Report on impact of Act upon agricultural workers

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 20th November 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

(1) The Secretary of State shall, within 18 months of Royal Assent being given to this Act, lay before Parliament a report containing an assessment of the impact of the provisions of this Act on agricultural workers in England.

(2) The report under subsection (1) shall include assessments of the impact of the Act upon each of the factors listed in subsection (3).

(3) The factors are agricultural workers’—

(a) living standards,

(b) pay,

(c) conditions of employment, and

(d) accommodation.

(4) The report under subsection (1) shall include an analysis of the impact on each factor under subsection (3)—

(a) in each region of England, and

(b) in each agricultural sector, within the meaning given in Part 2 of Schedule 1.

(5) The Secretary of State shall, no later than three months after the report under subsection (1) has been laid, open a public consultation on—

(a) the report laid under subsection (1) and any conclusions which it might draw or proposals which it might contain, and

(b) the merits of establishing a sector negotiating body to be responsible for setting on an annual basis minimum—

(i) living standards,

(ii) pay,

(iii) conditions of employment, and

(iv) standards and terms of accommodation for agricultural workers.

(6) “Agricultural worker” shall, for the purposes of this section, be taken to mean any person engaged in—

(a) agriculture, as defined in section 109 of the Agriculture Act 1947, or

(b) forestry.—

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to report on the impact of the Act on agricultural workers in England, and to consult on the findings of that report and the merits of establishing a sector negotiating body.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We come now to the work clause. We make no apology for saying that this is our opportunity to pray in aid one of the things that the Government got completely wrong—the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board. That happened under the coalition Government, and we hold the Liberal Democrats especially guilty.

I will not go into great detail. We know the issues, we know why we have tabled the new clause and I know why the Government are likely to oppose it, but we hope that they will at least think on this: there is a serious problem with the lack of labour in the agricultural sector.

A lot of agricultural labour is termed seasonal, although some aspects of what was the seasonal agricultural workers scheme was never seasonal—those who work in dairying or in aspects of the packing trade are not seasonal workers—and the reason why we rely so much on foreign migrant labour is because terms and conditions are not good. That is one of the reasons why we had the Agricultural Wages Board—to introduce a standard of terms and conditions that would encourage people to take that work—but it was not just about terms and conditions. The board also looked at future provision and training and investment in younger people to encourage them to come into the industry. Until one day when we are in power, we will carry on arguing that this is an important part of the way in which the agricultural sector could and should operate.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour, East Lothian

As this Bill is looking holistically at the countryside, across the environment and workers, is it not exactly the right place for agricultural workers’ rights to be included?

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I agree entirely. In this brave new world, we are talking about supporting not just farmers and landowners, but the environmentalists who are going to come in and do some of the work. Again, this area is rife with exploitation. It is right that lots of people work as volunteers or are seconded from their companies, but there is the danger that that will become the norm. Unless we are careful, we have no regularity of employment structure.

The Government’s argument has always been, “Why is agriculture different? It is the same as any other sector.” Well, it is different. The nature of the work is different: it is hard and the hours are long. There is also the issue of loneliness, because most workers are by themselves. There will perhaps be only one or two of them if they work for a small holding. Larger holdings have more, of course, and are able to get protection through their numbers.

I understand the NFU’s position, but farmers tell me that one of the things they most regret is the loss of the negotiating apparatus. They say that quietly; they will not say it to a wider audience. There are those who believe strongly that losing the negotiating apparatus has taken agriculture backwards. When we lost it, we saw that agriculture was not valued enough for such a structure to be in place. If the Minister does not agree with this new clause, I hope he at least recognises that there is merit in putting in place a structure and systems to ensure stability in farm workers’ terms and conditions. Too often, they are not paid the going rate, which means that people are not attracted to the countryside, which we all accept is a tragedy.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We had a similar discussion about an amendment earlier. I do not intend to speak for too long, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that I disagree with him for reasons that I have set out. As he knows, the Agricultural Wages Board was established way back in 1948. There were lots of other boards around at that time, covering different sectors. Most of them were phased out during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s; the Agricultural Wages Board was the last one standing.

Things changed fundamentally. There was a review of the Agricultural Wages Board in the mid-1990s, and in the end a decision was made not to take action. After the national minimum wage was introduced by the previous Labour Government and adopted by the Conservative Government, and, more importantly, after this Conservative Government introduced the new national living wage, the Agricultural Wages Board’s raison d’être was no longer there. It has been superseded by other pieces of legislation and minimum wage requirements. We currently have a national minimum wage of £7.83, and the national living wage is soon to go to £8.75. We therefore already have protections through the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, the Employment Rights Act 1996 and the Equality Act 2010. There is lots of legislation to protect agricultural wages.

I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s view that the negotiating apparatus that operated alongside the Agricultural Wages Board is necessary. There were problems with the way that it worked. It did not, for instance, allow the payment of annual salaries to some management staff so hours and payments could be averaged across the year. That would help people get mortgages to buy homes. There were reports that, because people received a weekly wage based only on the hourly rate, it was difficult for them to demonstrate to mortgage lenders that they satisfied their criteria.

More importantly, the very formulaic tiers of wages did not enable people who were doing particularly well and were on their way to progression or to a management role to be rewarded, unless they had the right craftsman qualification. It took away employers’ flexibility to reward their staff, because everything was set in a very formulaic way. I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s romantic view of the Agricultural Wages Board; it was restrictive and stopped more progressive approaches to payments, including salary development. Insofar as it gave protection for minimum wages, its role has been superseded.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My wife would say I was never romantic, although I do not want to disillusion the Minister too much. This is not about going back. There would have to be a new body, but it would perhaps take account of sectoral organisations—that was what was probably wrong with the old Agricultural Wages Board. The NFU always saw it as a one-size-fits-all.

A modern Agricultural Wages Board must take account of the different sectors and regions. Its whole point is that it underpins wages and conditions. We feel very strongly about that. We talked to Unite, the main representative body that came out of the old National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers. Historically, Unite has always been linked to the Labour party, although it has not always agreed with it. Although we look back in this sense, we also recognise the modern world.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

On the more highly paid work in appointment grades one and two, would that not in some way create a cartel for the farmers? They would not be able to outbid each other for the more skilled staff because they would say they were paying the going rate. That would not mean that the more skilled people could do better.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says. There is always a danger with some form of proportionality—how different groups would be paid. Those groups would not necessarily be encompassed by the Agricultural Wages Board anyway, because it is looking at a minimum structure. That is something that a modern, forward-looking wage board will have to take account of.

We have no magic answer: the NFU asks us what form things would take and hopefully we can have sensible and serious discussion with it. We are making the point that the industry is completely short of labour—yet again this year, sadly, the fruit and veg was ploughed back into the ground. There is something wrong when what has been produced cannot be brought to market because there is no one to pick it. From talking to my dairy farmers, I know that there is always a problem in getting milkers. That transcends any dairy-producing region; it is a real issue. All we continue to argue for is one way in which that can be recognised.

I will press this amendment to a vote; we hope the Government will gradually recognise that they must put a structure in place that transcends the normal minimum wage standards or the living wage. This industry is different, and that must be recognised.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Division number 27 Decision Time — Report on impact of Act upon agricultural workers

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

I was asked whether we get injury time if there is a Division on the Floor of the House. I consulted the Clerk to ensure I had the procedure correct, and the answer is no. However, if a Division runs past 5 o’clock, I would ask all hon. Members to return, because I will have formally to go through the procedure of reporting the Bill; otherwise, we will be in the position, which I have been in only once before, of the Bill’s having to be deemed to be reported, which is not satisfactory. Let us press on.

New Clause 26