Thursday, December 20, 2012

Abolition of Agricultural Wages Board

Seems there's a bit of a hoohah about today's announcement by Defra that the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales is to be abolished. I arrived home from Westminster at 5.00 to find Radio Wales' Good Evening Wales had been on, wanting an interview there and then on the issue. Thought about 'ducking out' to get a briefing, but don't really like doing that - so took it on. So happens, I do know the issue reasonably well, even if not up to full speed on the day's events. Anyway, even though under the cosh a bit, thought I held my own quite well. Also thought I'd try to stimulate some debate by blogging on the issue.

Labour's Huw Irranca Davies had done a pre-record for GEW in which he seemed terribly agitated about process. Claimed Gov't had 'slipped it out' on last day of term as an amendment to Enterprise and Regulatory Bill. I suppose he was right about it being last day of term. But so what? I can never generate much excitement myself about 'process'. Reality is I've sat through more Opposition hand-wringing on this issue than anything else over the last year. Owen Paterson, new Sec of State at Defra has considered all the responses to the consultation and has decided to abolish the AWB as soon as possible. On balance I agree with him. And having made the decision we might as well get on with it.

Now to the issue itself. At heart the aim is to reduce red tape and unnecessary administration by abolishing the Agriculture Wages Board for England and Wales, together with the 31 associated bodies. Let the industry be free to negotiate its own wage structures, as happens in every other industry - with the National Minimum Wage as a 'backstop' to prevent abuse by the minority. Reality is that most employer/employee deals are negotiated at a level higher than either levels set by AWB or NMW.

Another reason for abolition is the completely different structure of many farm businesses today, which have diversified into non-agricultural activities - resulting in different wage structures operating within the same enterprise. And I'm told the inflexibility of the AWB leads to more short term contracts and less staff development. Must admit I cannot speak with any personal experience here, because I never took the slightest note of the AWB when I employed staff on my farm because I always paid well in excess of any suggested wage rates.

Two other points worth noting. There's been a wide consultation exercise. Big majority in favour of simplifying wage negotiating systems - though a smaller majority favoured keeping the AWB in a simplified form. But a large chunk of this support came from electronic emails organised by something called And then there's the opinion of the Welsh Gov't, which for some reason is vociferous in its opposition to abolition. Now I'm all in favour of consultation with the Welsh Gov't, but not in favour of giving it a veto on non-devolved matters. So there we have it. The Sec. of State has decided, and he's getting on with it.

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