Confusion over legislation to protect agricultural workers means thousands of farmers might be breaking the law without even realising it.
The situation emerged after the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority admitted it was unable to say definitively which types of farm businesses were covered by legislation requiring them to be licensed as labour providers.
Rules to protect gangs of agricultural workers were introduced following the Morecambe Bay tragedy, which saw 21 Chinese cockle pickers drowned by an incoming tide off the Lancashire coast in 2004.
Many within the farming industry are aware that employment agencies supplying teams of farm labourers to harvest crops must be licenced. Employing an unlicensed labour provider can result in a £5,000 fine or six months in prison.
But it is now apparent that the legislation is far broader than previously thought, raising the prospect that thousands of farmers need a licence, even though they have never considered themselves a gangmaster or labour provider.
Farmers who purchase standing crops from neighbours all technically require licences, the GLA confirmed, even if they harvest that crop using their own employees and machinery.
Asked for a definitive list of who should apply for a licence, a GLA spokeswoman this week told Farmers Weekly that the authority was unable to say categorically “what is in and what is out”.
She added: “The GLA is working on a new guidance note on the scope of licensing, but new circumstances and practices may arise which may identify new activities or methods that require licences. Therefore we can’t produce a definitive list.”
Farmers who were unsure whether they needed a licence should refer to the GLA website and seek advice from the authority if their own particular circumstances did not fit the information provided, the spokeswoman said.
NFU senior legal adviser James Potter described the legislation as hazy. There was a certainly a role for the GLA, he said, but the authority needed to make it much clearer who was covered by the legislation.
“Clarity is needed urgently,” said Mr Potter. “Everyone needs to know who is covered because it is so disruptive if you get it wrong. An enforcement raid can be immensely disruptive and the whole situation is far from clear.”
The GLA website is at www.gla.gov.uk. The authority can be contacted on 0845 602 5020.