FORESTRY contractors say Defra has ignored an opportunity to get a burdensome bureaucracy off their backs, in spite of its promise to tackle red tape.
In fact, they claim, a Defra Minister used its working party on red tape as an excuse not to take action.
This week, the Confederation of Forest Industries (Confor) said the Defra decision was a buck-passing move which would cost jobs in small businesses, because it had become so complicated to take people on for short periods, especially if their pay varied from one job to another. And a Yorkshire contractor said his experiences with the Gangmaster Licensing Authority had been “hellish”.
The GLA was set up to prevent exploitation of migrant workers, in the wake of the drowning of 21 Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay in 2004.
Manual harvest workers, like fruit pickers, were among those it was set up to protect. But the forestry business says it is different because its “casuals” are mainly regulars, with skills, and the Forestry Regulation Task Force, which reported last year, said it was a “low risk” sector which should be exempt from GLA supervision.
But two weeks ago, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, one of Defra’s junior Ministers, published a response which said the matter would be considered further “as part of the Red Tape Challenge process”.
He also said he was still awaiting another report, the Independent Panel on Forestry, which was set up after the coalition Government ran into trouble with plans for a big privatisation of Forestry Commission woodland.
But Confor says the Independent Panel on Forestry will not be considering the GLA issue and it is missing the point of the red tape review to use it as a reason for inaction.
John Wheelan, who runs M1 Forestry Services, based in Kettlethorpe, near Wakefield, said through Confor: “My gangmaster’s licence has added cost, complexity and aggravation to my business. There has been no positive impact – it has been hellish. There is a danger that good employers will steer clear of work that needs a gangmaster’s licence because of all the hassle.”
Mr Wheelan usually employs around eight people and this week had another 16 planting a million trees up a new dual carriageway on the A46, south of Newark.
He told the Yorkshire Post he struggled to get hold of staff in a hurry because if he needed a gangmaster’s licence, so did any agency he wanted to use. It cost £4,000 to register for a licence, £400 a year to maintain it and £1,800 to re-register after a break or change of address.
Two years ago, he discovered he needed a gangmaster’s licence for about 15 per cent of his business and declared himself to the GLA. Inspectors “raided” his home, took all his business records, kept some for three months and returned them in a muddle.
Confor’s head of policy, Rupert Pigot, said: “A lot of businesses have been telling us similar stories. They find the GLA heavy-handed, inflexible and burdensome.”
A Defra spokesman said: “It is unfair to say this issue has been kicked into the long grass.
“We took on board everything the Task Force said and nothing has been ruled out.”
Stuart Goodall, chief executive of Confor, said: “David Cameron promised to create jobs and tackle red tape but Defra’s decision flies in the face of both those promises.”