Three cheers for the House of Lords, who have put a brake on government plans to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB), a move not even Margaret Thatcher was prepared to sanction when she was in government in the 1980s.
In November, the government suddenly announced a four-week consultation period on the AWB’s future. It was a sure sign the coalition was rattled by Unite’s campaign - backed by the Labour Party - to retain a body that for most of the last century has guaranteed farm workers annual pay rises, recognition for advancing their skills, overtime pay, holidays and protection in their tied homes.
With farming minister David Heath’s claim that abolition would “create almost 1,000 new jobs” at odds with his department’s advice that ‘there may be increased employment of 0-930 jobs’ then it was apparent this was an attempt to drive down labour costs on behalf of supermarkets and growers. There would be a loss of £24 million annually for farmworkers. This is money they can ill afford to forego as even the highest AWB rate is £9.40 an hour and most of the 154,000 covered by the board are on £6.96 or £7.66 an hour.
60% of the responses to the government’s consultation were in favour of retaining the AWB. That failed to prevent the government adding an amendment, which coming just two days before Christmas makes you wonder if Scrooge was in charge, to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. This came before the committee stage of the House of Lords on January 16. The AWB in England and Wales was to be scrapped.
Fresh from his new appointment as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Lord Younger told peers “these amendments will bring employment practices in the agricultural industry into the 21st century........and contribute to the Government’s wider programme of public body reform.” He begged for support.
The proposals were to be dissected by Labour Peers, Lord Whitty, a former trade union official with the GMB, Lord Howarth of Newport and Lord Knight of Weymouth. The latter even had the cheek to point out that in June 2000, David Heath had voted in the Commons to retain the board. Now the Lib Dem MP for Somerton and Frome was forgetting “the principle of a rural living wage is important.”
When it came to accepting the amendment Lords were ‘not content’ to support it. Now a vote by the House of Lords on the AWB’s future has to be held at the report stage at the end of February or beginning of March. Unite will be looking for further support from Lords in order to block a devisive piece of legislation.
The peers actions were praised by Huw Irranca-Davies Mp, Labour’s Shadow Farming who said: “Well done to my Labour colleagues in the House of Lords for keeping up the fight to save the AWB and protect fair pay for farm workers. The Government admits that the abolition of the AWB could take £240 million out of the pockets of farm workers over the next ten years. People in the countryside need a One Nation plan to create jobs and growth, not this Government’s approach that leaves our lowest paid workers out of pocket.”
Unite national officer for agriculture Julia Long said: “We applaud the intervention of those peers that did not want a large swathe of the agricultural workforce reduced to poverty wages.
“The government has behaved in a shambolic way in tacking on an amendment that will have a huge impact on the rural economy onto a business bill – the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill.”
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey welcomed the fact that the “outrageous plans by the government to abolish the AWB are now on hold with peers objecting in committee. MPs now need to protect rural workers.”