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On Wednesday afternoon I spoke in Labour’s Opposition day debate which called upon the Government to reinstate the Agricultural Wage Board (AWB). In the debate I expressed my concerns about the Government’s decision to abolish the AWB, and I highlighted the catastrophic effect this could have on agricultural workers across England and Wales. The Government should be raising standards for farm workers, not engaging in a race to the bottom about pay and fair treatment. My full speech is below and the full debate can be read here

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm130424/debtext/130424-0003.htm#130424-0003.htm_spnew34

“I am pleased to take part in the debate. I have a constituency interest, and I led for the Opposition in the Committee on the Public Bodies Bill, so it is a matter of some disappointment to me that in the intervening two years the Government have not refined their arguments, nor have they produced further evidence to suggest why the board should be abolished. Given the catastrophic effect abolition could have on the pay, terms and conditions of the country’s 152,000 agricultural workers, not least in my constituency, where well over 100 workers will be affected, it is important to ask serious questions of the Government about why they consider it necessary and, in particular, whose interests they are serving.

As we have heard, the Agricultural Wages Board was formed in 1948, but its lineage goes back to 1924. The fact that it has survived so long is testament to its continuing relevance. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) is right: it has modernised over the years and could modernise further. The board has demonstrated its importance for protecting the rights of workers in the sector. Those rights are now very much at risk.

The Government’s response when asked why they want to abolish the AWB is that agricultural workers, like others, are now covered by minimum wage legislation. Excellent though the minimum wage legislation is, it does not cover the same range of wage levels and categories as the AWB. The agricultural industry needs to attract people with the right skills and aptitude, which is becoming more important as farming methods continue to develop technologically. The AWB has a grading system for the terms and conditions of employment for agricultural workers that reflects the diversity of skills needed and the responsibilities attached. As many others have said, minimum wage legislation does not cover the many other areas overseen by the AWB, such as the standard of tied accommodation, overtime rates, sick pay and holiday entitlement. Why are the Government abolishing the board, and in whose interests will it be?

When the Public Bodies Bill was being considered in Committee, far from Labour Members being out of line, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) suggested, it was Government Members who were out of line, because the only people supporting abolition were some parts of the National Farmers Union. Indeed, it was only some in the union. We received many representations from farmers and farm workers who thought that getting rid of the AWB was an extremely bad idea because they liked the structure that it gave to negotiations.

We know that the abolition is not in the interests of not only hard-pressed agricultural workers, who stand to lose significantly from the change, but those wishing to enter the sector. I have a very good agricultural and horticultural training college in my constituency. From talking to several of the young people studying at Houghall, I know that they are worried about what will happen to terms and conditions in the sector following the abolition of the AWB. They are also concerned that they will no longer have a clear career ladder after leaving college, yet no Government Member has addressed that problem. We know from Lantra, the skills body overseeing the sector, that another 60,000 people will soon be needed in the industry because 25% of agricultural workers are over 55. Ministers cannot seriously be suggesting that the abolition of the board will make the industry more attractive to young people, because they have told me directly that it will not.

The abolition is not in the interests of the rural economy as a whole, especially in the north-east, given that millions of pounds will be taken out of an economy that is already suffering from high unemployment. The Government’s policies have hit my constituency hard. The latest unemployment figures show that City of Durham’s claimant rate has almost doubled in the past 12 months, which is one of the biggest rises in the country. It will be difficult for people in the agricultural sector to argue for a better standard of living when unemployment is so high, because they will be told, “If you don’t like it, lump it, because there are lots of people in the county who will be able to take your job.” The Government simply are not addressing that problem, yet because the abolition of the board will remove workers’ protections, it will be more difficult for them to argue for a better standard of living.

I will conclude, because I want to give others time to speak, but it is difficult to understand what the abolition of the board will achieve. It does not cost much to operate, but it protects workers in the sector, and sets a clear framework for negotiations and a career structure. It could be modernised in line with the new skills needed for farming, but one can only assume that the Government, as they have shown with other policies, are hellbent on driving down the wages of the low-paid in this country while at the same time giving tax cuts to millionaires.”

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Thatcher and Planning Revolt

Last Wednesday, I did not attend the recall of parliament to pay tribute to the former Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher. The decision to bring MPs back from the Easter recess also came at a great expense to the taxpayer.

I represent an area and communities that were decimated by the Thatcher Government’s policies. My office is in Durham’s Miners Hall and I am reminded everyday of the devastating impact her policies had, and in many cases continue to have, on the fabric and families of the North East. It is out of respect for these families that I chose not to go to Parliament.

On Wednesday morning I spoke on BBC Radio Newcastle explaining my reasons for not attending the parliamentary debate and why I did not think it was the right thing to do on behalf of my constituents. You can listen to this here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p016nrvw (from 5 minutes 30 seconds onwards)

I recall very clearly the damage that Margaret Thatcher’s policies did to our region in the 1980’s and overall I think she had a profoundly negative impact on the North East of England.

I feel quite strongly that some of the assertions being made about Thatcher’s legacy need to be balanced. At a time when people are being asked to pay their respects  and show compassion to an elderly lady who has died, it is worth remembering that Thatcher herself showed very little compassion to the thousands of elderly people who struggled to heat their homes in the 1980s. Instead of looking to help elderly people with the cost of heating their homes, Thatcher’s Government told them to simply put on a woolly hat.

I disagree that Thatcher rescued the country’s economy as many commentators have suggested today and in recent days. Our industry did need modernising but there was another more humane way to do it. We should have followed the Scandinavian model of investment and retraining, but she chose confrontation and deindustrialisation. That was wrong, and it left us with a legacy that we are still feeling the consequences of, particularly in a lack of a strong manufacturing base.

Today Baroness Thatcher received a ceremonial funeral with a full military procession at St Paul’s Cathedral.  Although many MPs attended the funeral to show their respects to the former Prime Minister, I decided that my time would be best spent by continuing with my normal parliamentary duties.

Now that the funeral has taken place, I feel it is important that an accurate and reasoned assessment is made of the impact that Thatcher’s policies had, and continue to have, on our communities.

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Yesterday the Growth and Infrastructure Bill returned to the House of Commons for consideration of the amendments made in the Lords. There were two key issues in the debate yesterday the Government’s plans allow companies to buy workers’ rights and the bungled planning reforms which I have been leading Labour’s opposition to.

Labour won two significant victories in the Lords. The first was to remove the truly awful clause which would allow, or even force, employees to give up their rights in exchange for shares. This policy has had scant support with the vast majority of businesses stating that they would not be interested in such a scheme and a few experts saying that only disreputable firms would consider such an option.

Nonetheless, the Government decided to ignore our advice and that of the Lords and voted to reinstate the clause. I sincerely hope that this decision will be overturned by the Lords and that they will vote again to see this damaging policy removed from the Bill.

The Government also chose to ignore the advice of the Lords on a significant planning reform which would allow extensions of up to 8 meters to be built without planning consent or the consultation of neighbours.

This policy was first announced in September last year when the Prime Minister hailed it as ‘a crucial and immediate’ economic stimulus despite the Planning Minister Nick Boles admitting he did not know the economic impact on Newsnight.

The proposal has been met with widespread anger from both the public, organisations like the Local Government Association and hundreds of local politicians with many branding it a “recipe for disaster”. Currently 90% of extensions are given permission but the remaining 10% are refused for good reason; usually because they will damage the privacy of their neighbours’ homes.

As a result, before Christmas I tabled an amendment to the Growth and Infrastructure Bill which would ensure that councils who wanted to would apply. The Government rejected this but the Lords voted in support of a similar amendment which would allow councils to opt-out if they thought allowing bigger extensions with planning permission would have a negative impact on their area.

The proposals are so bad that a number of Tories and Lib Dems were prepared to vote against their Government. However, at the last minute the Secretary of State Eric Pickles announced that they would make a partial u-turn and would propose a compromise amendment when the Bill returns to the Lords.

So we will wait and see what Eric Pickles and his Ministers come forward with. It will need to be very substantive and include clear protections to ensure the neighbours still have a say in developments that happen next door to them and that allow councils to protect their areas as they feel appropriate.

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Given this week’s interest in planning policy it is fitting that today I am speaking at a Royal Town Planning Institute conference in Newcastle on the issue of political involvement in planning.

Planning has always been a key issue in local politics. However, over the 18 months that I have been in my role as Shadow Planning Minister there has been an unprecedented level of interest in planning at the national level.

After promising to hand back power to local people before the election, once in Government Secretary of State Eric Pickles and Chancellor George Osborne very quickly made it clear that they see planning as a brake on growth and would be embarking on a radical process of centralising planning power and removing all the protections for our environment, towns and cities that were in place.

Yesterday’s debate shows the result of this.

However, it is important that we don’t forget the real role of planning; to positively shape the places around us and make them the best that they can be for local people.

I hope to make this very clear to the planners at the conference this afternoon. Good planning means getting involved with communities and ensuring that we build the types of homes and developments that they want to live, work and play in.

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