The Gangmasters Licensing Authority has announced plans to ramp up its focus on food processing in the same week the government gave a show of support for the body’s future.

Protecting workers in the food processing sector had always been within the GLA’s remit and it had undertaken investigations in that area, said CEO Ian Livsey.

However, to date, the GLA’s main focus had been on the field production end of the supply chain. “We feel there’s an opportunity here for the GLA, and an obligation, to look higher up the supply chain,” he said. The GLA would continue to regulate primary production but felt the sector had vastly improved since the GLA’s establishment.

In the future, it would therefore designate more resources to monitoring treatment of workers at sites such as meat factories and bakeries. One of the first tasks would be to “gather intelligence” on the extent of worker abuse in processing, Livsey added.

The news comes as Defra this week signalled its confidence in the body’s work, following fears the agency might be abolished or its remit restricted as a result of the government’s Red Tape Challenge.

On Tuesday, a private members debate on the future of the GLA - initiated by Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray - took place in the Commons.

Responding to questions, Defra minister Richard Benyon praised the GLA’s work last year when there had been a “bonanza” of cockle picking in the Ribble estuary, and some evidence of illegality. The GLA had “worked really well with agencies from a number of different organisations,” he said.

He added that he was “happy to recognise that the GLA is widely regarded as having brought about improvements to the treatment of the most vulnerable workers.”