The drawn out abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) in England and Wales is completed. Let me recap the wretched story.

The abolition was in the Tory 2010 election manifesto; it was not in the Libdem manifesto or in the coalition agreement; nevertheless the Libdems agreed to abolition. The earlier Tory Libdem attempt to abolish it in the Public Bodies Bill having been thwarted by Labour ministers in the Welsh government, the AWB was abolished in a late amendment to the unrelated Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. The Commons agreed the abolition in this Bill without a specific vote on the AWB (Hansard 16 April 2013 column 210 onwards).

A month earlier, in the Lords on 6 March 2013, Labour amendment 83a, which kept a reformed AWB, was lost by 192-163 votes. All the Libdem members of the Lords associated with Cornwall who recorded a vote, Judith Jolly, Robin Teverson, and Paul Tyler, voted against the amendment and thus for abolition (Lords Hansard 6 March 2013 column 1554 onwards, vote at column 1575).

The Labour members of the Lords associated with Cornwall who recorded a vote, Tony Berkeley and Brenda Dean, were among the 163 who voted for amendment 83a to keep a reformed AWB. Paul Myners, another Labour member associated with Cornwall, robustly opposed abolition in Lords Grand Committee 16 January 2013: see here.

The other day in a last throw the Commons debated a Labour motion which said abolition would “reduce living standards and impoverish rural workers” and called on the government to keep the AWB (Hansard 24 April 2013 column 924). At the end of that debate only two Libdem MPs, Andrew George and John Thurso, supported the Labour motion against abolition. Dan Rogerson, Libdem MP for North Cornwall voted against the motion; no vote is recorded for Stephen Gilbert.

George has been consistent in his support of the AWB; the Libdem party in parliament, since going into coalition, has been consistent in its support for abolition. In 2011 George voted in the Commons against abolition and Stephen Gilbert and Dan Rogerson, Libdem MPs for Cornwall, voted for abolition: see Hansard 25 October 2011.

All four Libdem MPs for Cornwall at the time signed EDM 892 of 5 July 2000 which called for the retention of the AWB: Colin Breed, Andrew George, Matthew Taylor, and Paul Tyler (and Candy Atherton, then Cornwall’s only Labour MP).


19 January 2013

Let’s look at two recent parliamentary debates which affect people in Cornwall.

Government games 1: the disabled
The Commons debated the current arrangements for assessing the suitability of disabled and sick and vulnerable people for work, the work capability assessments carried out by the company Atos on behalf of the Department for work and pensions (DWP), and the subsequent loss of benefits by some of the disabled and vulnerable. If you have a strong stomach read the debate in Hansard 17 January 2013 column 1050 onwards.

I say ‘strong stomach’ because MPs from across the Commons gave scarring examples of their constituents’ unacceptable experiences of the assessments and process and the effects on people’s wellbeing. They are not abstract accounts or generalisations but deal with reported actualities; they make disturbing and often harrowing reading. Clearly the assessment process is not working well. Stephen Gilbert, the Libdem MP for St Austell and Newquay, said his constituents told him they found the process “dehumanising and degrading” (column 1056); Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, described it as “humiliating and demeaning” (column 1057).

There was general acceptance of the need to assess people’s capacity for work; near universal agreement that too many of the present assessments were unsatisfactory; and most MPs present looked for radical changes but some felt that the current process was so flawed and discredited it should be replaced – on this point also see the hard worded EDM 295 and EDM 687.

The work capability assessment, associated benefits, and the effects on individuals are the responsibility of the government. The minister’s response to the flood of distress was unconvincing. Welcome changes have been made but he had no answers to the large number of real life instances cited by MPs and the larger number unsaid. The government appears to be indifferent to the mountain of distress and dazzled by the lure of saving money by taking benefits from people. I wonder whether those taken off benefits actually find a job in the recession: look at this post about the experience of the Remploy workers of Penzance, only 4 out of 32 have a job after the factory has closed. Talking about the work capability assessments, Sheila Gilmore told the Commons: “Research commissioned by the previous government, which I understand is not being continued by this government—the minister might reassure us on that—found that 43% of those found fit for work were neither in work nor in receipt of an out-of-work benefit a year later. We must ask where they are. What is happening to them? We should know and we should care” (column 1091).

The MPs’ stories of their constituents’ experiences suggest that the weak and vulnerable are too often treated harshly and shamefully. We can do much better than this and we should do much better. We should encourage and help people who can work into work and support them in it; we should support those who cannot work and not create unnecessary anxieties and stress in their lives.

The report The people’s review of the work capability assessment (November 2012) takes a hard look at the realities for people of the work capability assessment. Case studies start at page 6.

The work capability assessment was introduced by the Labour government who awarded the contract to Atos Healthcare, a private company. The Atos contract was renewed and its range extended by the Tory Libdem government.

The content of the work capability assessment is written by the (DWP) and carried out by Atos. Decisions about benefit withdrawal or confirmation are made by the DWP who look at the Atos assessment and what claimants and their medicos say.

Government games 2: the farm workers
On 16 January the Lords debated the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) of England and Wales in Grand Committee (Lords Hansard 16 January 2013 column GC 253 onwards). Yes, I thought this was done and dusted. Apparently the Labour ministers of the Welsh government, whose consent was necessary, would not consent so the Tory Libdem government decided to seek abolition by a different bill. You can decide for yourself whether this is jiggery pokery or sensible management.

The debate was testy at time and I think the Labour opponents of abolition (including Paul Myners from Cornwall) had the best of it, pointing out the contradictions in government claims that abolition would simplify life and the finding from an impact assessment that farm workers might lose around £238 million in income over the next ten years, including a valuation of loss in future inferior sick pay and holidays. Whether farmers or supermarkets get that money was contended. For the sum see the ‘Best estimate’ in Table 2 on page 13 of the impact report. More details are found on page 16 onwards.

In the end the abolition amendment fell because in the Lords Grand Committee it had to be agreed unanimously and it wasn’t. The AWB survives for another day and the government scratches its head.

An earlier post about the AWB, with links to other posts, is Long winter for agricultural workers. In the vote on abolition in the Commons Andrew George voted against, Stephen Gilbert and Dan Rogerson voted for.


22 December 2012

I have updated these posts

Libdem watch Liberalising the Public Order Act 1986; automatically treating religious institutions as charities

Long winter for agricultural workers Abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board in the Enterprise and regulatory reform bill

Cornwall political blogs and twitter

UPDATE December 2012
DEFRA announced on 19 December 2012 that the AWB would be abolished on 1 October 2013, assuming the Enterprise and regulatory reform bill passes. Of the consultation responses to the proposed changes 61 percent opposed abolition of the AWB.

ORIGINAL POST 26 November 2011
In the post Tolpuddle and the Agricultural Wages Board (18 July 2011) I wrote about the proposed abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) for England (and possibly or possibly not of Wales) by the Tory Libdem government. I noted Andrew George, the Libdem MP for St Ives, opposed abolition but voted for the second reading of the bill that enabled it.

On 25 October 2011 the Public Bodies bill, including that part that deals with the AWB, was discussed in the Commons again.

The arguments were broadly the same as before. The government believes agricultural wages and conditions should be left to the market and anyway the minimum wage (£6.08 an hour) will protect those at the bottom from falling off a cliff. Opponents say that agricultural workers are vulnerable and poorly paid and abolition will lead to a worsening of pay and conditions such a overtime and sick pay. I find the reasoned arguments and details of the opponents of abolition much more convincing than a government policy that guarantees nothing but enables a worsening of the circumstances of low paid and isolated workers.

Andrew George argued for what he called a compromise, in effect as I understand it, the abolition of the AWB and a continuation of its work through the Low Pay Commission. In its amendment 32 Labour sought to stop abolition.

George got hard criticism from a couple of Labour MPs and his amendment was tossed aside by his government. However, he rightly voted with Labour for its amendment 32 and should be congratulated on that. It will be interesting to see how he votes on the third reading of this bill which enables the abolition he opposes.

Stephen Gilbert and Dan Rogerson, the other two Libdem MPs from Cornwall, along with the three Tories, voted against the amendment and thus for enabling abolition of the AWB. There will now be a public consultation but does anyone seriously expect anything other than abolition?

I shall go on noting the shame that is the Liberal Democrat party. I think too that it is time Andrew George took a long, hard look at the party he is in.

Jude Robinson blogs on the abolition of the AWB

St Ives Libdems draw attention to George’s vote against the government

Andrew George in Farmers Guardian 11 November 2010 on the abolition of the AWB:
“My colleagues in government are wrong to remove regulations which give agricultural workers reasonable protection for their pay terms and conditions of work,” he said. “If I thought that by following this policy farm workers would be better paid or have better conditions then I’d support it. But, I think we all know that the opposite is the most likely consequence.”

Early day motion 892 of June 2000
That this House … believes that 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; and therefore calls on the Government at the conclusion of the current review, to retain the Agricultural Wages Board as it is currently constituted.”
Signatories to the EDM included Candy Atherton (Labour, Camborne and Falmouth) and the four Libdem MPs for St Ives, Truro and St Austell, South East Cornwall, and North Cornwall. Three are still in parliament: Andrew George as an MP and Matthew Taylor and Paul Tyler as members of the House of Lords.

25 October 2012 update
The consultation on the abolition of the AWB is here. It runs from 16 October to 12 November 2012

“We raise the watchword liberty. We will, we will, we will be free” George Loveless 1834

The wet and windy weekend just gone was the Tolpuddle festival, an annual celebration and remembrance of the six Dorset farm workers who formed a union in 1834 and were transported. Trade unionists and supporters from all over Britain come to Tolpuddle to celebrate each year. Read the Tolpuddle story here.

The six were George Loveless, James Loveless, James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield, and John Standfield.

Tolpuddle matters because it gave trade unions a solid foundation for growth in Britain and that led to better lives for workers and their families.

People protested at the time in vast numbers against the injustice dealt to them; on 21 April 1834 there was a massive demonstration in Copenhagen Fields, Islington, and petitions flooded into parliament and the government. The six were given a full pardon on 14 March 1836 and brought back from Australia.

Agricultural Wages Board

On cue the other day there was a debate in the Commons which touched inter alia on the Tory Libdem proposed abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales (AWB) (Hansard 12 July 2011 column 212 onwards). This is an issue which affects agricultural workers in Cornwall. The Tory Libdem government is not talking about change and reform for the AWB but abolition.

There was also a debate earlier on the abolition of the AWB but no vote in the Lords (Lords Hansard 1 December 2010 column 1513 following).

Andrew George, Libdem MP for St Ives, supported the AWB and opposed its simple abolition (columns 215 and 253). He is right to take that view. He and Labour, which opposes abolition, broadly made the same points: the AWG is a protection for often isolated workers; it sets bands of rural wages that take eighty percent of workers above the minimum wage and give a career ladder; and it regulates matters like sick pay, holiday pay, and overtime. Labour feared there would be a decrease in agricultural pay if the AWB and its wage bands were abolished (column 261); and the abolition of the AWB would take away the guarantee of sick pay and that could mean a fall in income of up to £265 a week (column 225). The arguments against abolition strike me as persuasive and telling. The Tory Libdem argument that the existence of the minimum wage makes the AWG superfluous suggests a lack of full understanding of the circumstances of rural work and is uncomprehensive and unconvincing.

George voted in effect for the second reading of the bill which included the AWB abolition. The bill now goes to committee where it may be amended; Labour is sure to try to get rid of the AWB abolition provision and it will be interesting to see what the Libdems on the committee do. It will also be interesting for us in Cornwall to see what George and the two other Cornwall Libdem MPs do if the abolition of the AWB is still in the bill at third reading.

It is a difficulty for MPs. Many bills are curate’s eggs, some bad parts and some good parts. An MP can often vote against the part he objects to, but what does he do when the whole bill, including the objectionable part, comes to a vote? This happened on the Devonwall bill: in effect the six Cornwall MPs voted against the Devonwall provisions, lost, and then voted finally at third reading for the whole bill including the part they objected to. They presumably took the view that the bill as a whole was worthy despite its objectionable part. That is a rational argument which weighs up the value and importance of the whole and part. Different people will of course come to different judgements on weighing.

There are no such difficulties in the matter of the Tolpuddle farm workers. They were right, their prosecutors and persecutors were wrong. And our material and intellectual lives are better because of the six men from Dorset and many others.