The case for a Rural Living Wage

January 16, 2013 4:03 pm

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.

  • Quiet_Sceptic

    You mention housing costs, for a lot of villages a ‘living wage’ wouldn’t even come close to paying for housing, even well paid jobs wouldn’t get you a house. You aren’t going to overcome that with a living wage or housing benefit.

    Part of the solution has to be having the planning system tilted in favour of allowing social housing to be built in rural area even when those areas are in scenic locations. You see no end of villages where virtually all development seems to have stopped sometime in the mid-1970s and the only thing built in the last 20-30 years has been very large, executive detached homes or perhaps more accurately, small mansions.

    • TomFairfax

      Hi QS,
      ‘ You see no end of villages where virtually all development seems to
      have stopped sometime in the mid-1970s and the only thing built in the
      last 20-30 years has been very large, executive detached homes..’

      Precisely. Even the so called ‘affordable’ homes built before 2010 were really just ‘smaller’ homes and not particularly affordable.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jim.crowder2 Jim Crowder

    There are few enough jobs in the countryside as it is. Putting up the costs of employment for companies that employ people won’t help.

  • TomFairfax

    I’m not convinced about a rural living wage. The main issues are housing and jobs and this proposal doesn’t deal with either. Second homes blight the communities because they are occupied part time and therefore mean local business see their markets shrink and close destroying jobs, while at the same time depriving the locality of housing available to those from the area. In some cases a Jersey style solution may be necessary to stop the rot.

Latest

  • News US Tory adviser boasts about wages boom in America as British wages hit slowest growth on record

    US Tory adviser boasts about wages boom in America as British wages hit slowest growth on record

    Jim Messina, the former Obama adviser hired by the Conservatives’ to help run their election campaign next year, enjoys tweeting about the successes of the American President – despite his unpopularity with fellow Democrats for taking a job working with Cameron. He won’t be endearing himself to the Tories either if he carries on with tweets like this: While cheering on US wage growth may be a good idea for Democrats in the run-up to the mid-terms this November, the […]

    Read more →
  • News Miliband promises “biggest reforms of the railways since privatisation”

    Miliband promises “biggest reforms of the railways since privatisation”

    Ed Miliband pledged that Labour would introduce the “biggest reforms of the railways since privatisation”, during a visit to Hastings today. During a Q&A, Mliband told the audience that if the Tories were re-elected then commuters in the town could see their rail fares rise by £265 to almost £5,000 a year. He promised that a Labour Government would take tough action to ensure that this would not happen: “A Labour government would cap annual fares on every route and […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Despite the government’s claims of recovery, the foodbank crisis isn’t going away

    Despite the government’s claims of recovery, the foodbank crisis isn’t going away

    This week, following on from my work with Leeds West foodbank and the Yorkshire Evening Post’s (YEP) excellent campaign raising awareness of the issue, I attended the launch of a new foodbank in Horsforth, one of the wards in my constituency, to show my support for the valuable work they do. Our current MP, a Tory, has been completely silent on the issue, while members of his own government have refused to meet representatives of the Trussell Trust to discuss […]

    Read more →
  • News David Lammy latest MP to call for all-minority ethnic shortlists

    David Lammy latest MP to call for all-minority ethnic shortlists

    David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, has become the latest Labour MP to suggest applying all-minority ethnic shortlists to future parliamentary selections in order to increase representation for black and minority ethnic (BME) people in Westminster. Responding to research carried out by former Labour minister Parmjit Dhanda and the Insight Public Affairs group on the lack of representation in the House of Commons, Lammy said: “Clearly none of the parties have any room for complacency when it comes to BME representation. […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Scotland Even the hecklers get soaked in this old style political tour

    Even the hecklers get soaked in this old style political tour

    In the first of a new weekly Scottish Referendum column for LabourList, Labour’s Shadow International Development Secretary Jim Murphy, writes from the Western Isles and seaside towns leg of his #100Streets tour. When I started my #100Streets in 100 days speaking tour a couple of weeks ago I thought the biggest threat would be Scotland’s summer. Despite the weather you’ve seen on television at Glasgow’s brilliant Commonwealth games it has taken until yesterday for me to get properly drenched by […]

    Read more →