Major boost in battle to stop exploitation

Fenland MP Steve Barclay with with former Housing Minister Mark Prisk
Fenland MP Steve Barclay with with former Housing Minister Mark Prisk

Fenland District Council has been given a big injection of cash to help it tackle the widespread problems found in private rented accommodation in Wisbech, including the exploitation of migrant workers.

It has been awarded £178,600 from the Government’s Rogue Landlords Fund to enable it to build on the successes of the multi-agency Operation Pheasant over the past year.

The council submitted a bid to the fund in September. It said extra resources were urgently needed if further progress was to be made.

The award was announced today Friday December 27 by the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Set up a year ago, Operation Pheasant has brought together the police, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, Fenland District Council, the Home Office, Cambridgeshire Fire & Rescue Service and HM Revenues & Customs in a joint task force.

It has uncovered collusion between illegal gangmasters and some property agents in exploiting migrants, as well as several instances of human trafficking and fraud, leading to a number of arrests over the past few months.

Numerous health and safety breaches have been revealed, including examples of appalling overcrowding and serious fire risks. A significant number of benefit scams have also been detected.

There are an estimated 2,300 private rented properties in Wisbech, including up to 1,000 houses of multiple occupation (HMOs).

The extra money will be used to help the task force step up enforcement action, including more prosecutions, to clamp down on illegal activities and poor housing conditions and tackle other problems such as noise, waste and other antisocial behaviour and rough sleeping.

It will also enable the partner agencies to continue to assist with voluntary repatriations and work with the Home Office to enforce immigration rules.

Other key aspects of the work that will benefit from the extra funding include taking action on illegal evictions and harassment, mediating between landlords and tenants and promoting harmonious relations with neighbours.

Councillor David Oliver, FDC’s Cabinet member responsible for Wisbech affairs and social cohesion, said: “This extra funding will give all of us involved in this work a big boost. An enormous amount has already been achieved through our joint efforts over the past year. But we still face major challenges.

“We are delighted that the Government has recognised that and provided all the extra help we said we needed to enable us to make further progress.”

Stephen Barclay, MP for North East Cambridgeshire, said: “I very much welcome this specific funding from Government to tackle the problem of rogue landlords which blights the lives of both vulnerable migrants and residents in neighbouring properties who often pick up the consequences of antisocial behaviour linked to overcrowded housing.

“Having repeatedly raised this issue with Ministers in two Westminster hall debates and outlined the strength of Fenland’s bid in a series of Ministerial meetings with former Housing Minister Mark Prisk in July, his successor Kris Hopkins in November, and earlier this month with the Security Minister James Brokenshire. I am delighted Fenland is one of just 23 councils selected from across the UK to secure this money.

“We now need to demonstrate that is will be used effectively to deliver change on the ground.

Mr Barclay added: “Today’s decision is fantastic news for Fenland and is testament to the great strides that have been made so far by the multiagency approach of Cambridgeshire Police, Fenland District Council and other agencies. This funding will provide a welcome boost to Police and Local authorities who are working side by side to address the problems of illegal gang masters and rogue landlords who exploit vulnerable migrant workers in our community.

“I was very grateful to have the opportunity to make the case for increased Government support for Fenland over the course of meetings with the Home Secretary and the Home Office Security Minister James Brokenshire as well as former Housing Minister Mark Prisk.

“Too often it is assumed that issues related to migrant workers and illegal gang masters are concentrated in towns and cities. However, in areas with high levels of agricultural migrant workers like Fenland there is an increasing need for authorities to make use of the full range of powers available to them and take robust enforcement regulating gang masters.”