By Lord Risby
A little bit of post-war British history has disappeared into the ether with the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board in the House of Lords. Labour has never felt comfortable with the countryside, and has not the faintest idea as to how current farming practices are carried out. This was blindingly apparent as the proposal was debated. In 1948, a considerable number of wages boards were introduced. Gradually, they have been abolished, as they no longer served any purpose. The only one to remain was the Agricultural Wages Board, which set a minimum wage structure and various pay gradations on a higher scale. What was truly remarkable about the legislative proceedings in the House of Lords dealing with this proposed abolition was the sheer passion which its proposed removal provoked in Labour peers.
Since 1948, farming has changed beyond recognition. There is much greater stability in farming today with world food prices improving for producers and with technology having changed dramatically. Very sophisticated and expensive equipment is now being used, requiring wholly different skill sets from before. Many engaged in farming had come to regard the Agricultural Wages Board as wholly irrelevant, but were irritated by the inevitable mounting bureaucracy that surrounded it. It is true that seasonal picking is labour intensive, and poly tunnels have extended the overall picking season, but farm work patterns have become considerably more flexible. Many farmers simply nowadays bring in high technology machinery on hire for ploughing, ditching and harvesting. The overall number of farm workers has shrunk considerably. Over the years, we have also seen significant diversification by farmers, providing specialised farm shops, or cottages for holiday accommodation. Farm workers now frequently multi-task and are happy to do so, but the system has demanded differential pay scales for each of these tasks.
In practice, there has been virtually no difference between what the national minimum wage actually is and that of farm workers earning the basic agricultural wages order pay. There is now clear evidence that many farmers are paying well above the guidelines which had been set out by the Agricultural Wages Board. The proposal to abolish included an important safeguard, namely the protection of on-site accommodation which is valuable to many of those living on the land. As we listened to the discussions, it was absolutely plain that the close and friendly atmosphere that so often prevails on farms between owners, managers, tenants and farm workers – all united in their love of the land – is something beyond the comprehension of the Labour spokesmen.
The reality is that farmers are now having to pay competitive rates to retain skills just like any other business, and also to compete with the pay of local business enterprises and the public sector. Indeed, average farm workers now earn significantly more than many employed in retail and hospitality. As the NFU pointed out, average earnings for full-term farm workers were 41% above the industry minimums set by the Board. Indeed in the decade to 2011, the consumer prices index rose by 28%, and the retail prices index by 38%. Over the same period, the national minimum wage which almost identically mirrors the lowest grade of the AWB, rose by 64%, so the notion of exploited agricultural workers on dreadfully low pay is simple nonsense. Minimum wage legislation and housing protection today provides assurance to those working in agriculture.
Given all of this, and the fact that the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board has been supported by industry bodies including the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association, the Tenant Farmers’ Association and the Association of Labour Providers, the Labour Party has been effectively the lone voice on the political stage in favour of its continued existence. Additionally, independent professional advisors engaged in agriculture all have called for this relic of the past to be scrapped. This being the case, it simply begs the question as to why the Labour Party really attempted with such vehemence to prevent its abolition. The essential argument was that somehow wages would be cut as supermarkets attempted to seize the opportunity of trying to secure lower farm-gate prices. There is not a shred of evidence to support this, especially as wages have become a much less important part of the cost of food production.
If the country’s biggest trade union – Unite- demands something and bankrolls your political party, then you apparently leap to attention. It is simple as that. It was they who demanded the continued existence of the one wages board left in this country. Labour peers responded to their call with unquestioning enthusiasm.
What happened in this debate will of course have escaped the attention of almost everybody, including our political commentators and journalists, but was a salutary reminder as to how the Labour Party functions under Ed Miliband, and would function if ever he became Prime Minister.