Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Shame of the Lib Dem Lords

From the Landworker magazine of Unite. 

Liberal Democrat peers have blown an opportunity to show they support rural workers by agreeing to scrap the Agricultural Wages Board. (AWB) 

Fifty-five of them had the power on Wednesday March 6 in the House of Lords to defeat government plans to finish off the AWB. They refused to exercise it and consequently a vote to retain the AWB was lost by 29 votes, with peers voting 163 to 192. Only one Lib Dem peer voted for retention with all the rest voting with the Tories. 

The result means the fight to retain the AWB will move back to the Commons; where it is hoped  MPs will take note that almost 2/3rds of respondents to a government consultation were against its abolition.

On March 6 there were impassioned pleas from Labour Lords, bishops and the Lib Dem peer, Lord Greaves of Pendle. Labour peer, Lord Whitty pointed out that for most the last century the AWB has ensured that farm workers have received annual pay rises, recognition for advancing their skills, overtime pay, holidays and protection in their tied homes. Under their plans the government was admitting it expected the 150,000 agricultural workers covered by the AWB to be robbed of £247 million in the next decade. Lord Greaves argued the only beneficiaries were likely to be the major supermarkets, horticultural giants and major landowners.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford quoted Winston Churchill from 1909, when a radical Liberal government founded the first wages councils, and Churchill said: “It is a serious national evil that any class of his Majesty’s subjects should receive less than a living wage in return for their utmost exertions” 

The Bishop pointed out: “When other wages councils were abolished in the 1980s, the government chose to keep the AWB on the grounds that the industry required some central oversight to prevent wages being driven down unacceptably……the progress made during the past 30 years means we need to retain and further develop, and update, the AWB, not abolish it.”

None of which mattered to Nick Clegg’s lot who preferred to agree with those who spoke in favour of ending the AWB. James Graham was one to do so. As the Duke of Montrose, he enjoys a special status in the aristocratic ranks and the 75-year-old’s other titles include Viscount Dundaff and Lord Aberuthven, Mugdock and Fintrie. The dukedom was awarded for supporting the Act of Union in 1707. With ownership of around 8,800 acres the current Duke is a millionaire.

As is also the case with Lord Cavendish, who told his fellow peers: “Low pay among agricultural workers is manifestly a myth.” No, that really is a quote! The Conservative politician owns Holker Hall, and its 17,000 acre estate, that overlooks Morecambe Bay in Cumbria. The estate has belonged to the Cavendish family since 1756. Lord Cavendish was created a life peer by Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and is third in line to the dukedom of Devonshire, who is one of Britain’s largest landowners with 65,000 acres in the UK and a further 8,000 in Ireland.

Despite the removal in 1999 by Tony Blair of hereditary peers from the Lords the second chamber is still packed with large landowners who are part of just 189,000 families (0.28% of the population) that own 88% of the land in Britain. This is the most imbalanced land ownership pattern in the world and yet incredibly this tiny elite also enjoys subsidies totalling over £10 billion through the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy.

The Marquess of Lothian voted to scrap the AWB. He is better known as former Tory MP Michael Ancram and became a life peer in 2010. As owner of 18,000 acres of land the former deputy leader of David Cameron’s party is worth around £60 million. Ancram is married to Lady Jane Fitzalan-Howard, the youngest daughter of the 16th Duke of Norfolk, who can trace the family tree back to Plantagenet crown dynasty from 1189 and is worth at least £100 million.

Lord Astor of Hever also voted to impoverish agricultural workers. He is a relative of David Cameron, whose wife’s stepfather is Viscount Astor, the owner of 2,000 acres of land in Oxfordshire and 19,500 on the island of Jura, off the west coast of Scotland. The Viscount registers his Scottish estate in the Bahamas and thus avoids paying stamp duty and capital gains tax.

The richest member of Cameron and Nick Clegg’s cabinet – which contains 18 millionaires – was until January the leader of the House of Lords. Lord Strathclyde, another peer appointed by Margaret Thatcher, is worth an estimated £9.5 million. He is the majority shareholder in the family estate management company Auchendrane Estates.

Previously, Lord Strathclyde  was a non-executive director on the board of Galena Asset Management. This is the hedge-fund arm of Trafigura, the  Dutch multi-national commodity trading company  at the centre of a major health crisis in the Ivory Coast in 2006 when a ship charted by the company offloaded toxic waste in the West African country. Trafigura ended up paying the Ivorian government £100 million to clean up the waste and an additional £32 million to people who had suffered from toxic poisoning.

Lord Strathclyde was another Tory peer who voted with the proposal to end the AWB. No Labour peers agreed and so all it would have taken was for just 30 Lib Dem peers to have abstained and it would have been defeated. Far play to Lord Greaves, but this move by Nick Clegg’s crew is the latest example of a party that cares more for the limousines and the trappings of power than the ordinary working person of this country. There was nothing about ending the AWB in the Lib Dems 2010 election manifesto and it failed to feature in the coalition agreement. Clearly, the Tories have talked round Clegg into supporting their plans. 

As Janet Royall, Labour’s leader in the Lords said: “What will the Lib Dems say to agricultural workers having voted in favour of the abolition of the AWB. I am furious and frustrated that we lost the vote on the AWB. The interests of supermarkets and landowners have prevailed over the needs of agricultural workers.” 

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