Farmers told 'gangmaster' ordeal is over
A three-year nightmare for farmers accused of breaches of so-called “gangmaster” legislation is over after the legal case effectively crumbled – leaving taxpayers to pick up an estimated £100,000 bill.
More than 20 farmers – many based in the West – were being prosecuted by the Gangmaster Licensing Authority for using farm workers supplied by Wiltshire employment agency Marden Management. It admitted eight charges of breaching gangmaster legislation in November last year, but the GLA, an offshoot of Defra, had continued to prosecute individual farmers.
At Swindon Magistrates’ Court the remaining farmers pleaded guilty to the “technical” offence of taking labour from an unlicensed gangmaster. They all received absolute discharges and while they have been ordered to pay £300 each towards the costs of the prosecution, they have not been ordered to pay any fines.
National Farmers’ Union president Peter Kendall said the GLA’s approach to prosecuting farmers was “heavy-handed”. He added that the absolute discharge would be a relief, but cold comfort to the farmers involved, after three years of stress and worry.
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“While they can now move on, the past three years have been incredibly difficult for these farmers and going through this ordeal has, for many, been at great personal cost,” said Mr Kendall. “They co-operated with the GLA investigation into Marden Management from the outset, believing that the focus of the investigation was the unlicensed gang master, but expressed their shock to me when they received summonses out of the blue. They couldn’t understand why the Defra team decided to prosecute the farmers.
“The district judge, at the hearing on Friday, said that the GLA’s guidance at the time was misleading because it wasn’t clear that the rules applied to the dairy industry.
“What has been the outcome? All the farmers on Friday were given absolute discharges with no fines, just orders for costs. It’s flabbergasting to think how much these prosecutions have cost the taxpayer and it’s difficult to see how the public interest has been served by the bringing of these prosecutions.”
The original investigation into Marden Management’s operation as an unlicensed gang master by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority started nearly three years ago.
The NFU said it believes the proceedings cost the prosecution in excess of £100,000 and with the total orders for costs being less than £7,000, the taxpayer has been left with an unpalatable bill.
Former vice-president of the NFU Gwyn Jones, who was one of the farmers caught up in this case, said: “The verdict has come as a great relief.”
GLA chief executive Paul Broadbent said: “The GLA is disappointed in the outcome of these cases. This was by far the most serious example the authority has tackled exclusively, in terms of the intentional, well-organised and systematic financial exploitation of workers, but the punishment does not fully reflect that.”
Marden Management, an agricultural recruitment firm based in Calne, and its boss Christopher Blakeney, pleaded guilty in November to eight charges of operating as a gangmaster without the appropriate licence.