In the wake of John Hutton's embarrassing conference gaff at last week's TUC conference, Dan Stewart looks at how the script should have read

We’ve all done it. You’re a few weeks into a new job, you’re still getting used to how everything works, and you drop a massive clanger. It’s pretty embarrassing, right?

Well, imagine how John Hutton must feel. The new Business Secretary was asked at the TUC conference on Tuesday whether the Gangmasters Licensing Act would be extended to cover construction. Hutton mumbled that, in his opinion, the Construction (Design and Management) regulations would sort the whole thing out. When they come into force next Spring.

John Hutton

It’s one thing making a mistake in front of your office, but another thing entirely doing it in front of an audience of trade union brothers and sisters, many of whom would be well-versed in the ins and outs of construction regulations.

As any fule kno, the revamped CDM regulations came into force, in spite of the best efforts of David Cameron and co, last Spring. And, as DBERR mandarins must have informed JH in his post-match briefing, they have precious little to do with gangmasters.

The Gangmasters Licensing Act as it stands protects vulnerable workers in the agriculture industry by ensuring labour agencies are registered with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. Quite how health and safety regulations can crack down on rogue agencies is beyond the ken of this reporter.

The problem is, if Hutton had done his homework properly, he might have been able to make a good point. Theoretically, there is more than enough existing legislation on employment rights to ensure the safety of vulnerable workers.

The much-maligned Construction Industry Scheme aims to ensure workers are registered, paid and taxed correctly, whether they are attached to a business or self-employed. Some critics argue that if the CIS was engineered to work properly, its overseers could perform the same function as the GLA.

There is also the Home Office’s new Illegal Working Action Plan, which aims to fine employers who knowingly take on illegal workers. Granted, not all vulnerable workers are illegal immigrants, but the IWAP will enshrine the employers’ duty to know and be open about their workforce.

So do we need a new Act? The Gangmasters Act as it stands is not yet two years old. Its success rate in cutting down rogue employment in agriculture has not been sustained enough to be measurable. In spite of the unions’ demands, it would be a bold move to extend legislation that has barely even been tested.

But if the laws we have are failing to protect vulnerable workers, perhaps we need any help we can get. As ever with the tangled bulk of construction-related legislation, there are no easy answers. One thing’s clear though – we shouldn’t expect any good ones from John Hutton just yet.