Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Syms.)
Thank you, Mr Caton, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, I think for the first time. I am very grateful to have been granted a debate on this important issue, the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board.
On a point of order, Mr Caton. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman so early in his speech. Just for the convenience of the House, I think that it is important to note that I have released a written ministerial statement on this subject today, opening a consultation. That being the case, and given that the statement cannot be released until 9.30 am and hon. Members will obviously be in Westminster Hall today and unable to get to the Library to see a copy, I have arranged for them to have a copy of the written ministerial statement. I can provide further copies if other Members have need of one.
Further to that point of order, Mr Caton. I also apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) so early in his speech. I welcome the fact that the Minister has made that statement at the beginning of proceedings today; I am literally reading the written ministerial statement as we begin, having just been handed it by him. It is welcome; we have been waiting for it for some time. However, welcome as it is, I want to ask the Minister a question. The announcement on the consultation is the fundamental part of today’s written ministerial statement, but when was that announcement originally due to be made?
We were planning to make that announcement today; it is coincidental that this debate was called for today. However, that being the case, I thought that it was very important that all Members had full possession of the facts, rather than debating in the dark, as it were.
Further to that point of order, Mr Caton. I will not delay proceedings any more than I need to. I apologise again for interrupting my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland. My understanding is that the announcement on this consultation was first talked about last spring, running into the summer, under the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice). So, welcome as the announcement is on whatever date we are today—
Such excitement so early on. I think that it can only be the new working hours unsettling us all. However, there will be ample time to discuss all the issues that Members wish to raise.
The Agricultural Wages Board, in one form or another, has provided good wages, good working conditions and good lives to farm workers since 1924. Before I continue, I must thank the Minister for providing early sight of the written ministerial statement today, before we began proceedings. I appreciate that courtesy.
I want to touch on three issues in my speech today. First, the AWB allows farmers to focus on farming. They do not have to be employment specialists and they have no need to negotiate with their work force over pay and conditions. Secondly, the AWB is the most effective way of ensuring that regional part-time, young and even full-time employees in the farming industry are not exploited. Without the protection of the board, they will be vulnerable to lower pay and worse conditions. Thirdly and finally, the AWB is so much more than a body for setting wages and conditions. On one level, it ensures that a shepherd has the funds to look after their most valuable asset, which of course is sheepdogs; that tenant farmers have secure homes to live in; that farm workers have good overtime and night work rates, fair stand-by allowances and sick pay; and that agricultural workers of all types are provided with suitable bereavement leave and holiday entitlements.
The Government’s planned abolition of the AWB puts all of that at risk. I welcome the appointment of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) to his new post of farming Minister. I hope that he can bring an appreciation of the farming industry and its workers to this Government. In my view, that appreciation has been significantly lacking for too long.
This is not the first time that the Tories have attempted to abolish the AWB. Baroness Thatcher attempted to abolish it, but she changed her mind when she realised that it was a vital organisation for farmers and farm workers. Sadly and in some ways inexplicably, when I look at the Minister, this Government are proposing to abolish an organisation that even Margaret did not want to abolish.
I remind my hon. Friend that the very arguments that I suspect many people in Westminster Hall today will be deploying in defence of the AWB are the same arguments that persuaded Margaret Thatcher not to abolish it, and that were made by her own Back Benchers at the time.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is absolutely the case that there was overwhelming opposition to the proposal of the then Thatcher Government to abolish the AWB. Thankfully, the arguments against abolishing the AWB were listened to then, and common sense prevailed. Sadly, like much of what this Government are trying to achieve, whether that is the dismantling of the NHS or the destruction of local government, the abolition of the AWB is unfinished Thatcherite business, as my hon. Friend has just implied.
In a report for the Low Pay Commission in December 2011, Incomes Data Services argued that
“the agricultural sector is distinct from other sectors in that it is comprised of small employment units but with the additional feature of seasonal or casual workers”.
The AWB may indeed be an anomaly in our economy, but the agricultural sector is so different from other sectors of our economy that it is a necessary anomaly. Small farmers, who make up the majority of the industry, do not have the time, the expertise or, frankly, the funds to negotiate with their workers time and time again in what is an increasingly pressurised working environment.
The standards of pay and conditions set by the AWB enable farmers to focus on running their businesses and producing the products that we all need—increasingly so, as this year’s poor harvest demonstrates in many ways. In abolishing the AWB, the Government are not freeing farms from unnecessary bureaucracy. Instead, they are making the lives of small farmers more difficult and creating an even more bureaucratic working environment than the one that currently exists. That is the last thing that small farmers could possibly need. Instead of having to deal only with the AWB, in the future farmers will need to work with myriad different organisations, each one governing a different area of employment regulation and each, in turn, exposing every small farm business to new and different liabilities and complexities.
In their report calling for the retention of the AWB, the Welsh Government correctly noted that if the board is abolished
“pay bargaining would become instantly fragmented”.
It is important to note that, although the leadership of the National Farmers Union backs the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, it might not, on this occasion, be speaking for every small farmer in England, or Britain—it is certainly not speaking for those in Wales. I greatly respect the NFU and its leadership, and have very good relationships with NFU leaders in my constituency who, for the most part, skilfully, adeptly and effectively represent their members’ interests, but I think that they have got it wrong on this one.
The farming union of Wales, the young farmers of Wales and many small farmers across the UK want to retain the Agricultural Wages Board. The Government claim to be on the side of farmers, but on this issue they are making farmers’ lives much more difficult, making their businesses much harder to run, and doing the exact opposite of what the Government should be doing—at all times but particularly in these straitened times—which is supporting our nation’s farmers and making it easier for their businesses to survive and grow.
The situation profoundly affects my constituency and my home county. Across the north of England there are 28,180 agricultural workers, with 12,260 in the north-west, 3,300 in Cumbria—my home county—and almost 600 in my constituency. Copeland is the constituency that is most dependent on public spending in England. It is also the English constituency that is hardest to reach from Westminster—yes, there is a link—and more than 50% of the local economy is based on public spending.
Throughout my time in this House, I have sought to rebalance my local economy through the growth of our local private sector, but it is difficult to do that, and is becoming more so. At a time when the majority of public spending cuts are yet to bite—perhaps the Minister could tell us if he supports the additional £10 billion cuts that the Chancellor has announced—and when the budgets and services of local authorities in my area are being decimated, the removal of a body that helps small businesses to do business and maintains minimum workplace standards and minimal rates of pay surely cannot be right. This is a detached policy, from an increasingly detached Government.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. On what is likely to be lost, there is also the unique problem that agricultural workers are exceptionally isolated in terms of their negotiating and bargaining power. On the abolition, and the consultation that has been announced today, does the hon. Gentleman not share my disappointment? We should not be obsessed with organisational structure—I am not going to die in a ditch defending the existence of the Agricultural Wages Board—but the board provides protections, and without it the only safety net that agricultural workers will be left with is the national minimum wage. A whole strand of negotiations is available through the existing regulations.
I completely share the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. I must point out that I did my best for his economy over the summer when I holidayed in his area, but I am afraid that I did not write to him to let him know of my visit and I hope that that is forgivable. His points are absolutely correct.
In the written ministerial statement published this morning, it is claimed that the abolition of the AWB will help to achieve
“the Government’s objective of harmonising and simplifying employment law, and removing regulatory burdens from businesses”.
It goes on to say that it will
“contribute significantly to the Government’s programme of public body reform and support the Government’s growth agenda”,
but I think that the effect will be almost the opposite of what is intended. It is incredible and inexplicable that the analysis that is so simple and obvious for people who live in rural communities has not been brought to bear on what the Government aim to achieve.
Some 38% of all agricultural workers in England are seasonal or part-time employees—in Wales the figure is 56%—and statutory protections are woefully lacking. It is due only to the Agricultural Wages Board that seasonal and part-time farm workers enjoy the same rights as full-time workers. Without the board, young employees will have no set rates of pay, which will open them up to lower pay. Without the board, seasonal workers will not have secure contracts, which will open them up to exploitation. How often do we see stories of exploitation? Even now that we have the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, we still see egregious examples of exploitation in the agricultural industry and others around the country. How much easier are we about to make it for future incidents to occur?
Without the Agricultural Wages Board, part-time workers will not be guaranteed rest breaks, which will open them up to worsening conditions. In abolishing the board, the Government are giving bad employers the opportunity to cut pay and worsen conditions in a race to the bottom, and in whose interests is that? In the Low Pay Commission’s 2012 report, it was noted that the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board could lead to an increase in rural poverty. Rural areas such as the eastern coast—my own constituency and across Cumbria—parts of Wales and rural areas of the south coast are already among the most deprived in the country. With the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, the Government—this Tory-led Government—are doing what most people already feared they would do: making life harder for the poorest.
I know that the Government and the National Farmers Union will say that farmers are not planning to reduce wages and conditions, and I have always rejected—and always will—the lazy, ignorant stereotyping of many in this House when it comes to understanding farmers and farming, but if this year’s dairy crisis has proved anything it is that farmers will continue to face downward pressures on farm-gate prices. Pay and conditions can be a soft target, even for the best farmers, when faced with rising cost pressures, such as the ones we saw this summer. The proposed abolition is bad for farmers—it will make their lives more difficult—and it is bad for employees, as it will make their jobs, pay and working conditions much less secure.
In addition, the AWB ensures housing for 30% of farm workers, provides bereavement payments and leave, ensures that new parents get child payments, gives suitable rest breaks for hard-working farm employees and provides a host of other employment benefits that as a result of abolition will be lost or greatly reduced. In his conference speech only last week, the Prime Minister said that his Government would always support those who worked hard. There are few people who work harder than farm employees; they work long hours, and many of them do literally back-breaking labour day in, day out, all of it to make products we all need and enjoy each and every day of our lives. Yet it appears that the Government insist on making their lives more difficult, reducing their protections and changing the agricultural industry from one often characterised by good working relationships to one in which wage negotiations are fragmented, and jobs, pay and conditions are no longer secure. After abolition, farmers who have for generations lived in secure homes will face possible eviction, and hard-working people will lose payments that make their lives just a little easier, as the economy gets worse and worse.
The Government’s decision to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board has not been followed by the Scottish or Northern Irish Governments, and the Welsh Government want to retain the board in Wales. Once again, it appears that this Government are pursuing a path of action with which very few people agree, and even fewer want to see. Even the NFU cannot claim to be speaking for every small farmer. Indeed, evidence suggests that only the biggest of farmers agree with the action; smaller farmers and farm workers do not want to see the AWB abolished. The board must be retained; it is not in the interests of farm employees, of farmers, of the agricultural industry, or of rural communities and economies to abolish it.
On my point about an obsession with organisational structure, I generally agree with the broad thrust of the Government’s approach, which is to abolish or amalgamate as many quangos as possible. We should always be bearing down on the proliferation of Government agencies and quangos. The important regulations and the six grades that are available, and the other protections for agricultural workers, could be transferred from the AWB to an existing body such as the Low Pay Commission. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should perhaps not be obsessed with the board itself but look at ways in which the regulations could be overseen or protected by an existing Government agency?
Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I understand the point he tries to make. The issue, however, is whether the abolition meets the Government’s own criteria? Does it pass the Government’s own test, and will it cost more to undertake the functions that the hon. Gentleman outlines within other bodies than to retain the Agricultural Wages Board? Let us see the evidence—that is my request to the Government.
Finally, and in a way leading on from that intervention, in the event of abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, what checks will the Government introduce to ensure that wage levels and working conditions do not collapse? How will the checks be undertaken, and how will they be paid for? Will the Government undertake an economic impact assessment of how the abolition will affect each English region, particularly those that depend heavily on public spending? If so, will the Minister undertake to publish such an assessment, and if not, can he tell us why not? I look forward to his reply.
I am surprised you called me so early, Mr Caton. I expected to wait a bit.
We are in the American election season, and listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) reminded me of what Ronald Reagan said to Jimmy Carter in 1980: “There you go again.” The one thing I have learned since coming to the House is that the Government seem to think that there are simplistic solutions to complex problems. With the most complex problems, it sounds nice to say, “We are cutting red tape by getting rid of the Agricultural Wages Board.” But the problem seems much more complex than that.
I have read this morning’s written ministerial statement, which states that with the introduction of the minimum wage, the Agricultural Wages Board is now obsolete. Again, that is a bit simplistic considering what the Agricultural Wages Board does. Twenty per cent of people are only 2p above the minimum wage. If the Agricultural Wages Board and the setting of wages are abolished, wages might be driven down, rather than up. That means people in the countryside, including farm workers, would be earning less.
I also worry because many of the 12,000 agricultural workers in Wales are of school age, working through their summer holidays. As my hon. Friend says, they are seasonal. They are not entitled to the minimum wage. What is going to happen to them? Are they going to be exploited from an early age?
The other thing I am deeply concerned about is that farmers have it hard. Let us be straight about that. Farming is not easy. It is tough out there. We cannot give farmers the further burden of having to negotiate with staff individually on things such as dog allowances for shepherds, which will go with abolition, and statutory sick pay. I fear that not only are those farmers too small to negotiate, but that this is another extra burden that they do not need. There could be different employment rights in different regions. In some places there might be a good level of statutory sick pay; in others there might not. Some people might have more rights than others.
I want to pick up on the points raised by the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on the transfer of the AWB’s functions to some other organisation. The Low Pay Commission observed, on the abolition of the AWB:
“The level of sick pay will be significantly less than provided for under the Order.”
Unless the Minister stands up and says that all the functions will be transferred to some other organisation to retain the protections, we have failed to do what the hon. Member for St Ives said, which is to protect agricultural workers.
That is interesting. My hon. Friend will know of Hazel Spencer’s letter to the shadow ministerial team for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:
“I have been in horticulture for nearly 25 years, working for the same nursery since 1987. During this time, as you can imagine, I have seen many changes. The work is sometimes hard, sometimes repetitive and often carried out in less-than-pleasant conditions.
I initially started as part-time staff, at a time when we had very little right to sick pay, holiday pay and certainly no Bank Holiday pay. Over the years and mainly due to the negotiations carried out by the AWB on behalf of us ordinary workers, conditions within our industry have improved. We have received wages in alignment with those recommended by the AWB: SSP has been supplemented by Agricultural Workers Sick Pay, to bring it in line with a weekly wage during illness, and we received a tax allowance towards providing suitable clothing to cope with the conditions of our workplace.
Basically, what sustains most of the people who work in this industry is the fact that we are earning a fair day’s pay for what we do.”
My concern is that we are asking small farmers to become employment specialists of some sort. Are they going to go to solicitors? Are they going to make mistakes? Are we going to see more people before tribunals? Those are real concerns that the Minister has to address.
If I might be mischievous for a moment, I draw attention to an early-day motion signed by the Minister in 2000 that called for the then Labour Government to
“retain the Agricultural Wages Board as it is currently constituted.”
Does he still think that should be the case?
Ultimately, everyone in the Farmers Union of Wales is opposed to the abolition of the AWB. They are concerned that the removal of the AWB will leave farmers exposed when having to negotiate pay and conditions. The AWB is a very good model that could be used by employers and unions across the board. The model has worked since 1924, and the Attlee Government established the AWB in 1945. Again, as often with the current Government, all we see is a drive for cuts in mythical red tape.
I say this whenever we talk about employees’ rights: happy workers are the best workers. The real issue that has to be addressed in society, whether in the countryside or in the urban world of banking and finance, is fear of job insecurity, which is the thing most people worry about. When employment rights are taken away, people are less secure, less productive and do not perform as they should.
I know we are going through a consultation process, but if the Government do not put something in place, we will start to drive wages to the bottom. Yes, as the written ministerial statement highlights, farming has massive opportunities because of the growing world population, but those opportunities will only be fulfilled with productive workers.
The hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) and the hon. Gentleman have both quoted the farming unions. The hon. Gentleman has particularly emphasised the difficulties that abolition of the AWB might cause small farmers. My impression is that although, without question, the National Farmers Union is phenomenally good and very effective, one of its weaknesses is that it is primarily a large farmers’ union. I do not think that small farmers necessarily have their voices represented through the NFU as effectively as possible. If I had heard from farmers that the AWB needs to be abolished because it constrains them from being more progressive in their treatment of workers, I might have considered that a stronger case for the abolition of the regulations and the AWB.
As we heard from the Minister this morning, it is important that small farmers are involved in the ongoing consultation. My concern is still for the small farmer. If he or she gets into bother with employment law and finds themselves in front of a tribunal simply because they do not know the law—they have done nothing wrong—or something like that, it would be an extra burden that they do not need. They also do not need the extra burden of negotiating things such as SSP, which we have talked about, wages and certain allowances. Those people do not need further burdens.
We have already heard from the Government and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills that they do not want to burden employers further, but all I can see is the driving down of wages and the burdening of employers. The AWB takes away that burden, and I hope the Minister sees the sense of my argument: first, we do not want to drive down wages; and, secondly, we do not want small farmers to face further burdens by being tied up with red tape. If the small farmer has to negotiate and is concerned about employment rights, first, they are not going to employ more people and, secondly, they might exit the business altogether, which would be a tragedy.
I hope the Minister will say something about what will be put in place to ensure that wages stay at the higher standard, rather than falling. What is he going to do? If the Government go ahead with the abolition of the AWB, what support will be available for small farmers on things such as employment rights?
There is one other part of the AWB jigsaw puzzle that has not been mentioned yet. I am sure my hon. Friend is aware of upland farmers in his area; many small farmers use the provisions of the AWB when they tender their services to other farms. The AWB provides set agreements and set rates without individual negotiation; everyone knows the code and the agreement. Without the AWB there will be many individual, complex and time-consuming negotiations and a lot of additional bureaucracy. That is why we want to preserve the functions of the AWB.
Quite simply, a lot of my farmers will not bother with it. The practice will end because they will not be interested in getting down to the nitty-gritty of the code. There is a code in place.
I wonder what the Minister’s thoughts were when he signed that EDM 12 years ago, and what has changed. There is no argument for abolishing the AWB as it stands: it works for farmers and for workers, too. When he responds to the debate, I hope he will tell us what was going through his mind when he signed the EDM all those years ago, and what has changed significantly in the past 12 years to make him change his mind. I look forward to that.
It is not often that I speak on an issue that is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland. It is not often, either, that I disagree with my Labour colleagues, and I have spoken to them to make them aware of that.
I wish to make a few comments. I will reflect on the position in Northern Ireland, as that may bring something to the debate that other hon. Members are unable to provide because they do not represent a Northern Ireland constituency.
I hail from a strong agricultural constituency. Agriculture is a major employer, with additional employment coming from processing the food that the land produces. There are some excellent companies that farm the land, produce and package the product, and sell it on to the United Kingdom and Europe. Mash Direct, which employs approximately 100 people, and Willowbrook Foods, which employs 260 people, are just two examples.
The debate is about an issue close to my heart. I have spoken to many farmers in my constituency and it is clear what must be done for the benefit of all. The Agricultural Wages Board is an independent body that sets agricultural wages. It was established after world war two to encourage people to stay and work locally. In the area I represent, we are fortunate that people have done just that for many years. As the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) illustrated very clearly, agricultural work is hard. Many workers started when they were 16 and are now in their 50s and early 60s. The pains that come from picking vegetables take their toll, but those people enjoy their work. They currently have a good agricultural wage, and I believe that in my constituency they are happy with the process.
The AWB is no longer necessary. As we cry out for Europe to cut red tape and get rid of useless and costly quangos, it is time we started doing so on our own front. The Government have put forward a proposal on which my party is very clear. In the Northern Ireland Assembly, my party led the campaign to abolish the AWB. Michelle O’Neill, the Minister with responsibility for agriculture, has deferred to that as that is how the Assembly works. Even though the majority of people can ask for something, the nature of partnership Government means that the Minister has some say about what happens.
A DUP Assembly colleague of mine recently stated that Northern Ireland should follow the proposals at Westminster:
“It is fairly obvious that the AWB is now nothing more than yet another level of unnecessary, expensive bureaucracy. The finances ploughed into the AWB by the Dept would be far better invested in delivering frontline services to farmers. Reducing bureaucracy and freeing up resources and money for real and beneficial change is what is needed especially at a time when farmers are being financially disadvantaged”.
The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) made that point as well. The situation in my constituency is the same as it is in Wales and in other parts of the United Kingdom—many farmers are finding it very tight when it comes to trying to make ends meet. As a representative for the rural constituency of Strangford with my ear to the ground, I have a heart for ensuring that farming remains a viable option in Northern Ireland, and I have pursued that as an elected representative over many years as a councillor and as a Member of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland. Farming is the biggest single employer in my constituency. It must also be highlighted that only 20% of the work force are on the basic rate, which means that the other 80% are in the higher brackets already. Those people are protected by their contracts, and that issue also needs to be taken into consideration.
I drive an eight-year-old jeep that costs as much to keep running as it would cost to buy a new one. If my young son wanted to take it for a spin I would be protective, as we would be for any of our children. That is my nature. I was recently informed that a new tractor costs in the region of £75,000. I would certainly want to ensure that skilled workers were in charge of a tractor, not simply someone on minimum wage. Farmers have assured me that this is their view. It is horses for courses, if I can use that terminology, Mr Caton. Those who have the skills and abilities will do different jobs on the farm. Those who do not have the skills to drive the tractor, or whatever it may be, will do the manual labour, but I agree that they deserve a minimum wage.
Farmers will pay for experience, and taking away the AWB does not mean that wages will drop and people will lose their protection. Farmers must be free to set their wages in a competitive manner and ensure the survival of their farms at a time when many farmers are only able to take the minimum wage themselves. A great many farmers in my area are taking a wage that is equal to that of their agricultural workers, because of necessity and because the banks are on their back. These are hard times for farmers and we have to be very careful about what we do. They farm the land because they love it. The land is the blood in their veins, and it is clear that they will always seek to do their best to get the best from their farms. That will only come through having skilled workers who know what they are doing and who are worth their weight in gold.
I am not alone in agreeing about the abolition of the AWB. In fact, the Ulster Farmers’ Union—hon. Members have spoken about the National Farmers Union; this is the branch in Northern Ireland—has recently questioned the need for the AWB in Northern Ireland, following Michelle O’Neill’s decision to retain its structure in Northern Ireland. That is her decision at this moment in time, to be deferred but also to be looked at again. The UFU is clear in its belief that the AWB is
“an unnecessary and unwanted quango which is costing local tax payers money and is serving”—
“no useful purpose.”
That comes from a union whose sole role is to represent farmers and ensure that their voice is heard. I stand as that voice for the UFU. Its spokesperson Robert McCloy, chairman of the employers representatives on the AWB, said:
“We have repeatedly called for the AWB in Northern Ireland to be abolished. The AWB is an additional layer of bureaucracy on top of existing employment laws which are already in place to protect workers. The National Minimum Wage covers the minimum rate of pay, holiday entitlement, sick pay and rest breaks and this, together with the Working Time Directive and a plethora of other employment laws now provide significant protection for employees”.
That is what the people I represent tell me through the UFU and farmers who give their workers good wages. I am aware that the UFU is continuing to lobby for the removal of the AWB in Northern Ireland to save farms throughout the Province and I stand in agreement with them. I understand the fear that workers might have, but I agree with the spokesperson from DEFRA who recently said:
“Agricultural wages laws are more than 60 years out of date, difficult to understand and entirely out of step with modern work practices. Changing them would free numerous small farmers from unnecessary burdens while keeping farm workers, like all other workers across the economy, well protected by national minimum wage legislation.”
To back up that statement, I use the example of those who work on farms, growing the vegetables, potatoes and arable crops and then processing them in factories to sell on. We have many people who come from other parts of Europe to work in the fields and the factories. We have young boys and young girls who leave school at 16 and go straight into this work, which they have been doing for many years. They are protected by the farmers who employ them.
In conclusion, it is unclear to me why farmers should be the only private sector employers who have wage rates set by anything other than the minimum wage structure. It is past time that this ancient body was removed to let farmers pay the wage they determine, as any other business does. I support fully the abolition of the AWB in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland, my party has already stated its opinion. I hope that the Department will follow suit. It is not often that I disagree with my colleagues. I look upon them as friends, because we vote together on many things. On this issue, however, I am sorry that I cannot agree with them.
I was not intending to speak in the debate until I noticed today’s statement on the Order Paper, but now I want to make a couple of quick points.
I often agree with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), so I will reciprocate by disagreeing with him in this debate. In Scotland, this area is devolved and a few years ago the Scottish National party—I am not surprised that no one from the SNP is present—sought to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board in Scotland. John Swinney, the Finance Minister, was pushing that. When the Scottish Government looked at the evidence and were responding to the issues, however, they realised that it was not the sensible thing to do. Given that, I now have a sense of déjà vu, as I do from one of my previous lives: 14 years ago I was an adviser in what was then the Ministry of Agriculture, just after the minimum wage was introduced, and there was an internal debate about whether the AWB should therefore continue. Again, after going through the evidence and looking at all the issues, it was concluded that it should.
The written ministerial statement talks about something being outdated, but what is outdated is the continual campaign to undermine the terms and conditions of people working in the agricultural sector. We are coming back to that. Unless spectacular new evidence is available, the case for the AWB in England is as strong as the case was for the AWB in Scotland a few years ago or throughout Britain pre-devolution, back in the 1980s and before.
I should have declared an interest in the sense that my father started his working life as a farm labourer in a part of Kent and he benefited from the AWB. It has a big impact on huge numbers of people throughout the UK—in this context, throughout England, in all regions.
I cannot see any new evidence that will change the position established each time that the AWB has come up for review. I understand that some people in Whitehall every now and again push the case for abolition—it has happened a number of times—but the arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) and others have made this morning are absolutely right.
It is a shame that the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) is no longer present. For the most recent reshuffle, part of the discussion among the Liberal Democrats was about recalibrating where they had Ministers in the coalition. They quite rightly saw that rural and environmental issues were important, so it is good that the Minister is in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, even if that means that the Liberal Democrats do not have Ministers in other Departments. Before there was a Liberal Democrat Minister, however, the hon. Member for St Ives spoke for his party on DEFRA issues, and less than a year ago he was arguing in correspondence—presumably to one of his constituents—against the idea that the national minimum wage is sufficient protection for people working in the rural economy:
“It would therefore be wrong in my view to conclude that National Minimum Wage legislation is sufficient to maintain these protections for agricultural workers. As already noted, a minority of agricultural workers are on grade 1 pay; the vast majority are on grade 2 and above, and as such on wages higher than the National Minimum Wage.”
A little more than a year ago, the hon. Gentleman made another point which he repeated in an intervention earlier in today’s debate:
“Rural workers are exceptionally isolated and in an exceptional position that I think justifies exceptional protections.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 270.]
That is absolutely correct.
Unless great new evidence suggests that such protections can be maintained through some body other than the AWB, the desire to abolish it—as originally legislated, with a whole load of other bodies—for the sake of what will probably work out at some £250,000 or just over will end up as a false economy, particularly for the many people who work in farms throughout Britain and especially, in this context, in England. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland made it clear that the AWB is relied on by labourers for their wages; however, because of the often difficult nature of agriculture and farming, farmers, too, effectively contract out their services to others. Those are vital points. Any examination of the evidence suggests that pushing again for the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board is more outdated than the idea that it is an outdated institution.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) for securing and introducing the debate. He opened with such an erudite analysis of why the AWB and its functions have been so important over a long period and continue to be important, not least against the backdrop of declining economic activity throughout the country and in rural areas. The issue is indeed to do with the protections afforded not only on pay but on conditions, such as bereavement and all the things mentioned by my hon. Friends. It is also to do with ensuring that we have a good supply of keen, enthusiastic and well-skilled people coming into the industry in future. I shall return to such points because I do not agree with what was said in the written ministerial statement, although we thoroughly welcome it, and I appreciate the courtesy of receiving it before the debate started.
As I looked through the statement, I noted:
“The functions of the Agricultural Wages Committees are now largely redundant”.
I shall return to the comments made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who made a good contribution, but the points made by my hon. Friends make it clear that it is far from a settled issue that such functions are redundant. I will go through some of those arguments in detail.
I ask the Government and the new Minister in post, who has this opportunity, to think again about the abolition of the AWB. I ask him to do so because it is not without precedent for this Government to think again. Uniquely, it would be the first time that the Government have thought again in October. In every other month, we have had thinking again and U-turns, so the Minister could make a bit of history today by being the first Minister, although new in post, to think again in the month of October.
DEFRA has done much thinking again on many countryside and coastal issues. We have had U-turns on proposals to destroy buzzards’ nests to protect pheasant shoots, on pasty taxes—thanks to nationwide outrage led by the good people of Cornwall and the south-west—and on the great forestry sell-off of 285,000 hectares of state-owned woodland. We have had a partial U-turn on proposals to close coastguard centres and, unfortunately, a U-turn the wrong way on circus animals, dropping the previous commitment to a ban down to a commitment to new licensing conditions.
I do not want to be exhaustive, but my argument to the Minister is that he could think again because doing so is not unprecedented. We have had tax U-turns on caravans, video games and charitable donations, and other policy U-turns—some welcome, some not—on housing benefit, the mobility parts of the disability living allowance, financial inclusion fund debt advisers, the chief coroner, the military covenant, softer sentencing discounts, strike fighters, Ofsted inspections, school sports, rape anonymity and free school milk. I am dizzy from thinking about the number of U-turns.
In November last year, given opposition to the Government’s proposals, there was a U-turn on the decision to scrap the Youth Justice Board as part of the bonfire of the quangos. Suddenly, that bonfire had one less log on it. I ask the Minister to leave the fire burning brightly without the little log of the AWB as well—it will crackle nicely without it. The Minister can—independently, with independence of mind, new in his ministerial position—make his mark, a welcome mark, by performing one little pirouette of a U-turn on the AWB, a graceful and elegant pirouette. We would applaud his skill and his general loveliness. Other U-turns have been clunky and begrudging. Let the Minister, new to the role, manoeuvre artfully and delicately about-face.
I am not asking the Minister to do something that he does not want to do. In his heart of hearts, he is on the side of farm labourers and smaller farmers, and he has many in his constituency. Does he know how many agricultural workers in his constituency may be affected by the proposals to abolish the AWB? Of course he does. According to Library statistics, there are 1,020. Does he know that that puts him into the elite club of constituencies in the UK with more than 1,000 agricultural workers, many of them low paid and subject to the provisions and protections that we have talked about today? Of course he knows that. The figures are even starker when comparing the number of agricultural workers with the overall population in areas such as the south-west, where there are nearly 23,500 agricultural workers. His constituency might be hit hardest by abolition of the AWB, which may affect 152,000 workers in England and Wales.
I am convinced that the Minister wants a U-turn for his constituents, small farmers and farm workers. Before he attempts that pirouette, I will helpfully warm him up by reminding him why the AWB is so important. This is not, as he may later want to persuade us, just a matter of minimum pay. That would wilfully misconstrue the nature and purpose of the AWB, which is so much more. The Agricultural Wages Board involves
“representatives of farmers and agricultural workers together with independents, negotiating legally enforceable minimum wages and conditions which are significantly superior to those set by the National Minimum Wage and Working Time Regulations”.
The quote continues:
“the Agricultural Wages Board also sets a series of rates of pay to reflect the varying qualifications and experience of farm workers, thus providing a visible career structure for recruits going into agricultural work and is used as a benchmark for other rural employment… average earnings in rural areas are considerably lower than in urban areas… any weakening of the Agricultural Wages Board or its abolition would further impoverish the rural working class, exacerbating social deprivation and the undesirable indicators associated with social exclusion”.
I could not agree more. Those fine words are from early-day motion 892 in 1999-2000, to which the Minister was a signatory. What, I wonder, has changed since then?
During our early and youthful days in Parliament, we all had foolish fancies—we would not be human if we had not—and we would prefer not to be reminded about some of them. However, we also had strong and unwavering beliefs, and I know that the Minister has such beliefs, to which he stays constant. We deviate from such principles at our mortal peril. The Minister should stay true to his course and abide by the pledge he rightly made in that early-day motion. It was not a foolish fancy; it was his principles in writing. He said that the AWB provides a
“visible career structure…a benchmark for other rural employment”
and that abolition would result in “social deprivation” and “social exclusion”.
The Minister was right then, and we are right now, so he should return to the right side of the argument. The AWB streamlines and simplifies decision making for small farmers, so avoiding the time-wasting and complexities of drawn-out negotiations with individual farm workers one by one. Its abolition will increase bureaucracy for small farmers. Furthermore, as was said earlier, some small farmers market their own skills to others in a straightforward way with pay and conditions set and agreed by the AWB. They do not have to hammer out deals at each and every turn. I thought that the Government wanted to make things easier for businesses, especially small businesses, in which case they should keep the AWB.
The Minister may, as his predecessor did, pray in aid the National Farmers Union, for which I, like other hon. Members here, have a great deal of time. It does a sterling job in trying to synthesise a wide variety of views on a wide variety of issues. The manager of a large agri-industrial concern farming 10,000 or 20,000 acres may have slightly different motivations and needs than those of a small upland hill farmer on a couple of hundred acres. I declare an interest because 40% of my constituency is upland hill farmland, and I have family who are upland hill farmers. However, I am not speaking just for them; I am speaking for young farmers.
The Welsh Assembly Government had a cracking debate last week that was supported not just by the Farmers Union of Wales, but by young farmers of Wales who are worried that abolition of the AWB will hamper their access into the industry. Through this debate, I ask the NFU whether it is really saying that none of its farmers, not even tenant farmers, smaller farmers and those who want entry to farming want the AWB to be retained?
I will not go through all the reasons why the AWB is so important. They have been brilliantly articulated by my hon. Friends the Members for Copeland, for Islwyn (Chris Evans), and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex), and have been made in previous debates by me and others.
I turn briefly to some of the messages from the Low Pay Commission. Its factual observation is that minimum rates will not cover pay for skilled workers. There is no statutory minimum wage for workers under the age of 16, and there is concern about the overtime premium, the night premium and the on-call allowance. It notes that holiday entitlement will be reduced if the AWB is abolished and that sick pay will be significantly less. It also notes that the number of days of bereavement leave will not be specified and that there will be no statutory right for such time off to be paid. Rest breaks will be less favourable for adult workers, and so on. There will be no statutory entitlement to a birth and adoption grant. Piece rates will be lower. At the moment, they are at least the minimum hourly rate of pay applicable to the grade. What is a fair rate, if it is not what is currently being paid under the AWB?
Northern Ireland and Scotland will retain AWBs. The hon. Member for Strangford said that he has his ear to the ground. I say with conviviality and friendliness that the problem of having an ear to the ground means hearing lots of different things. I have my ear to the ground in different places throughout the UK, and farmers have told me that they treasure retention of the AWB and/or its functions. The hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) is not in his place, but he made a valid observation: if not the AWB, what? The Minister should answer that, because the issue is not just the minimum wage aspect, but the protection of a broad range of functions.
I say in all honesty that most farmers are absolutely well-intentioned towards their employees. Most want to do the right thing, and they want skilled people in the industry. They want to ensure good rewards, because they realise that farm labouring is back-breaking work. It has the highest mortality rate of any industrial sector in the UK, and sickness levels are high, so workers need protection. The hon. Member for Strangford says that he has his ear to the ground, but he opposes the position in Northern Ireland, so if not the AWB, what will protect those workers?
We have heard about having an ear to the ground and hearing many stories, but my responses on this issue have been clear. The AWB is unnecessary and does not provide the support that it should to workers. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that farmers are interested in their workers and want to do the best for them, which they do. I tried to reflect, in my contribution, that that is what the people are saying, and that is what the majority of elected representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly are saying. Unfortunately, although the majority of people want the AWB removed, under the partnership Government, the Minister can overrule us. That does not reflect the opinion of all those in Northern Ireland, which is the point I am trying to make.
I fully appreciate that point.
In all debates on this matter, I have striven, in my position as a shadow Minister, to speak not only for England, but for other parts of the UK in which what is happening with the AWB is mirrored or contradicted. I want to ask the Minister how negotiations are going with Wales. How are they progressing, or not progressing? The Welsh Assembly Government, the Farmers Union of Wales, the young farmers of Wales, Unite the Union, GMB and others have lined up alongside individual farmers to demand the retention of the AWB’s functions in Wales. To that effect, an excellent debate, which I mentioned earlier, was held last week, spearheaded by Mick Antoniw, the Assembly Member for Pontypridd, who is a brilliant advocate for all workers, including agricultural workers. The only dissenting voice in the whole of that debate was not a Liberal Democrat or a Plaid Cymru Member; it was a Conservative, who had been sent out as a token to speak against the retention of the AWB’s functions in Wales.
I genuinely cannot. We have heard the hon. Member for St Ives and the Minister will speak for the Government. The contribution made by the hon. Member for Strangford is welcome, as we should be having that sort of debate, but the complete absence of any Conservative voice strikes me as staggering. Even if Conservative Members wanted to argue against our position, they should come and do so. However, perhaps low-paid agricultural workers somehow disappear below the radar. When we have had debates in Westminster Hall on the common agricultural policy, these Benches have been full of Members from all parties. Here, we are speaking about low-paid agricultural workers, but in the absence of any Conservatives to defend themselves, I will hold back my comments.
Will the Minister update us directly on discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government? I ask him because rumours have been circulating all summer that the discussions are in deadlock and have been like that for some time, and that DEFRA was perhaps attempting to refuse to respect the current constitutional settlement for Wales. Worse still, it has been suggested that the UK Government—the Government of whom he is a Minister—will try to undermine the Welsh Assembly by seeking to circumvent the constitutional settlement and the need for consent, and that they would try to devise a way to avoid the necessity of full and frank engagement with democratically elected Welsh Government Ministers.
This is a technical matter of legislative competence, but it is also a matter of respect for the Welsh Government and for the people of Wales. Let me explain to the Minister why I firmly believe that that must be the case. The proposal to abolish the AWB is made under section 1 of the Public Bodies Act 2011. Section 9 of that Act requires the consent of the National Assembly for Wales when exercising the power under section 1 on any matter that would fall within the legislative competence of the Welsh Assembly. The Welsh Government can therefore choose to retain an agricultural wages board for Wales if they consider that such a decision would benefit the agricultural industry in Wales, in accordance with their devolved responsibilities under schedule 7 of the Government of Wales Act 2006. That screams out to me that the Welsh Assembly Government must be a full party to this process and that there should be no attempt to find some parliamentary procedure or back-corridor operation to circumvent full and frank discussion on the impact of the AWB’s abolition in Wales.
The view of Wales—the Welsh people and the Welsh farming community—is clear, and it needs to be debated and voted on. The Welsh Government must have their consent sought. That final point is vital in terms of respect for the Welsh Assembly Government and the National Assembly for Wales, and with it, I close my remarks. I hope that the Minister will assure us that what I have described is not happening and that the wider functions of the Agricultural Wages Board, beyond simply low-pay protection, will be protected in whatever thoughts and proposals he brings forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I express my genuine gratitude to the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed); as it turns out, it is useful and timely to be having this debate today.
From the start, I should say that I entirely understand hon. Members’ concerns. It would be odd if I did not, and that is not just because of what the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) described as my general loveliness. I have represented, grown up and lived in one of the most rural parts of the country for a long time. I know that this issue is not only totemic for a lot of people but important to get right for a lot of people who work in agriculture.
Before coming to the more detailed points of my speech, I want to say first that I have introduced the consultation today because I am convinced that the proposals are in the interests of people who work in the agricultural industry. We simply cannot look at agriculture today through the eyes of somebody in 1948, or indeed, of someone 20 years ago. Agriculture has changed massively, and for the better, in many respects. It is a highly skilled industry in which people have to adapt to new ways of working all the time. I genuinely believe that the present set-up, which is unique in this particular area of employment, is grounded in times when agriculture and social conditions were very different. Most important, employment law was very different too, which we have to keep reminding ourselves. As a House, we have made huge changes to employment law over recent years, which has transformed the landscape in which we approach such discussions.
I acknowledge the Minister’s good intentions in speaking for his constituents and the farming community, and I accept that employment law has changed. However, we are currently faced with new proposals for changing employment law, including watered-down versions of the Beecroft proposals on hiring and firing, under which people can buy shares in companies in exchange for giving away their employment rights. Does it not worry the Minister, as a Liberal Democrat, that the employment rights that have been put in place over the last 20 years are now being denuded at the same time that we look to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board?
The hon. Gentleman will not tempt me into commenting on other Departments’ areas of responsibility. I am dealing with what falls within my ministerial responsibilities, and as I have indicated to hon. Members, we gave a commitment to consult on the board’s future. The written ministerial statement that I have issued today, and made sure that Members had before them, informs the House of the launch of the public consultation on the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales, as well as the related 15 regional agricultural wages committees and 16 regional agricultural dwelling house advisory committees in England. The hon. Member for Ogmore picked up on the fact that my written ministerial statement describes the agricultural wages committees as “now largely redundant”. It does so because they are now largely redundant. I hope that he will look carefully at exactly what they do.
The point that underlies all this is that, in the absence of the Agricultural Wages Board, agricultural workers will be protected by the national minimum wage and working time regulations. I accept entirely what hon. Members have said—that that is not the sum total of the Agricultural Wages Board regime. It is not simply a safety net underneath the least well-paid workers. I shall come on to the other aspects, but that is certainly an important part of why it was set up in the first place. It was set up at a time when people working in rural areas were the least well-paid of the least well-paid and had very few protections. It was right, at the time, to give that protection. The question is whether it is still right to have that arrangement in this unique sector of employment when in other areas it has been abolished.
The hon. Member for Copeland talked about Baroness Thatcher’s Government removing a raft of wages boards, and that is correct—they did remove them—but surely he is not suggesting that that was necessarily a bad thing. I am not trying to reduce this debate to the absurd, because I know that there are genuine and important issues, but did he think that the Aerated Waters Wages Council, the Coffin Furniture and Cerement-making Wages Council, the Flax and Hemp Wages Council or the Ostrich and Fancy Feather and the Artificial Flower Wages Council really had a place in the 1990s?
In that case, I shall not tempt the hon. Gentleman further down that road, but the reason why I raised those other, perhaps flippant cases—I do not think that anyone would seriously suggest that those councils were relevant now—is that other wages councils that were abolished at the time had an effect on industries that would certainly be described as current industries and that are not entirely dissimilar to agriculture. I am thinking of the Licensed Non-residential Establishment Wages Council, the Licensed Residential Establishment and Licensed Restaurant Wages Council and the Hairdressing Undertakings Wages Council. Those were dealing with business that was often carried out by small enterprises, where many of the arguments that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have advanced today would have applied and where I do not think that a disbenefit from the abolition has been apparent in terms of comparative performance with other areas of industry. It is important that we recognise that.
We are now engaging in a consultation that will allow stakeholders and interested parties the opportunity to make their views known on the future of the Agricultural Wages Board before we make a final decision. I want to make it clear—because I genuinely think that this is the case—that the aim of the proposal to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board is to secure the prosperity of the agricultural industry for the future by encouraging growth and employment. I think that it will do that. I think that it will benefit all those who work in the industry, both employers and workers, as well as the wider rural economy.
Will the Minister give a guarantee that this is not a fait accompli and that if the consultation comes back with the view that the Agricultural Wages Board should be saved, the Government will follow that, rather than just proceeding with the plans for abolition anyway?
The job of Ministers when responding to a consultation is to listen to all the voices that are raised, to try to understand the points that are put forward and then to make a decision on whether to introduce appropriate legislation. It is then for the House to decide whether it supports that legislation, so let us be clear about the process. It cannot have come as any great surprise that we were going to go ahead with the consultation. Indeed, the hon. Member for Ogmore chided me gently for not having brought it forward earlier. I say to him that I would have brought it forward slightly earlier if there had not been a recess, but we are now ready to consult and ready to listen.
An impact assessment of the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board has been published as part of the consultation package. I hope that hon. Members will take the opportunity to consider it carefully and to comment on the document and provide their own evidence on the likely impact for both individuals and the industry as a whole. The impact assessment suggests that abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board could lead to increased employment, which would have potential ripple-effect benefits for the wider rural economy.
Let me deal with some of the specific issues that were raised. A lot of hon. Members were understandably concerned that the proposal might mean workers losing their existing rights. Of course, that is not the case. Anyone in permanent employment will be protected by their contract. They will have exactly the same rights after the day on which the legislation is passed as they had before. They do not lose any of their contractual rights and the employer loses none of their contractual obligations simply by the passage of the measure. Of course, it would apply to new entrants and new contracts being negotiated, but it would not apply to anyone who was already in employment. It is very important that people understand that. Let us also recognise that permanent workers constitute about two thirds of agricultural workers, so for the vast majority of workers, there will be no change in terms and conditions as a result of the board’s abolition.
For new contracts, yes, I accept that there may be an impact. That is reflected in the estimates in the impact assessment. However, it is difficult to assess what that impact will be until we see it in action. My feeling is that there is a high level of competition for skilled workers in some sectors of the agricultural industry, and it is important that people attract workers who have both the necessary certification and the necessary skills, given that they are operating, as one hon. Member said, incredibly expensive bits of machinery, let alone dealing with livestock, which requires husbandry skills. It is important that people attract and retain the best workers. Therefore, I am clear that we shall not see a drift towards the national minimum wage in contracts in the agricultural industry. In addition, new entrants to the industry will have exactly the same levels of employment protection as workers in all other sectors of the economy.
In fact, there are potentially some direct benefits from abolition of the rigid structures of the Agricultural Wages Board, let alone the bureaucracy, in terms of what is permitted under contract. One example involves annual salaries. It is extraordinary that at the moment it is difficult to provide an annual salary basis for a contract under the rather rigid systems in place. In today’s employment market and particularly because I am optimistic about agriculture—we have a growing sector and there is huge potential in agriculture—farmers need to offer attractive remuneration packages that are competitive with those in other rural sectors if they want to retain skilled and well-qualified staff. I would be very surprised if employers did not recognise that they had to pay appropriately for skills and experience. That is already reflected, of course, in the banding in the Agricultural Wages Board system. The majority are paid above agricultural minimum wage rates. In 2010, about half of workers were paid more than 10p above the agricultural minimum wage. I do not see any reason why that should change in the absence of the board.
Of course, there are other protections as well. The gangmasters licensing legislation is both relevant and important in this debate. The hon. Member for Copeland talked about the Agricultural Wages Board specifically providing protection for migrant and seasonal workers, but he will find that it is the Fixed-term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002 that provide such protection—passed by a Government that he, of course, supported. I recall supporting those regulations too. They will continue to provide protection, and it is important to know that that is the case.
I am not sure I recognise that abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board will necessarily affect those workers. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue and we will look at it closely in the consultation. Let us look at it in more depth and when we come forward with legislation, we will consider whether we need to look at it further.
We know that the agricultural work force are an ageing population, and that is not sustainable in the long run. I want to attract young people into farming, agriculture and horticulture. There are signs that more people are taking up courses at agricultural colleges, which is a good thing. We want to attract and retain new entrants—young workers—and to do that, farms must offer wages and conditions competitive with other sectors.
The hon. Member for Ogmore made an important point: most farmers and farming employers are good employers and want to do the best for their workers. Let us get away from the slightly Dickensian view that the only purpose of an employer is to grind down the workers. That is not the case and not the relationship that he and I see every day when we talk to people in farm businesses and those engaged in the sector.
What will happen to advice for farmers if the Agricultural Wages Board is abolished? The NFU has already indicated that it intends to provide economic indicators, which I hope will help.
I am not sure that I entirely accept the point about contractors, which I think was made by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex). People subcontract their work in lots of other businesses and industries without experiencing the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman anticipates. It has been said that such arrangements will simply stop. I do not believe that is the case, because I do not believe that agriculture works that way. People will find an appropriate level for such employment, as they do in the building industry and other industries where plant and specialist skills are often needed by contractors on a wider front. We will find ways of accomplishing the same objective without the bureaucracy involved.
I stress that we will specifically instruct the Low Pay Commission to include the agricultural sector in its range of indicators. If we go ahead with abolition, it will watch closely to ensure that we do not see a detriment at the lowest end of workers’ pay and conditions.
The board is the last remaining wages council. Does it serve a useful purpose? The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) says, with his knowledge of what happens in Northern Ireland, that it does not. I have looked carefully at the issue, and provided that we have other protections, which we do, across all sectors, it is difficult to argue that there should be a lone system for the agricultural sector providing separate minimum employment terms and conditions.
The regime is overly complicated at the moment. Its provisions are wide-ranging and restrictive, hampering the ability of the industry to offer modem, flexible employment packages. It effectively dissuades employers from offering annual salaries, which is disadvantageous for workers as it hinders long-term financial planning. It is a one-size-fits-all approach that imposes a rigid structure on a diverse and diverging industry.
If we lose the Agricultural Wages Board and the agricultural minimum wage regime, farmers will be able to agree terms and conditions with workers that fit particular circumstances and take account of the specific requirements of the farming sector. It would make it easier for farm businesses to employ workers, encourage longer-term employment, boost growth and create job opportunities. It would also simplify employment law.
An issue that has not been raised in the debate is the confusion for farm businesses around whether activities fall within the national minimum wage regime or the agricultural minimum wage regime. For example, livestock and poultry rearing would normally be considered agricultural activities and covered by the agricultural wages order, but that is not necessarily the case for slaughtering operations. In farm packing businesses, the agricultural wages order covers the packing of produce grown on the farm, but not the packing of bought-in produce. There are strange anomalies at the boundaries of what is and is not covered.
Before time runs out, I should like to say that I have not met a small farmer—certainly not in Wales—who has been confused by the current functioning of the AWB.
Will the Minister address a point of real significance? Under Section (9)(7) of the Public Bodies Act 2011 consent is required from the Welsh Assembly Government. Alun Davies, the Agricultural Minister, made a brief statement on social media this morning:
“Welsh Govt are determined to maintain the AWB structures in Wales. We have not consented to any abolition in Wales”.
I ask the Minister directly: will he commit now not to abolish the AWB and the functions of the AWB in Wales without the consent of Welsh Ministers?
I work closely with Welsh Ministers and I am always happy to do so. I share information with them; for instance, before the event, I shared the fact that we were bringing forward the written ministerial statement and the consultation process. I had the advantage of meeting Alun Davies only yesterday to discuss the matter, and I will continue to discuss with him and the Welsh Assembly Government what they have in mind. I will not go into the constitutional issues, because they are outside the scope of today’s debate.
It is clear that the matter is not a devolved one at the moment. The hon. Member for Ogmore looks askance—agriculture is devolved, but wage control is not. However, that does not stop us having a perfectly sensible dialogue with Welsh colleagues on the subject or stop them having a dialogue with the Wales Office on the constitutional issues. He says that we are obliged to use the 2011 Act, but we are not. There is a range of different legislative processes that we could use. He was firmly against the Act, so it would be strange if he now insisted that it is the only way that we can reform public bodies.
We are running out of time. I will continue dialogue with the Welsh Government to find a way forward. I am clear that it is perfectly proper for us to consult as we are doing on the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales. We shall listen to the responses, including those from the Welsh, and will take appropriate action when it comes to legislation.
I again thank the hon. Member for Copeland for initiating the debate. We will return to the subject. I hope that hon. Members will take advantage of the opportunity to express their views in the consultation, as many outside the House will. It is a serious issue and I want to get it right for the prosperity of all who work in the agricultural industry, with a view to reducing unnecessary regulation, without reducing necessary protections.