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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Employment Agencies (Overseas Recruitment) debate

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

A debate on the above topic was held in Westminster Hall on Tuesday 28th June.  Meg was the Minister responsible for replying and her contribution is given below.  


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Meg Munn) : I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on her choice of subject for today's debate and on her powerful speech. I thank her for her kind comments at the start of the debate. They are all the more appreciated because she is, rightly, a well-respected parliamentarian. I also thank the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) for his kind comments. There have been many thoughtful and interesting contributions, and I shall try to address as many of the points raised by hon. Members as I can.


The Government condemn any abuse or mistreatment of workers, whether they are UK nationals or migrant workers. We take such issues seriously and will continue to mobilise the resources of the various enforcement agencies that have been established to tackle such illegal practices.


It is important to place on record what we do to protect agency temporary workers. Having done that, I will answer the points that hon. Members raised. The Government acknowledge the important role that employment agencies and the workers whom they supply have to play in the labour market. However, it is important that employers and everybody operating in the industry accepts that they have an obligation to those who use their services, whether their client is an individual worker or a multinational corporation. The Government are keen to ensure that all workers, including agency temporary workers, have appropriate protections, yet we have found that, as has been said, some workers?they are often migrant workers?do not realise what rights they have.


As my hon. Friend said, the Government were aware of that difficulty, and so we took early action. We considered it particularly important to get information to potential work seekers before they left their country. We were aware, in particular, that some European Union accession country nationals were at risk of being exploited by their fellow citizens.


That is why, last year, we offered to work with all new member state Governments to help ensure that their nationals were informed of the implications of working in the UK, including access to statutory employment rights, before they left their home country. We suggested to those Governments that we jointly prepare bilingual "Know before you go" leaflets. I have a couple of examples with me, if any hon. Members would like to look at them after the debate. The leaflets give advice on questions to ask before leaving a country and on the legal protections offered to workers, including agency workers. To date, we have produced leaflets in partnership with the Polish and the Lithuanian Governments, who agreed with us about the need to produce them, and we are waiting to hear from a number of other interested member states. Those leaflets follow a similar leaflet that we produced in partnership with the Portuguese Government, to which my hon. Friend referred, and they have benefited from input from trade unions, the TUC, the CBI and other stakeholders.


We have taken steps to ensure that the bilingual leaflets are made available in informal locations. My hon. Friend rightly raised the issue of how people access the information. For example, the leaflets are available in locations such as Portuguese delicatessens, Polish shops, newsagents frequented by migrants, health centres and so on, so that we can ensure that they reach people who may be fearful. We have also distributed them to all citizens advice bureaux in the UK.


Agency temporary workers are by no means unprotected in the UK. They have access to core employment rights and statutory social security benefits, such as statutory sick pay. Since coming to office, the Government have sought to ensure that all workers receive the minimum standards of pay and conditions. Since 1997, we have significantly improved protections for agency workers. They are entitled to the national minimum wage, and they have the right to four weeks' paid holiday. The minimum wage makes no distinction between legal workers. Everyone working legally in the UK is entitled to it, regardless of how long or short their stay may be. It does not matter whether their employer is based in the United Kingdom or in another country. Moreover, a range of other protections, including those under sex, race and disability discrimination legislation, also apply to agency workers.


Legal migrant workers are protected by the same employment rights as those covering UK nationals, and all migrant workers, irrespective of their status, are protected by UK health and safety legislation. The immigration and nationality department of the Home Office is responsible for detecting and apprehending illegal migrant workers and for taking action against those responsible for employing them.


The Government have done a great deal in recent years to put in place a comprehensive package of employment rights to make sure that people are treated properly in the workplace. It is essential that both workers and employers understand their rights and obligations, and that employment rights actually work in practice, enabling people to maximise their potential in the workplace. In particular, it is important to be aware of the risks facing the most vulnerable workers, who may include those with low skills and little or no spoken English.


The denial of the rights of such workers risks undermining the wages and working conditions of millions of other people. The vast majority of decent, law-abiding employers risk being undermined by unfair competition from the small minority of employers who deliberately seek to avoid their obligations. My hon. Friend was right to say that in a civilised country it is wrong to exploit people. It is also clearly not in anybody's interest to do so.


As part of our work to combat those problems, we are considering how we can help vulnerable workers through better access to skills and training, enabling them to progress out of low-paid jobs, and through more effective enforcement targeted at unscrupulous employers who set out deliberately to take advantage of the vulnerable.
 
The UK has a clear need for migrant workers, because of our historically low unemployment coupled with rising vacancies in the labour market. There are currently more than 600,000 vacancies, owing to a number of economic factors, including demographic changes, which have seen an increasing amount of people retiring as the working population decreases. Agency work pays a key role in achieving labour market flexibility, helping companies to deal with peaks and troughs in demand and enabling individuals who do not want a permanent job, for whatever reason, to participate in the labour market. Agency temporary work can act as a stepping stone to permanent employment. About 40 per cent. of UK agency workers find non-agency jobs within a year of starting agency work, and 36 per cent. were outsiders?unemployed starters, or other non-participants?before starting agency work.


In Great Britain, the private recruitment industry is regulated by specific legislation that sets out standards for employment agency behaviour. The Employment Agencies Act 1973 and associated regulations, which were completely overhauled only last year, set those standards for the conduct of the industry, and the DTI's employment agency standards inspectorate is responsible for enforcing the legislation. The inspectorate follows up every relevant complaint that it receives that indicates a possible breach of the legislation. The inspectors investigate employment agencies by visiting their premises to inspect their records and documents, and they also undertake targeted visits in areas where infractions are considered most likely to occur.


On a specific point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich and the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), one of three conditions must be met if a deduction from any worker's pay is to be lawful. The deduction must be required or authorised by legislation or by the worker's contract, provided that the worker has been given a written copy of the relevant terms or a written explanation of them, before the deduction is made, or the worker must have consented in writing to the deduction before it is made.


No benefits in kind except accommodation can be counted towards minimum wage pay, but there is a limit on the amount that an employer who is providing accommodation can count towards minimum wage pay. The daily accommodation offset is currently set at a daily rate of £3.75, which the employer makes for each day of accommodation. It is not intended as a commercial valuation, but is designed to protect workers from unreasonable accommodation charges.


As to confiscation of passports, an individual's passport belongs to the national Government and an employer should not keep hold of it, although it may be necessary to look at it for various reasons. In holding on to the passport, the employer might be guilty of an offence under the Theft Act 1968.


The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) referred to the issue of sex workers. In the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, we introduced a new criminal offence of trafficking for the purposes of exploitation, including forced labour, under which sex workers would be included. That is punishable on conviction by a maximum of 14 years' imprisonment.


Mr. Arbuthnot : I have been puzzling over what the Minister just said about passports. Presumably, an offence under the Theft Act would require an intention permanently to deprive, and it would be difficult to prove that any employer intended permanently to deprive somebody of their passport. Is there or should there be any offence of holding the passport of another person with the intention of applying pressure to that person?


Meg Munn : The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point of legal detail. I do not have the answer to that question, although I may do shortly. That was quick. I am informed that the Identity Cards Bill will provide added powers on that point. Perhaps that will persuade him of the way in which he should cast his vote later today on Second Reading of the Bill.


On enforcement, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) and underlay all the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, who called the debate, we do not hesitate to prosecute where appropriate, but we do so only as a last resort. In the overwhelming majority of cases in which our inspectors discover breaches of the legislation, they find that, on being made aware of those infractions, companies agree to change their procedures and/or pay the money owed to the worker. Last year, the DTI undertook about 1,000 inspections of agencies and recovered more than £20,000 in wages that had been illegally withheld from workers. It is unlikely that those workers would have recovered that money by other means.


We are also looking at projects such as the joint workplace enforcement pilot?a snappy title. The pilot will involve an examination of the potential for intelligence sharing and closer co-ordinated working among Departments to tackle a range of issues relating to illegal working, for the purposes of criminal investigations or proceedings.


Mrs. Dunwoody : I certainly would not dispute my hon. Friend's description of the pilot's title as extraordinarily snappy. The reality is that employment agencies will simply go one step at a time. When I complained about people signing contracts in a language that they did not understand, the agencies used Government money to translate them. Although one particular point was dealt with, the people whom we are discussing have no intention of complying with the law, because they can walk away with large sums from each worker.


Meg Munn : My hon. Friend raises important issues, and the pilot will try to address some of them by building a thorough understanding of all the problems associated with illegal working in the area under investigation. The debate has been helpful in raising a range of such issues, and we shall try to identify the obstacles to effective enforcement or compliance. That will test the hypothesis that a joint team focusing on enforcement could have a more significant impact on routinely non-compliant employers than existing arrangements.


Only last year, the Government revised the legislation governing agencies to tighten the health and safety obligations on them and to clarify their responsibilities for their workers.


Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that language proficiency is an important factor as regards health and safety? There are 600 Polish migrant workers in Selby, and I am hosting a conference with them, employers, trade unions and employment agencies in the autumn. We are pushing the local training and skills council to improve language courses and other provisions aimed at migrant workers. Can the Government encourage learning and skills councils to get involved in something like that?


Meg Munn : I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. Clearly, one benefit of regional development associations and the learning and skills councils is that they can address the needs in their areas. If they are meeting the needs of people in their areas and helping the local economy, that should be encouraged.


On the point raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West, the Inland Revenue enforces the national minimum wage, but it is funded by the DTI. I am glad to reassure him, therefore, that cuts at the Inland Revenue will not affect national minimum wage enforcement.


The Government are committed to ending the abuse and mistreatment of migrant workers that has been described today. Where there are serious criminal offences, it is clearly for the police to investigate in the first instance and to take action if appropriate. If there are serious breaches of employment legislation in addition to serious criminal offences, however, the appropriate Government enforcement agency will investigate. Workers or third parties who are uncertain where to turn for advice can call the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service helpline in confidence for advice on employment rights. The number is 08457 474747.


In relation to agencies, the DTI can take complaints about agencies from third parties or take forward complaints in confidence without ever disclosing the names of concerned workers. If my hon. Friend or any other Member present has similar concerns, I urge them to let my Department have details of agencies or workers, and I will ask officials to look into them urgently. I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend that we must bridge the gap between the rights that agency workers have and the reality for the workers that she has so clearly described.


12.20 pm

Sitting suspended.


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