Farmers plead not guilty in gangmaster case

EIGHTEEN farmers and farming businesses, including NFU vice president Gwyn Jones, have pleaded not guilty to charges of employing labour from an unlicensed gangmaster.

The farmers, plus a nineteenth defendant, the University of Reading, which did not issue a plea, now face a possible criminal trial in October.

The not guilty pleas were issued by lawyers representing the farmers at Swindon magistrates court on Friday morning in front of District Judge Simon Cooper.

A preliminary hearing is scheduled for July 11 at the same venue, when further legal arguments will be discussed. Lawyers for the defendants hope these could lead to the cases being thrown out.

The week commencing October 24 has been set aside for a full trial, if the judge decides that the evidence and the legal arguments justify it.

If the full trial does go ahead in October, one of the defendants, Brian Barnett, aged 50, from near Carterton, in Oxfordshire, will be tried as a ‘test case’. Prosecution lawyers representing Defra may choose a second test case at a later date. Lawyers on both sides agreed this course of action to avoid having to try all 19 defendants.

The cases are all linked to a long-running investigation by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) into Wiltshire-based labour provider Marden Management.

The GLA began its investigation into the company last spring after discovering it did not have a GLA licence, as required by companies supplying labour in the farming industry. The GLA has also investigated the rates of pay received by workers supplied by Marden. Marden has not yet been prosecuted.

Most of the farmers named in the case attended today’s hearing, even though they were under no obligation to do so.  The hearing, which has been adjourned twice, had to be moved to larger court room to enable all those attending to follow the legal arguments.

More than 50 farmers and organisations who hired labour from the company were questioned in the initial stages of the investigation.

Twenty-one of those, including some of the biggest names in farming such as Mr Jones, leading cattle breeders Willsbros and prominent suppliers of majort supermarkets, were summonsed to appear in court.

Hearings scheduled for February and March were adjourned, after which two of the two of the 21 cases were dropped, before today’s hearing went ahead.

In a statement earlier this year, the GLA said it was conducting a ‘major inquiry into labour supply, potential exploitation of workers and offences within the dairy industry’. The statement added that the unlicensed supply of labour and the use of an unlicensed gangmaster are both criminal offences under the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004.

Last year, Marden Management managing director Chris Blakeney, said the company had made an innocent mistake.

“Marden has not previously had a GLA licence as, having taken advice, our interpretation of the exclusion clauses when the GLA legislation was first introduced led us to believe that our business was exempt,” he said.

The farmers involved

The following farmers, apart from the University of Reading, which did not submit a plea today, pleaded not guilty and will face a criminal trial into the claims.

  • Brian Barnett, aged 50, Astrop Farm, Brize Norton, Carterton, Oxfordshire.
  • B.J. Stainer and Sons Unlimited, Whitley Brow, Top Lane, Melksham, Wiltshire.
  • D. Goodwin and Sons, Hill House Farm, Lindfield, Haywards Heath, West Sussex.
  • Charles Robin Dawson (41) Wrenbury, Nantwich, Cheshire.
  • John Few (56) Ditchford Bank Farm, Hanbury, Bromsgrove, Worcestershire.
  • Martin Grove, Bytham Farm, Ogbourne St George, Marlborough, Wiltshire.
  • Hickson Brothers Ltd., Winkland Oaks Farm, Sutton, Dover, Kent.
  • Timothy David aka William Hosford (53) Bramblecombe House, Melcombe Bingham, Dorchester.
  • Gwyn Jones (56) Crouchlands Farm, Kirdford, Billingshurst, West Sussex.
  • Philip Robert Latham (41) Brook House, Chorley, Nantwich, Cheshire.
  • Maple Durham Trust, Maple Durham Estate, Maple Durham, near Reading.
  • Allan Ralph Miller (46) Blackwater Farm, West Bourton, Gillingham, Dorset.
  • Moss and Son Ltd., Hurst Farm, Tyndlae Road, Slimbridge, Gloucestershire.
  • Stephen James Riding (52) Bonsdale Farm, Blyton Road, Gainsborough, Lincolnshire.
  • Gareth H. Rogers (48) Higher Tredrewen Farm, Tredrewen Lane, Llandrinio, Llanymynech, Powys.
  • Andrew Skelton (46) Easton Farm, Easton, Grantham, Lincolnshire.
  • The University of Reading, Hall Farm, Church Lane, Reading.
  • W. Maidment Ltd., Manor Farm, Wilcot, Pewsey, Wiltshire.
  • Wills Brothers Ltd., Pawton Dairy, St Breock, Wadebridge, Cornwall.  

Readers' comments (4)

  • It's a disgrace that the vice president of the NFU has not resigned - the man is facing criminal charges and has hardly performed an NFU duty since this happened. Apparently this is considered acceptable at the NFU, which saw fit to drive Jones's predecessor out last year over a personal matter. Ludicrous

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  • I thought the GLA were brought in to protect cockle pickers – how did they get such an expansive remit. From the outside this does look like – at the sharp end - pen pushers wanting to be Dirty Harry and – at the rear end – a department looking for a job. As the west country eighteen stand in the dock don’t be surprised to hear the GLA spokes person say – in a nasaly voice “go ahead make my day”

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  • This whole episode seem ridiculous to me.Some of our best farmers brought to court over what really is an administrative issue.Surely a simple warning and notice to correct immediately would have been sufficent.Has all this done anything to protect vulnerable workers or is someone on a ego trip?

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  • Could we transfer all those employed at the GLA to UK bio security – i.e. something under-funded and desperately needed. I can't believe the GLA themselves wake up in the morning thinking 'yippe, another day of gainful employment.'

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