A FORESTRY firm working regularly across the North East is joining calls for the Government to scrap costly 'gangmaster' regulations covering the industry, which the sector says is putting jobs at risk.
The Forestry Regulation Task Force, which was set up to look at better ways of managing England’s woodland and to reduce red tape, has already called for forestry to be exempt from the Gangmaster Licensing Authority.
It was introduced in 2005 to stop gangs of workers, often farm and land-based labourers, from being exploited by unscrupulous bosses.
But the Government has left matters with its Red Tape Challenge process to decide whether to exempt forestry enterprises from the scheme.
The forestry and woodland sector employs around 1,500 people in the North East and is currently worth around £40m to the region’s economy every year.
John Wheelan, who runs Yorkshire-based M1 Forestry Services, which works across the North East, said: “My gangmasters 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 areas of work that need a gangmasters’ licence because of all the hassle. That creates a shortage of planters and contractors struggle to find sub-contractors who can do the work.”
Confor, the industry body which represents around 2,000 forestry and wood-using businesses, has raised the issue with MPs including Hexham’s Guy Opperman, and North West Durham MP Pat Glass.
Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, has also highlighted the threat to jobs.
Confor chief executive, Stuart Goodall, said: “David Cameron has promised to put jobs and job creation at the heart of his Government and pledged to tackle red tape, but this decision flies in the face of both those promises.
“The benefits to be gained from England’s woodland, including rural employment, renewable wood products, increased biodiversity and recreation are well known, but regulation and bureaucracy are making it harder to care for our forests.
“Around 500,000 hectares of woodland in England is unmanaged, and new woodland creation is at its lowest for 23 years.
“We also face the threat of pests and disease as our climate changes. It is vital we have the people working in forestry.”
The GLA was set up in 2005 to protect workers following the Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy the previous year. But the GLA itself, as well as the Forestry Regulation Task Force, said the woodland sector was “low risk” for worker exploitation.
Goodall said: “The forestry unions and the Woodland Trust both support our demand.
“Small businesses with low turnovers are still expected to pay £400 a year, fill in forms and be subject to possible inspection.
“If they change name or address, or even forget to renew their licence, they will be charged an additional £1,800 (the registration fee), to demonstrate that they are not doing something that in fact they already are not doing. It’s madness.”