Peers back farm pay shake-up - and Billy Bragg wades into the row
Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers joined forces last night to defeat efforts to save the Agricultural Wages Board.
The House of Lords voted by 192 to 163, a Government majority of 29, against a Labour plan to save the board, which sets minimum rates of pay and conditions for farm workers. The vote was greeted by supporters of the Government’s position who said abolition would simplify employment laws for around 40,000 farm business in England and Wales.
Meanwhile, left-wing activist Billy Bragg has demanded that Somerton and Frome MP David Heath remove a picture of them together from his website over the issue.
Protest singer Mr Bragg, from Dorset, is angry with the Farming Minister who backed the abolition of the AWB. Mr Bragg said last night’s decision would remove millions of pounds from farm workers’ pay packets and have a severe knock-on effect for the rural economy.
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Labour’s amendment to oppose the abolition was co-sponsored by Liberal Democrat Lord Greaves, Tory Baroness Trumpington and the Bishop of Hereford.
Former minister Lady Trumpington, 90, was not present for the debate after suffering a fall, according to Labour spokesman Lord Whitty.
Lord Whitty said the Government estimated the result of the abolition would be a cut of £240 million in wages in the agriculture sector and said the plan was “dangerous”.
He said the agricultural industry was unique because of the small number of people employed by most farms and the seasonal nature of the work.
“The minister claims this is a great removal of burdens on small businesses, but actually the operation of the board has in many cases been of great benefit to small farmers,” he said in the Lords last night. And he said a significant number of small farmers said that because they knew what they had to pay their staff they did not “have to go into an embarrassing and detailed negotiations with their two or three employees”.
He told peers: “A wage cut for workers will almost certainly end up by being a benefit to the supermarkets. The supermarket buyers, once they hear that the wages board and the minimum rates have been abolished, will go back to their farmers and their suppliers and say ‘we want a cut in the prices that we are giving’.
The Bishop of Hereford, the Right Reverend Anthony Priddis, said it was vital to keep the board.
“When other wages councils were abolished in the 1980s, the Government chose to keep the Agriculture Wages Board to prevent wages being driven down unacceptably,” he said.
But Tory Lord Cavendish of Furness said he could not see “any justification whatsoever” for retaining the board.