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
“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.”