Labour supports a points-based system – but it needs improvements to make sure we tackle the exploitation of migrant workers, which is also bad for British workers who might be being undercut and for employers who need to attract talent.
Stephen Kinnock: I think it would be a caricature of whatever comments were made to say that we are going to somehow stop people who are already here being here. That seems to be the logical extrapolation of what the hon. Lady is arguing, and I do not think that anybody would argue that. We value the workforce that we have, but we also want to build and create more opportunities for our own, home-grown talent. I am sure that that is something we can all agree on.
Let me turn away from the health and care sector for a moment and look at some of the issues that have been raised about the agricultural sector. We cannot have a situation such as we have had in the farming sector where 30,000 pigs are being slaughtered and £60 million-worth of crops are being burned, which is what happened over the past year. We also know that the construction industry lost 175,000 jobs in 2020-21, and that has had a big impact in the form of projects being slowed down. We know that, in September 2021, UKHospitality called for the Government to include the hospitality sector in temporary work visa schemes in the aftermath of covid-19 and reflecting the need to boost our economy. That call was of course echoed in the report by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee that was published on 24 October. It recommended the introduction of temporary recovery visas for industries—predominantly tourism and hospitality in this case—that are experiencing short-term labour shortages for so-called low-skilled roles.
We recognise these challenges and we feel that the way to find solutions is to go to the heart of the system so that it is better positioned and placed to deliver results on a sector-by-sector basis—pragmatism over ideology, as has already been said. The Opposition are well aware of the flaws in the current points-based system. We feel that the Government are failing to balance the need to encourage businesses to recruit and train home-grown talent with the need to use migrant labour to address short-term pressure points in the labour market.
The fundamental weakness is that the Government’s economic migration strategy is not joined up, so they will struggle to meet their economic and public-service priorities. For instance, we feel that the Migration Advisory Committee and the Skills and Productivity Board are not as integrated as they could be in making decisions on the shortage occupation lists.
We believe that the way to understand the type of short-term support that sectors require, for instance access to temporary work visas, is to get the system working properly, with more flexibility. At the heart of that should be a three-way dialogue, led and convened by the MAC, drawing together representatives from employers speaking for the sector, trade unions, and relevant Government Departments, to look at the sectors on the Migration Advisory Committee’s shortage occupation lists in detail. That dialogue would be the mechanism through which decisions are made around the short-term visa schemes, such the seasonal worker scheme, the youth mobility scheme, and new ideas, such as the temporary recovery visa, which is being debated here today.
The three-way working group would not only look at the shortage occupation lists but set conditions that companies that have sponsorship licences would need to meet on workers’ rights. We are worried that the current points-based system is also failing when it comes to the enforcement of labour standards.
We know, for instance, that Nepalese health workers, Indonesian fruit pickers, and care workers from the Philippines and Ghana, are at serious risk of exploitation through recruitment agencies charging fees, leading to migrant workers ending up in illegal debt bondage through having to repay those recruitment fees. Many of those recruitment agencies operate abroad, and it would be good if the Government were able to investigate whether work could be done by British embassies overseas to look out for problems and red-flag agencies that are suspected of nefarious practices.
We must also clamp down on illegal practices in the UK. Of course, it is illegal to charge migrant workers recruitment fees in Britain, but the Association of Labour Providers said that some employers in the UK are still demanding that workers pay for their recruitment fees. We need solutions to those issues.
Part of the challenge is that, under the past 12 years of successive Conservative Governments, the number of labour market inspectors has decreased to one inspector for every 20,000 workers, when the International Labour Organisation recommends one for every 10,000. I hope the Minister will share his thoughts on that ratio, and whether he believes that it will enable the Government to crack down on exploitation.
In 2019, the Conservative party committed to merging the three enforcement bodies—the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority and His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ national minimum wage enforcement teams—into one enforcement body. Perhaps the Minister could confirm what progress is being made on that, or is it perhaps another broken manifesto promise?
The main agency involved in the welfare of seasonal workers is the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority. The scheme operators, which are responsible for recruitment, must have a licence from the authority and can have it revoked if they failed to abide by certain standards. However, the regulator does not routinely carry out inspections on farm premises, and some critics say it lacks the resources to police abuses of workers’ rights.
We also need to understand, for seasonal workers specifically, what action is being taken by the Government to ensure that the 40,000 businesses with sponsorship licences from the GLAA are being properly regulated by HMRC to ensure that they maintain high employment standards.
Anne McLaughlin: Is the hon. Gentleman aware of another issue, which the Daily Record in Scotland revealed the other day, that delivery drivers for Just Eat, Deliveroo and others—I cannot remember which of the others it was, so I had better not say any names—are able to rent out their accounts? They are told that they are responsible for ensuring that the person they rent it out to is allowed to work and has passed basic health and safety checks, and that is obviously not happening. People are having meals delivered, and do not know if that person has passed the checks that they should have. Just as importantly, some of the workers renting those accounts are not allowed to work and are being exploited. Would the hon. Gentleman agree that the agencies he mentioned should be able to look into that as well?
Stephen Kinnock: The hon. Lady is absolutely right that there is a vital role to play here, in terms of regulation and enforcement. Our major concern is twofold. There is a bit of a mixture of all of these agencies not necessarily co-ordinating together. There are three main agencies, so, first, let us have a single enforcement body. Secondly, the number of labour market inspectors should meet ILO standards. It is currently one to 20,000 and it should be one to 10,000. Those would be major steps in the right direction, and could be the start of cracking down on the issue the hon. Lady rightly raises.
Maintaining standards is not just important for the wellbeing of migrant workers and preventing undercutting, it is also good for employers, as we need to make Britain an attractive place to work, not least in sectors such as food and farming, where we are clearly more reliant on migrant workers than in other sectors. The National Farmers Union deputy president, Tom Bradshaw, told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that, although a 30,000 quota for seasonal workers visas in 2021 was a lifeline for the industry, it has not been big enough.
We also know that the challenge for the sector is not just seasonal but year-round. We understand that there are recruitment challenges in relation to the short-term nature of these visas, which the Government must look at closely. Therefore, we need to be sure that the working conditions attached to the visas are as attractive as possible, in order to attract the workers that we need, and to avoid undercutting.
Of course, where sectors and businesses are given permission to recruit from overseas, we need to see commitment to long-term workforce planning. How, for instance, would a company plan to invest in home-grown talent in the long term? What is it doing to invest in research and development, in modernising its technology and machinery to boost productivity? Does it have a skills strategy? Those are the questions that should be asked of companies, as a quid pro quo and part of the conversation about being given shortage occupation and other permissions to bring labour from overseas. What is it doing to show its long-term workforce plan? How is it boosting productivity? Those are the questions that Government should ask. There should be a proper dialogue, rather than pulling arbitrary numbers out of the air within the Westminster bubble.
Are the Government asking for workforce plans from companies that benefit from the shortage occupation lists? If not, perhaps the Minister might like to say a few words on that. Those are the questions that Labour will ask, as and when we enter Government, committed as we are to ensuring that our points-based system strikes the right balance between incentivising employers to train and recruit locally with the right to recruit internationally where required.
I look forward to the Minister’s responses to my questions, in addition to those raised by other right hon. and hon. Members.