As a minister at the old Department for Children, Schools and Families, I was very proud when Ed Balls agreed it would be the first government department to pay the London Living Wage. The high cost of housing and the concentration of poverty in the capital makes the case overwhelming; but the case for a rural living wage is equally strong.
If you are poor in rural areas it is a real struggle. The quality of life attracts asset rich retirees and second home owners, making housing often unaffordable. Local shops are a long way from distribution centres, competition is limited, and so prices are higher than the average. Wages are also low as local jobs can be limited to cleaning, care, hospitality and micro businesses; or if you’re lucky, the public sector. But the local council will be underfunded relative to urban councils, and can’t afford the support services you need if living in poverty.
The best way out of poverty is work – but only if work pays. Topping up low pay through the tax system is one way forward, as the tax credit system has shown. Better still is for employers to pay decent wages. That is why I hope Labour colleagues in the Counties will campaign for a rural living wage in this year’s Council elections.
It is also why I will be pressing Ministers this evening to withdraw their amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (ERR) Bill that would abolish the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) for England.
Set up in 1917, the AWB has put a floor under wages for almost a century. It means farmers’ representatives negotiate terms and conditions every year with unions, and workers then get reasonable pay, protection and career progression. Without it, workers will have to deal direct with their employers, the reality of which would be pay cuts for the workers (of around £32.5m per year) and the burden of staff negotiations on farmers. Indeed, the latter is one of the reasons why the Farmers Union for Wales agrees with the Welsh Assembly Government in retaining the AWB.
Previously, as an MP, I represented the Frampton Estate where the Tolpuddle Martyrs had worked before their arrest in 1834. The outcry at their treatment and transportation was a crucial moment in the history of the trade union movement. It was born out of James Frampton’s power to bully, and his influence over the local judiciary in passing such an extreme sentence.
But today, as Unite the Union say, “there is no more ‘tightly-knit’ community than a small rural community, where a farm worker’s employer, employer’s spouse or other members of their family may be in positions of social control such as a justice of the peace, a parish councillor, a school governor, all of these and more.” This makes negotiation by workers in these communities very difficult indeed.
Or as my colleague Margaret Prosser said when this issue was last debated in the Lords, “The most particular aspect is that in many circumstances the relationship between the worker and the employer is very personal. The relationship often involves just one or two employees and one employer. It is a very close relationship where day-to-day friendship and trust has to be established. How, in those circumstances, can the employee raise for himself or herself the sorts of questions that need to be answered if that employee is to feel secure in his or her employment and endeavour to improve his or her circumstances?”
There are many other reasons for retaining the protection that the AWB gives 154,000 workers in England – a much better deal for young people, better training, the particular conditions in what is a dangerous profession. In return, the impact assessment says the positive employment effects will be ‘not significantly different from zero’.
It is also shocking that the consultation period for this proposal has been only for four weeks, with Ministers trying to rush the plans through. For me however, the AWB is the starting point for a living wage for everyone in rural England – and this move by a Lib Dem farming minister will undo the good work by Lloyd George almost a century ago.
Lord Jim Knight of Weymouth is Labour’s Shadow DEFRA Minister in the Lords. This piece was first posted on the Labour Lords blog.