is a very hard-pressed industry. The likelihood of it taking one single employee more than it can afford on to its books is a very remote possibility indeed. It is an industry which runs on very tight profit margins, if any. That will be a very real constraint on the numbers that can be employed. So if 10,000 Australians turn up in East Anglia they will be disappointed. However, I can say to my noble friend that the NFU has made representations to us. This is a steep increase on the
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