I am often asked whether a backbench MP can make a difference. There are lots of positive examples across the floor of the House, but today I can point to an issue where I have helped highlight a national disgrace.
The Environmental Audit Committee, which I joined in January, yesterday published a report on the Hand Car Wash sector. This might seem innocuous enough, but in the Spring I was given evidence which worried me sufficiently to secure an enquiry to see if it was true.
Today’s resulting EAC report has shone a spotlight on a part of the economy which for too long has operated in the shadows, despite being in plain view to many.
We were told a ‘spectrum of exploitation’ is taking place at Hand Car Washes, including workers receiving little or no pay, having ID documents taken away, abuse and violence, tax evasion, and not being given personal protective equipment to handle toxic chemicals. This is modern slavery in plain sight on our streets.
The Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) told us Hand Car Washes was the largest sector reported to their helpline last year, accounting for 27% of all calls.
The Church of England and Roman Catholic Church are worried, and earlier this summer worked together through the Clewer Initiative to bring out the Safe Car Wash app, to help members of the public express their concerns.
Given our environmental focus, we were particularly concerned to learn toxic chemicals can flow from Hand Car Washes directly into storm drains, damaging water quality and impacting on wildlife and plants in rivers and streams.
Not all Hand Car Washes violate labour, employment, taxation or environmental regulations. But flagrant rule breaking exists in the sector. The GLAA and Director of Labour Market Enforcement, HSE and the Environment Agency are stepping up efforts to tackle these problems, but major supermarkets and others who host these businesses must do more. Consumers might assume Hand Car Washes operating in car parks have been suitably vetted, and therefore comply with employment and environmental regulations. But all too often this has not been the case.
The Committee has called on the government to trial a licensing scheme for Hand Car Washes, which could oversee compliance issues. By shining a light on these problems, I sincerely hope we can protect both vulnerable people from exploitation and our environment.