HC Deb 09 February 2004 vol 417 cc1119-30 3.30 pm
Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab)

(urgent question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if she will make a statement on the measures that the Government intend to introduce to regulate the activities and operations of gangmasters following the recent tragedy in Morecambe bay.

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael)

I start by underlining the fact that the death of 19 Chinese cocklers in Morecambe bay is a human tragedy. The deaths happened in horrific circumstances and shocked the local community, as they shocked us all. I recognise that the first reaction of my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) and her local constituents was that of human sympathy for the dead and the survivors. We extend our sympathy to the families and friends of all involved.

This incident is not the first involving migrant or illegal workers, but it involves the largest number of work-related deaths since the Piper Alpha tragedy some years ago. We must do all that we can to prevent another tragedy of this sort. The efforts of the rescue services were exemplary and I pay tribute to the professionals involved and to the local volunteers, who played a vital and courageous part in the rescue attempts.

Lancashire police have already made significant progress in their hunt for the people involved in organising the cockle pickers, and three men and two women have been arrested. While the police investigations are continuing, it would be premature to comment further on the specfics of the case.

The exploitative activities of some gangmasters are already well understood. Gangmasters bring together and supply a flexible work force to meet the changing demands of employers. Historically, that activity has been associated with planting and harvesting agricultural crops, but, as this latest incident shows, gangmasters appear to be becoming active in other areas too. The Government have been active in seeking to tackle this difficult and complex area, and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has undertaken an extremely helpful inquiry.

The activity undertaken by gangmasters is not inherently illegal, and some run legitimate businesses. Indeed, there are farmers and growers who would face great difficulties without such a supply of labour. However, it is clear that a number of gangmasters meet shortages of seasonal and casual labour, in the agricultural and horticultural sectors in particular, by supplying non-EU citizens working in the UK illegally. They are also known to supply UK nationals working illegally while in receipt of benefit. Other illegal activity includes non-payment of the minimum wage, tax, national insurance and VAT. Those abuses of workers, some of whom do not have a voice due to their illegal status, cannot be condoned.

It has been suggested that the cockle picking industry in Morecambe bay should be regulated further. Cockling in Morecambe bay is regulated by the North Western and North Wales sea fisheries committee, operating under byelaws confirmed by DEFRA. Some 700 permits have been issued to individual fishermen to date. Numbers cannot be restricted under the current permit scheme. Further, sea fisheries committees have no powers to limit public activity in the bay to daylight hours on safety grounds. It is not clear at this stage whether the Chinese cocklers involved in last week's tragedy had permits. Applicants have to provide proof of identity, such as a national insurance number, and photographic identification.

There have also been calls for regulation of gangmasters, as my hon. Friend said in her question. As I explained to the House last week, DEFRA fully supports the work of Operation Gangmaster. That coordinates enforcement activity in relation to gangmasters and brings together the key Departments with an interest, which include the Department for Work and Pensions, which takes the lead, the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise, the immigration service and others, including DEFRA, as required. As I reported to the House last week, this work is delivering results. However, incidents such as the one in Morecambe bay last week show that we cannot relax our efforts.

The Gangmaster (Licensing) Bill, a private Member's Bill, will be presented to the House by my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) for Second Reading on 27 February. The Bill seeks to curb the exploitative activities of gangmasters operating in agriculture by introducing a statutory licensing scheme. The Government fully support the objectives of the Bill. Like hon. Members in all parts of the House, the Government wish to see an end to the misery and exploitation that unscrupulous gangmasters operating outside the law can cause. The Government's normal approach is to consider alternatives to statutory regulation first, and we have been working very closely with the Ethical Trading Initiative to establish whether an industry-led accreditation scheme would be effective in curbing the exploitative activities of certain gangmasters. That work is continuing.

In this case, we appear to be dealing with criminal gangs. Such people will take no notice of a non-statutory solution. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire said on the radio this morning, we can never legislate for people who are determined to undermine any kind of laws. The Government have not ruled out legislation, although we have yet to reach a final conclusion on the merits of a statutory licensing scheme. However, I recognise the depth of support that he has for his Bill, and we are carefully considering it with colleagues in other Departments. If a licensing scheme is introduced, the work done in association with the Ethical Trading Initiative will provide a valuable contribution to any statutory licensing scheme that may be introduced.

Gangmasters who operate outside the law cannot be allowed to continue to put workers' lives at risk. The Government will therefore ensure that the full force of the law is brought to bear on those committing these crimes.

Geraldine Smith

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments, and especially his very positive comments about possible regulation of gangmasters. I hope that he will support the private Member's Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) and that Government time will be provided to allow it to proceed through Parliament.

I appreciate the fact that my right hon. Friend sent a message of condolence to the families and friends of the 19 young people who died so tragically last Thursday evening while picking cockles in Morecambe bay. What happened has appalled people in my constituency. There is a deep sense of sorrow and sympathy, and people feel that some good must come out of this appalling tragedy. May I, too, pay tribute to the magnificent efforts of the emergency services, which acted in atrocious weather conditions on Thursday night and worked so hard, displaying remarkable courage? They were fantastic and they deserve our full support.

What measures could be introduced to regulate public fisheries such as Morecambe bay? At present, just about anyone can collect cockles 2 miles out into the bay. Often, they will know little or nothing of the dangers of Morecambe bay. What can we do to improve health and safety, and what urgent steps can be taken? One thing that we should think of doing immediately is closing that public fishery during the hours of darkness. People should not be working out in Morecambe bay in the dark. I will be interested to hear my right hon. Friend's comments. Will he arrange for me to meet the Fisheries Minister as soon as possible can so that we can consider possible legislation for Morecambe bay?

Finally, I hope that some good comes out of this appalling tragedy. I hope that we can stop the exploitation not only of foreign workers, but of British workers. Some of these gangmasters are absolutely despicable, ruthless and evil people. The reputable gangmasters—after all, there are some decent people who employ casual labour, and we must give them our support—would welcome legislation. I would like the Government to support the private Member's Bill or introduce legislation as soon as possible.

Alun Michael

On my hon. Friend's last point, I agree that exploitation must be tackled, whoever the victims are. Anything we can do to strengthen the hands of those who provide important labour legitimately while observing proper health and safety and employment regulation must be right. My hon. Friend is right that some good must come out of such a tragedy. I endorse everything she said about the courage of the rescue workers and the conditions in which they had to work.

My hon. Friend asked about the regulation of access and for action to close off access during the hours of darkness. Members will recognise the common sense of that proposal. However, access is regulated under the Sea Fisheries Regulation Act 1966, which allows closure of access for fisheries reasons, such as conservation of stocks and protection of the environment. There is not the ability to do what she suggests through that avenue. We are looking at whether other legislation would allow access to be closed for public safety reasons. If that proves to be impossible, clearly we will have to look at ways to tackle the issue.

I am sure that the Fisheries Minister would be pleased to meet my hon. Friend to discuss these matters. I and other ministerial colleagues are happy to respond to the concerns that she has raised, which have been raised over time by a number of organisations, including the Transport and General Workers Union, which supports the private Member's Bill.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con)

On behalf of the Opposition, I join in the expressions of sympathy and condolence to the families and friends of those who died in such horrendous circumstances. In particular, I join the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) in paying tribute to her constituents and others—the lifeboat and helicopter crews, the coastguard and the police—who risked their own lives in trying to save others.

It seems clear to me that those who lost their lives were victims in many different ways, not just because they lost their lives, but because they were working for gangmasters for very little money while living in conditions that would seem squalid to all of us. Like the Minister, I welcome the news of some arrests earlier today, but clearly we await the outcome of those investigations.

Many people will be concerned by the Minister's words. Is it not the truth that the tragedy sadly highlights the failure of the Government's policy on illegal working and on immigration and asylum, and their failure to fulfil their own commitments to combat unscrupulous gangmasters and remove illegal immigrants? Those of us who represent East Anglian constituencies know full well the role of good gangmasters in the food industry. The majority are fully legitimate, look after their staff and are used by responsible farmers and growers. But there is ample evidence—there has been for some time—that perhaps up to 1,000 are not so scrupulous.

Last year's Select Committee report, to which the Minister referred, stated: It appears to us that Operation Gangmaster serves as a convenient reference point for Ministers to give the impression that the Government is doing far more about dealing with the problems associated with gangmasters than is the case.

That was partly based on the statement of Lord Whitty in evidence to the Committee, when he said: We do not have a sufficiently comprehensive view of the situation.

If that is the case, why not? Operation Gangmaster has been in existence for six months. Only three months before that statement, the Government had to respond to the private Member's Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds). The Government did not give that Bill a clear passage.

The last Conservative Government's Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 made it unlawful to employ any illegal immigrants. In the first four years, there were a total of 34 prosecutions. In 2001, there was just one. How many prosecutions have there been since then?

In recent months, sadly, three suspected Kurdish gang workers were killed in collision with a train in Worcestershire. Following a house fire in King's Lynn, 36 Chinese were discovered living there illegally and working in the food industry. That led to 60 arrests. Can the Minister tell the House how many of those people were deported? In November 2002, 20 illegal Chinese workers were arrested in the Wirral after returning from a cockling expedition. How many of them were deported? In August 2003, 37 suspected illegal Chinese workers were arrested in Morecambe bay. How many of them were deported? Last year, the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration is reported to have said: The Government is cracking down on illegal working and making good progress in removing increasing numbers of immigration offenders from the UK.

Can the Minister tell us how many have been removed?

In the case of this tragedy, it is reported that nine of the survivors were asylum seekers and five were unknown to the authorities. How was it that the Government did not know where those asylum seekers were? What happened to the tracking systems that the Government were going to introduce? Do the Government agree with the reported remarks of Thomas Chan of the Chinese in Britain Forum that the problem will continue unless the Government are more robust about illegal immigration?

Is it not clear that, as many people have said, this was a tragedy waiting to happen? The Government knew of the presence of large numbers of illegal immigrants working in Morecambe bay and of the risks involved in working there, but they did nothing. Within 48 hours of the tragedy, the police were able to track down the gangmasters and to make the arrests that we have heard about, whereas the Government agencies had failed for months and years. The Home Secretary appears on the media to declare that we need more migrant workers, yet does nothing to combat the ruthless exploitation of migrants who are working illegally for slave wages. Does not this tragedy expose the hypocrisy of inaction from a Government who talk tough but act weak while the vulnerable pay the price?

Alun Michael

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his initial words, including his conclusion that these individuals appear to have been victims in a variety of ways, but it is a pity that he took the opportunity to try to score political points, given that this Government have acted on this whole area, yet the previous Government did not. I think that he will find that his remarks were ill judged.

The hon. Gentleman asked why we do not have a comprehensive view of what is going on. That point was addressed by my noble Friend Lord Whitty in another place. The reason is that we have a complex, changing problem that involves illegal activity. By definition, people do not undertake illegal activity in the open, so it is an area of considerable difficulty.

The hon. Gentleman referred to several events that are in the public domain precisely because the Government and a variety of agencies are working together to tackle the problem. He rightly said that the Home Secretary has referred to wishing to see legitimate workers coming into this country to work. We need people working seasonally in this country, but they should be legitimate workers, not people who are being exploited in the way that the Select Committee identified.

The hon. Gentleman asked what the Government are doing about the problem. In 2002–03, the positive outcomes achieved against gangmasters and their employees included the identification by the Department for Work and Pensions of 235 overpayments and 1,023 adjustments to benefits worth £405,000, thereby securing 138 sanctions and prosecutions. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman wanted to know whether there have been prosecutions, but when I give him the answer, all he can do is mock. I wish that he would take the issue more seriously.

The Inland Revenue's specialist teams settled 46 inquiries and reviews, identifying unpaid tax and national insurance worth £4.3 million. There have been criminal prosecutions of 14 gangmasters for VAT offences, involving VAT of £5.9 million and resulting in prison sentences totalling 31 years. We do not say that enough has been done; that is why we are looking at the matter across Departments. In the past couple of weeks, I have had meetings with colleagues about what we can do to strengthen the work of Operation Gangmaster and to consider the private Member's Bill. The Government are determined to tackle the problem.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab)

Nothing can take away the wicked responsibility of the people who placed those poor souls and their fellow workers on the sands of Morecambe bay in such dangerous circumstances. However, in reviewing all aspects of the terrible tragedy, will the Government consider the effects of clause 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 and the potential effect of clause 7 of the Asylum (Treatment of Claimants, Etc.) Bill to ascertain whether making those who are perhaps failed asylum seekers destitute helps to create some of the circumstances in which people can be so cruelly and disgracefully exploited?

Alun Michael

I agree with my hon. Friend's first point about exploitation and the need to eradicate it. His point about the withdrawal of family income support applies to people whose applications for asylum have failed. That is a totally different set of circumstances. People who come into the country illegally may be exploited and such exploitation needs to be tackled, but that is not directly relevant to the problems that we are considering.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD)

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, may I express our horror at the human tragedy in Morecambe, our sympathy to the families of those who were lost and our thanks to the emergency services and others who performed so well, as always, last week? Does not such an incident bring shame on our country? We have uncovered circumstances in which up to 30 or 40 people were living in a house and in some cases being paid as little as £1 a day for nine hours of back-breaking work. All of us should be concerned about that and learn lessons from it.

Should not we do more to prosecute those who appear to be content cruelly to exploit migrant workers and pay them a pittance while making huge sums? Is the Minister aware that the revised figures issued last November show that, since 1997, there were only 22 prosecutions and eight convictions for employing a person subject to immigration controls? Although he referred to other prosecutions regarding VAT and so on, is he satisfied that the law is adequate and that sufficient enforcement is deployed to ensure that those responsible are caught and prosecuted?

I am bound to reflect that the gangmasters are rightly being ruthlessly pursued in the case that we are considering—I am delighted by the law enforcement authorities' actions—but locals have known about such activity for some time. That suggests that this tragedy and others might have been avoided.

I do not want to make this a party political point—the human tragedy is too great—but hon. Members from all parties must learn from it. The Select Committee on Environment, Fisheries and Food stated that it was appalled by the lack of priority given to … illegal activity by gangmasters. I hope that we all find ways to try to deal with that. It also said that no significant resources had been allocated", to Operation Gangmaster, that it had no targets and that there was no Minister to take overall responsibility. We might all have been caught unawares, but we must now try to deal with the issues and ensure that such an incident does not happen again.

Will the Minister deal with the Select Committee's points, especially those about resources and ministerial responsibilities? Will he comment on links with the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and especially the immigration service to ensure that the Government are providing as joined-up a response as possible? Does he accept that, although there is a need to regularise economic migration. thereby providing a genuine outlet for those whom we need in this country, there is an absolute need to clamp down on those who improperly exploit migrant workers?

Will the Minister consider the suggestion of a requirement on farmers and growers to sign a form for the Home Office saying that they will pass on details of subcontractors responsible for employing labour? It would not have helped in the case that we are discussing, but it would provide some chance of keeping a check on some of the activities.

Alun Michael

The hon. Gentleman makes several important points and I am grateful for the constructive way in which he raised each issue. He is right to say that it is shameful that such circumstances exist and that "all of us"—his term—should do all that we can to eradicate such activity and prevent any such incident from happening again.

We need to do more to prosecute those who are responsible. That is why so much work is going on throughout Government. As I said earlier, we are considering a complex and changing sphere of activity, where people are making a lot of money. Some people are undertaking that activity legitimately and others are not. It is important to get the best possible intelligence and co-operation between Departments, as he also pointed out, to achieve the best possible outcome.

A variety of different ways exist in which prosecution can be undertaken because of the variety of different offences, whether in relation to health and safety, avoiding payment of tax or paying below the minimum wage. We are considering carefully whether the different forms of offence and enforcement can be simplified so that enforcement by all the agencies involved can be easier and simpler.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the lack of targets in respect of Operation Gangmaster. There has been very good co-operation, as I know from talking to my noble Friend Lord Whitty, who has lead responsibility in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and has been doing a lot of work with colleagues. An effort has been made to get under the surface of the problems to their roots to see how to tackle and prevent such activity. I assure the hon. Gentleman that that co-operation is strong.

It is difficult to set meaningful targets unless the scale of the problem to be eradicated is known. Targets for prosecution, for instance, do not necessarily help towards a minimisation of the activity. We need to improve the instruments available for the authorities so that undertaking such illegal activity does not pay. That is what we are trying to consider in terms of how the law might be treated.

On the hon. Gentleman's point about passing on details, anyone who knows anything about this tragedy, or about other examples given by various hon. Members of people being put in impossible and unacceptable conditions, should feed that information to the authorities. We are trying to make sure that the authorities exchange information between each other so that enforcement can be crisp and effective on every occasion.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will know that, after the successful joint departmental action on 6 August last year in the Dee estuary, I wrote to the chief officers of all the Departments concerned to congratulate them on the work that they had undertaken. He will also know how difficult that action was, as although 420 people were interviewed and there were hundreds of questionable activities and offences, no illegal immigrants were identified. Will he ensure that any regulatory changes, including those with regard to the Dee estuary, which comes under a different regime—that of the Environment Agency Wales▀×have teeth? Clearly, toothless regulations are pointless. Will he ensure that the regulations target primarily those who co-ordinate the illegal activities: the ruthless gangmasters who appear to be responsible for the terrible tragedy that we have seen this weekend, which could occur in many other places around our coast unless co-ordinated action is taken—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members' supplementary questions must be brief.

Alun Michael

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. He refers rightly to the operations on the Dee estuary and to what those revealed. He identifies the heart of the problem by saying that this is a difficult and complex area. We always ought to bear it in mind in this place that laws cannot always prevent what they forbid. It is important not only to regulate but to make sure that regulations are enforceable. In many ways, what we need is an antisocial behaviour order for gangmasters rather than an increased bureaucracy. That is the way in which Departments are approaching the matter: looking for that which is effective to try to nip the problem in the bud rather than increasing the bureaucracy involved. I take my hon. Friend's points about making sure that regulations are enforceable to heart.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con)

Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the professional and volunteer rescue workers from the northern end of Morecambe bay—including Arnside, Grange-over-Sands and Kendal in my constituency— who took part in the activities on Thursday night? This was a real tragedy, and it was a horrendous night for everyone.

Will the Minister also understand, however, that there is real anger about all this in my constituency? Why, for months and months, were warnings from local residents and members of the legitimate Morecambe bay fishing community ignored? Why was no action taken until Friday morning? If it was so hard to find out what was going on and where it was going on, why were journalists—both local and national—able to track down dozens of people taking part in this activity within hours on Friday morning? Has there not been a gross dereliction of duty on the part of many of those responsible? Why has it taken bloodshed for action to be taken? Is it not time for Ministers to accept that there is a right and a wrong way for people to come into this country, and that members of ethnic communities who are scrupulous in observing the right regulations and legislation are among those who are angriest about the hundreds of thousands of people in our country who do not obey our laws and do not pay our taxes because of a Government who will not enforce proper border controls?

Alun Michael

There is a right and a wrong way to raise a point in the Chamber, if I may say so.

I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to people from his constituency who were involved in the rescue effort. Indeed, I pay tribute to those who contributed to that effort, wherever they came from. It was a great credit to all of them, and it is a tragedy that those skills and that bravery had to be demonstrated in such tragic circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that warnings had been ignored. It is always easy to place more emphasis on warnings after the event than before, but the circumstances, and how this came about, will need to be examined carefully. If there were warnings that were ignored, we will certainly need to look into it, but I am not aware that that is the case.

The hon. Gentleman also suggested that journalists had been able to track people down immediately after the event. The police, too, appear to have been able to work very quickly. It sometimes takes an event—a tragedy—of this sort for a lot of information that has not been made available before suddenly to be made available. I hope that one of the consequences of what has happened will be that anyone anywhere in the country who knows of individuals being exploited will inform the authorities, whether those people are being exploited in the way that may have been involved in this case—we do not have all the facts yet—or in the manner highlighted by the report of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Regional Affairs, so that together we can do all we can to avoid future tragedies.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab)

My Gangmaster (Licensing) Bill seeks only to protect workers wherever they are in Britain, regardless of their status in this country. I agree with what my right hon. Friend said about the work of the TGWU and other coalition partners who have supported the Bill. Does he agree with me that the voluntary code is not working, and that it is time for effective legislation? Can he flesh out what he said about sharing the objectives of the Bill, and help to end the human misery of what can only be described as modern slavery in today's society? Is it not time to move on? If it had been 19 dogs that had died at Morecambe bay, the RSPCA would have launched a criminal investigation to ensure that it did not happen again. A life is a life, whether it is the life of a dog or the life of a Chinese worker. Effective legislation must be provided to give protection.

Alun Michael

I certainly agree that whoever is affected by a tragedy of this sort, human sympathy is needed. We must learn the lessons, and ensure that wherever possible such tragedies cannot happen in the future.

My hon. Friend mentioned the work of the TGWU and its co-operation with other organisations. They include the National Farmers Union—and I must say that seeing the TGWU and the NFU on the same side gives one pause for thought. A number of organisations, including some representing the retail trade, are cooperating with a wide variety of interests, all of which understand different parts—different strands—of this complex problem.

We share my hon. Friend's wish for measures that can help to end exploitation. We want to ensure that any legislation is effective, rather than only appearing to tackle the problem, or increasing the amount of bureaucracy without preventing the evils that my hon. Friend and I, along with my colleagues throughout Government, want to be eradicated.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk) (Con)

The Minister has spoken of the need for the Government to know the scale of the problem, yet Operation Gangmaster has been in existence since 1998. What has it been able to do to inform the Government about the number of migrant workers employed illegally by gangmasters? If it has not been able to provide that information, is he disappointed?

Alun Michael

It is always disappointing to know that there is a problem and to try to deal with it when it is difficult to pin down its scale, but, as I indicated earlier, no previous Govt took the steps that we have taken to try to tackle the problem—not just to measure it but actually to deal with it. I referred earlier to the public money that has been recovered and to the prosecutions that have taken place. We have made progress, but I agree with Members on both sides of the House that more needs to be done, so I hope that minds will have been concentrated in all organisations, as well as in the Government, to ensure that that happens in future.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)

The House is aware both of the need for seasonal casual labour in agriculture and of the strong emphasis that the Home Secretary has put on dealing with traffickers in illegal immigrants, but those 19 dead Chinese young people were treated little better than 19th-century coolie labour. Whatever people's immigration status, no one in Britain wants them to be treated like that—no one is mourning them, no one has claimed their bodies and their nearest and dearest probably still do not know that they are dead—so I urge the Minister to look very seriously indeed at licensing gangmasters.

Alun Michael

I have already indicated to the House that we are looking carefully at the private Member's Bill being promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire. Police activities are under way at present, so we should await full information before jumping to conclusions on some of the issues involved. It is difficult to respond to every aspect in this debate; there is the tragedy that took place last week in specific circumstances, but also the general activities of gangmasters about which the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee and many Members have made observations. Although we can talk about the general, the specific will need specific answers when we have full information and the result of the investigations.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con)

The Minister speaks of minds being concentrated by the tragedy, but should not minds in Government have been concentrated by the tragedy in my constituency seven months ago when three exploited vulnerable agricultural workers travelling in a minibus were killed by the train in which I was travelling? Is it not true that although personal tragedy is a real reason for quiet voices in the Chamber, it does not mean that the Government can escape criticism for inaction? The Government's response to the report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on gangmasters, although full of fine words and platitudes, shows no sense of urgency to deal with the problem. When will the Government show that sense of urgency?

Alun Michael

The trouble is that the House sometimes shows a sense of urgency when a tragedy takes place—not only the one last week but the one in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, to which he referred—yet the work of the Government goes on between such events. From discussions with Lord Whitty, who has been working with colleagues across the Government, I know how much work has been going on to tackle the problem of gangmasters and those who are exploited by them. It is not right to underestimate the amount of work and effort, not just of Ministers and Departments but also of those who work in the enforcement agencies. I referred in an earlier response to the figures that demonstrate how much work is being done. We are dealing with a difficult and almost intractable problem, to try to find mechanisms that will really work to eradicate it. I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) that the problem is important and that we should concentrate on it—that is why the Government are indeed concentrating on it.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend said that he would use the full force of the law. Does he accept that the fines in prosecutions for the employment of illegal labour are at trivial levels? Will he now act on the recommendation, made just two weeks ago by the all-party Select Committee on Home Affairs, that the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which can be used to seize the assets of drug dealers and of people traffickers, should also be used to seize the assets of those people who employ illegal workers and subject them to the sort of conditions in which tragedies happen?

Alun Michael

There are examples bordering on the trivial, and I agree with my right hon. Friend on the need for concern about that. I believe that in a recent case a fine of about £100 was given, which clearly does not get across the message that the matter is taken seriously by the courts, or, indeed, by Parliament, but responses from Members on both sides of the House demonstrate the seriousness with which the House approaches the matter. Fines of up to £5,000 are possible, and I believe that it applies per worker, so we could have multiples of £5,000 fines in respect of the number of people employed. We shall certainly keep the matter under review.