A Government clampdown on illegal gangmasters who exploit agricultural workers was branded a "sticking plaster solution" yesterday.
Thousands of agricultural workers, many of who work on farms across the West Midlands, will be protected under the new licensing regime, M inisters announced yesterday.
Licences must be held by anyone supplying labourers to work in agriculture or food processing and packaging, which include many pack houses and farms in Worcestershire and Herefordshire.
The issue of gangmasters came to a head after 20 cockle pickers drowned after being cut off by the tide at More-cambe Bay, Lancashire, in August 2003.
Ministers had already called for action after three migrant workers were killed when their minibus was hit by an express train in July 2003 at Charlton, near Evesham, Worcestershire.
Herefordshire MP and shadow Farming Minister Bill Wiggin yesterday dismissed the new licensing scheme, claiming it would merely place an extra burden on legitimate gangmasters and do little to tackle the ones who operate on the black market.
Mr Wiggin, who sat on a select committee looking at the work of gangmasters following the Morecambe Bay tragedy, said: "One has to question whether licensing is really going to be sufficient.
"In the case of the cockle pickers, the problem was that the people being exploited were not necessarily here legally and, therefore, on top of this licensing regime you also need a control on people who are coming into the country so that illegal immigrants are not exploited. What we should be doing to achieve this is stop-ping these tragedies rather than death by paper work.
"Once you have got a licence it doesn't mean you were never the problem. It is the one's that won't bother to get the licence that concern me. What support has it given to people who play by the rules and what penalty will it give to those who don't?
"It is a sticking plaster solution if it is not backed up by good support for those who do apply for licences and makes life impossible for those who don't."
Defra Minister Jim Knight said the Government wanted to protect everyone involved in picking, processing, preparing or packing produce if they were supplied by gangmasters.
He said: "Of course, many gangmasters run safe and legitimate businesses but it's imperative that we do everything we can to weed out the rogues among them."
He said the scheme would be reviewed after a year to ensure it was working effectively.
"We are especially keen to ensure it doesn't become an excessive burden for small businesses. But we know that genuine labour providers want us to outlaw the bad operators who bring their industry into disrepute," he added.
Licences will not be needed by those supplying labour to retailers, caterers or wholesalers. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority said it would accept applications for licences from April 6.
It is expected that it will become an offence for gang-masters to operate without a licence from October 1 and that it will become an offence to use an unlicensed gang-master from December 1. ..SUPL: