Delegation of Welsh environmental functions

‘(1) A person to whom this section applies may make arrangements with another such person for—

(a) a Welsh environmental function exercised by one to be exercised by the other;

(b) co-operation in relation to the exercise of Welsh environmental functions.

(2) This section applies to—

(a) the Environment Agency,

(b) the Forestry Commissioners, and

(c) a person not falling within paragraph (a) or (b) who exercises a Welsh environmental function.

(3) The Welsh Ministers’ consent is required for arrangements under subsection (1).

(4) The Welsh Ministers may by order make provision about how the function of making arrangements under subsection (1) is to be discharged (including provision about the extent to which a fee may be charged in respect of anything done under the arrangements).

(5) An order under subsection (4) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of the National Assembly for Wales.

(6) The Secretary of State’s consent is required for arrangements under subsection (1) involving, or an order under subsection (4) affecting—

(a) the Environment Agency,

(b) the Forestry Commissioners, or

(c) a person not falling within paragraph (a) or (b) who is a cross-border operator.’.—(Mr Hurd.)

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 3

Shared services

‘(1) A person to whom this section applies may make arrangements with any other person to provide administrative, professional or technical services to that person for purposes relating to the exercise of public functions in or as regards England or Wales.

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(2) This section applies to—

(a) the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew;

(b) the Environment Agency;

(c) the Joint Nature Conservation Committee;

(d) an internal drainage board;

(e) the Marine Management Organisation;

(f) Natural England;

(g) a person not falling within paragraphs (a) to (f) who exercises a Welsh environmental function.

(3) The Secretary of State’s consent is required for arrangements under subsection (1) involving a person who exercises a non-devolved function (whether or not the person also exercises a Welsh devolved function).

(4) The Secretary of State may by order make provision about how the function of making arrangements in subsection (1) is to be discharged in the case of arrangements made by a person to whom this section applies who exercises a non-devolved function.

(5) An order under subsection (4) requires the consent of the Welsh Ministers if the person referred to in subsection (4) also exercises a Welsh devolved function.

(6) An order under subsection (4) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.

(7) The Welsh Ministers’ consent is required for arrangements under subsection (1) involving a person who exercises a Welsh devolved function (whether or not the person also exercises a non-devolved function).

(8) The Welsh Ministers may by order make provision about how the function of making arrangements in subsection (1) is to be discharged in the case of arrangements made by a person to whom this section applies who exercises a Welsh devolved function.

(9) An order under subsection (8) requires the consent of the Secretary of State if the person referred to in subsection (8) also exercises a non-devolved function.

(10) An order under subsection (8) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of the National Assembly for Wales.

(11) The provision referred to in subsections (4) and (8) includes provision about the extent to which a fee may be charged in respect of anything done under the arrangements.

(12) The power to make arrangements under subsection (1) is without prejudice to any other power of a body to which this section applies to provide services to other persons.’.—(Mr Hurd.)

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 4

Shared services: Forestry Commissioners

‘(1) The Forestry Commissioners may make arrangements with a person who exercises a Welsh environmental function (with or without other functions) to provide administrative, professional or technical services to that person for purposes relating to the exercise of public functions in or as regards Wales.

(2) The Welsh Ministers may by order make provision about how the function of making arrangements under this section is to be discharged (including provision about the extent to which a fee may be charged in respect of anything done under the arrangements).

(3) An order under subsection (2) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of the National Assembly for Wales.

(4) The Secretary of State’s consent is required for—

(a) arrangements under this section, or

(b) an order under subsection (2).

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(5) The power to make arrangements under this section is without prejudice to any other power of the Forestry Commissioners to provide services to other persons.’.—(Mr Hurd.)

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 7

Agricultural wages

‘(1) In section 3 of the Agricultural Wages Act 1948 (power of Agricultural Wages Board to fix wages, holidays and other terms and conditions) the powers and duties of the Agricultural Wages Board are transferred to the Low Pay Commission.

(2) The Low Pay Commission shall establish an advisory board of employer and employee representatives from agricultural and related industries to make recommendations to the commission in fulfilment of its duties under the Agricultural Wages Act 1948.’.—(Andrew George.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 8—Office of Rural Affairs—

‘(1) The duties of the Commission for Rural Communities contained in section 19 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 (Representation, advice and monitoring) are to be transferred to a body to be known as the Office of Rural Affairs, which will report to the Secretary of State.’.

New clause 9—Independent Rural Advocate—

‘(1) The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 17 (Commission for Rural Communities) for “Commission for Rural Communities” there is substituted “Rural Advocate”.

(3) Subsection 17(2) is omitted.

(4) In section 18 (Commission’s general purpose) and section 19 (Representation, advice and monitoring) for all references to “Commission for Rural Communities” there is substituted “Rural Advocate”.’.

Amendment 32, in schedule 1, page 21, line 11, leave out

‘Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales’.

Amendment 39, in schedule 1, page 21, line 18, leave out ‘Commission for Rural Communities,’.

Andrew George: It is a pleasure to follow the previous debate, which was rather more truncated than I was expecting. I wish to emphasise the importance of retaining, under new clause 7, the protections provided by the Agricultural Wages Board, as well as addressing the importance of maintaining, under new clauses 8 and 9, an overarching mechanism—indeed, an independent body—that can advocate on behalf of rural areas. The Agricultural Wages Board was established under the Agricultural Wages Act 1948, but the heritage of that body goes back to 1924. It is an independent body with a statutory obligation to set minimum wages for agricultural workers in England and Wales and powers to determine other terms and conditions, including holidays and sick pay.

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4.45 pm

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): Would it not be simpler to remove the Agricultural Wages Board from the list? Rather than coming up with a new scheme or initiative to transfer powers to the Low Pay Commission under new clause 7, we could leave the Agricultural Wages Board out of the Bill and it could continue to do the excellent work that it has done for many years.

Andrew George: I notice that amendment 32 tabled by the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues proposes to delete the reference to the Agricultural Wages Board from schedule 1. The reason that I proposed a compromise position in new clause 7 is that I agree with the principle underlying the Bill. It is important for Governments continually to review the justification for the existence of non-departmental public bodies and for us to reflect on the amount of public money expended by a wide variety of quangos.

Where we can amalgamate responsibilities or find ways in which protective regulations, such as those for agricultural workers, can be incorporated in another statutory body rather than abolishing the body altogether, as the Government propose, it is important that we explore that option. That is what I seek to do in new clause 7. The intention and the benefit of my proposal is that the regulations are kept and enforced, but the overhead cost of maintaining an organisation is reduced as a result of that amalgamation.

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House whether he is speaking on his own behalf or whether that is formal Liberal Democrat policy? Will he tell the House how he expects members of his party to vote tonight?

Andrew George: I was going to remind the House that the proposal to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board was in the Conservative party manifesto, not in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, and the proposal to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board was not in the coalition agreement. The issue should be subject to discussions between the two parties, as well as parliamentary debate and scrutiny.

It has always been my view that one of the great benefits of a coalition is that it puts Parliament on the front foot, whether the Opposition like it or not, and it strengthens Parliament. It means that issues such as this, which cannot be resolved between the two parties through whatever usual channels are now established within the coalition, are subject to quite proper parliamentary scrutiny, and Back-Bench Members of the two parties in the coalition are able to hold those on the coalition Front Bench to account.

Mr Kevan Jones: Is it not the case that the hon. Gentleman and the Liberal Democrats have not been consulted about the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, and that his new clause is an attempt to save face with some of his constituents who will be affected by that? He can give the impression that he has fought for them, when later tonight the Government will abolish the Agricultural Wages Board anyway.

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Andrew George: It is up to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the very Back Bench of the Labour party to consider the demeanour they wish to adopt in this debate. Given that we share concerns about a relatively small and vulnerable group of about 150,000 isolated rural workers, many of whom are working on the lowest wages possible in that sector, I should have thought that a better demeanour would be to try and build bridges and find ways forward where we can adopt common ground in order to protect those workers, rather than making what I am sorry to say are rather cheap party political points.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): As a compromise, does new clause 7 weaken in any way the protections for agricultural workers? If so, is that not completely contrary not only to the Liberal Democrats’ historical position on the Agricultural Wages Board, but to an early-day motion tabled in 1990 when the last attempt was made to abolish the board? Not only the hon. Gentleman but every Liberal Democrat Member was a signatory to that motion, which stressed that we did not want any weakening of the board whatsoever.

Andrew George: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his research, but it must be incorrect because I was not in the House in 1990, so it must have been another date. On the question about the potential weakening of the protections available to agricultural workers, of course, if I thought that the new clause in any way significantly weakened the board’s role in protecting agricultural workers and ensuring that they had a decent baseline and a progression, or in any way jeopardised the terms and conditions that have been secured for them over many years, I would accept what the hon. Gentleman says.

I have had discussions with the Low Pay Commission on the issue. All that it will say is that it is up to Parliament to decide what regulations the commission should adopt, but they need to be enforced. Under the present regulations, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs clearly has the ultimate responsibility for enforcing those.

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman says that he has had discussions with the Low Pay Commission on his proposal. In the interests of transparency, what discussions has he had with the Government on this issue, and will he press the new clause to a vote, or is he simply using up House of Commons time?

Andrew George: I see that the demeanour adopted by those on the Back Benches is being adopted by those on the Front Bench, which is regrettable. It is for others to judge, but my concern on the issue has been sustained over a long time. I requested to see the Low Pay Commission and I have discussed the matter with it. Yes, I have had informal chats with Ministers on this issue, because like any other parliamentarian, I wish to clarify what lies behind the Government’s proposals, so naturally I have had discussions, but not formal discussions, and the hon. Gentleman is at liberty to explore the matter in the same way.

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Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman rightly corrected me: it was in 2000, but I was completely accurate in what I was saying. So may I ask him one more time? If the Minister is unable to reassure him that, in whatever compromise new clause is brought forward, not simply will basic pay be protected, but so will holidays and sick pay, overtime and bereavement leave, rent protection and security of tenure in farm cottages, as they are under the Agricultural Wages Board provisions, will he support the Opposition’s amendment, not his new clause?

Andrew George: I agree. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his correction. I was here then and it is for the hon. Gentleman and his party to reflect on why we thought at that stage that the board might have been under threat. I entirely agree with him about the full raft of protections that should be available to agricultural workers. If I thought those protections were being significantly undermined, I would certainly not pursue the new clause in this manner. I emphasise that I do not feel precious about a particular quango; it is the protections I am most concerned about. I hope to hold out an olive branch to Ministers and say to them, “I agree with the principle underlying the Bill, which is to try to rationalise, amalgamate and abolish where that is necessary. Here is an example where we want the protections, but the small quangos that have proliferated can be amalgamated.” I am meeting them halfway and saying, “Let’s keep these protections.”

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I represent one of the most urban constituencies, but I was brought up in some of the most rural ones. My hon. Friend’s new clause seems rightly to probe whether there is a sensible way to look after the low-paid in the agricultural industry without the duplication of quangos. That seems an entirely proper thing to do, and I hope that colleagues on the other side of the House have the same objective.

Andrew George: I did not answer the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), the Opposition spokesman, who asked whether the new clause is intended to be probing or whether I intend to press it to a vote. This is clearly a matter of judgment. My intention is to advance the proposal as a solution that is available to the Government. The Bill is, after all, enabling legislation; it does not actually abolish the Agricultural Wages Board. At some point in the future there will be a framework within which the Government can bring forward a proposal, and we hope that they will genuinely consult upon it and that we will have an opportunity to debate the matter before taking it forward. My intention is to probe the matter. If I receive a deeply unsatisfactory response indicating that the Government have no intention of even considering the retention of any of the protections, or that they intend to drive on as quickly as possible with the abolition of not only the board but the regulations themselves, I will certainly consider pushing the new clause to a vote. I hope that the Minister is listening on that.

Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): The last time the Liberals were in power they established the protection for agricultural workers. It will be a deep and wicked irony if, now that they are back in power, even if sharing it, they played any part in the abolition of that minimum

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protection. The hon. Gentleman says that his new clause is intended to be probing, but presumably he has probed his own Government. If there is any doubt whatever, I make a plea that he either presses the new clause or supports the Opposition’s amendment so that agricultural workers have that minimum protection.

Andrew George: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which follows the theme of others in doubting the sincerity of my purpose, which is obviously a matter for him to judge—[ Interruption. ] Okay, perhaps he does not doubt the sincerity of my intention, but others sitting around him certainly have. I have a genuine intention to retain the protections, but I am not precious about the board. That is the bottom line for me, as set out in the new clause. That is what I am seeking to achieve, because I believe that agricultural workers will be vulnerable if they lose their protections, that they are very isolated and that they have no muscle in the negotiating framework to enhance and improve appropriately the salary scales and terms and conditions to which I believe they are entitled.

5 pm

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman knows that the protections are important, and for the 12,000 agricultural workers in my part of the United Kingdom in Wales, they are exceptionally important. Putting that aside for a moment, will he for once, as I will today, pray in aid the employers? The deputy director of agricultural policy of the Farmers Union of Wales said that the Agricultural Wages Board

“is considered an important means of avoiding potential conflict and lengthy negotiations with individual staff”.

There is a synergy between employers and employees in ensuring protection and crucially—the amendment omits this—retaining the mechanism for employers to negotiate effectively.

Andrew George: The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. There is a significant argument between his Front-Bench spokesmen and the Minister about whether withdrawal of the protections will increase the amount of negotiation that individual farmers will be obliged to engage in with their employees, instead of allowing them simply to fall back on the helpful framework of agreements that were negotiated over some time, and the orders that are enforced from 1 October every year, which the Agricultural Wages Board provides for the agricultural industry. Some people in the agricultural industry, but perhaps not employers, will accept publicly, and some will accept privately, that those negotiations and the framework that they provide for farmers and other agricultural employers are helpful and reduce the administrative burden when negotiating with their staff. The right hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point.

I return to a broad-brush point on agricultural workers. Last year, the Chancellor of the Exchequer made statements, which I thoroughly endorse, about how to restore the economy. He emphasised that we are all in this together, that those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden, and that the vulnerable should be protected.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Andrew George: In a moment.

Agricultural workers may have broad shoulders physically, but not in negotiations with their employers, and certainly not when those negotiations involve their salaries. They are among the most vulnerable people in the work force. If the Government adopt for agricultural workers the principle that the Chancellor explained in his statements last year on his approach to restoring the economy and public finances, it is important to look carefully at measures necessary to protect those vulnerable workers.

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is making some good proposals, but why should agricultural workers and businesses be treated differently from any other workers and businesses in this country?

The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) mentioned the Farmers Union of Wales, but the National Farmers Union is clear in its support for the Government’s proposals.

Andrew George: I fully acknowledge that the NFU not only strongly supports the Government’s proposals but perhaps drove those proposals in the first place. Although I share a good and strong platform with the NFU on many issues, we do not agree on this point.

The implication of what my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) said is this: if these protections are not available in any other industry, why should they be available to agricultural workers? My answer is that we should not simply adopt a lowest common denominator approach, and that just because these protections do not apply to other industries, that does not mean that, in the interests of equality, agricultural workers should have them removed. Agricultural workers have proper protections, which need to be retained, and it might be appropriate to look at extending those protections—I am not saying that agricultural workers are exceptionally exploited—to other industries where there are isolated workers in a similarly weak position who are possibly exploited.

John Mann: The hon. Gentleman cited the Chancellor’s saying that we are all in it together. Do the Liberals not get it? This morning, the Governor of the Bank of England repeated what he said before—that we have had the biggest reduction in standards of living in living memory. Are not the Chancellor and his Government cutting the pay of working people as their way of reducing the deficit, and is not this part of the same cuts?

Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman has made a fair point; I think he wanted to make a flourish with it. If he does not mind, though, I will keep the debate on the narrow point about the Agricultural Wages Board.

John Mann: I asked if the Liberals get it.

Andrew George: Whether I get it is a matter for the hon. Gentleman to judge and for me to emphasise that of course I do.

Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman is making a series of good points about the retention of the AWB. However, his hon. Friends have raised the views of farmers. Is he aware of the survey

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carried out in and around the New Forest by Stuart Harding, who saw 44 farmers at random, 37 of whom were opposed to the abolition of the AWB?

Andrew George: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I must admit that I am not fully aware of such surveys. As I said in response to an earlier intervention, the view is not universally held across all agricultural employers, some of whom have privately explained to me that they find that the framework that the AWB provides creates inefficiency in how they negotiate and establish agreements, sometimes admittedly verbal, with their work force.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that many farmers welcome the stability that is given them in their relationships, as they can avoid doing individual farm-by-farm, person-by-person negotiations. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) said, that is the view of the Farmers Union of Wales. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that it is also the view of the Welsh Government. The Minister will be able to confirm later that the Welsh Government have been in correspondence with DEFRA seeking to avoid today’s scenario of the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board because they want to retain its functions within Wales.

Andrew George: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that important point. We are part of a United Kingdom and, in spite of some hon. Members, a European Union in which the work force can migrate. The protections that an Agricultural Wages Board provides, which may be lost from England and Wales—and, I emphasise, from Cornwall—will not be lost in Scotland and Northern Ireland as a result of the Bill. Those who support the Bill’s measures on behalf of the agricultural sector argue that agricultural workers are highly prized. If the Agricultural Wages Board is withdrawn, there is a risk, certainly in the north of England, that agricultural workers will migrate north of the border, where their pay and conditions might be rather better. That will happen over time. The Minister looks at me in a rather quizzical and critical manner. Although it is true that the pay grades and terms and conditions of agricultural workers will not immediately be withdrawn as a result of the abolition of the board, for new entrants to agriculture the only protection similar to the regulations that will be jettisoned will be the application of the national minimum wage.

Mr Frank Field: Like the hon. Gentleman, I have been looking at the Minister’s face, and a quizzical look did appear on it when he talked about the importance of the minimum rates to agricultural workers. May I invite him to spike the Minister’s argument if he is going to give us figures showing the number of farm workers who are paid above the minimum rate? Is it not true that in those circumstances, farm employers still use increases in the minimum rate to increase the rates that they pay their workers, even though those rates are above the minimum?

Andrew George: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. The initial defence that Ministers gave for their proposal was that it is okay because there is a national minimum wage. The last Conservative Government did not consider such a proposal because

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there was no national minimum wage, but now that there is, they say that there is no fear because it provides a safety net for agricultural workers.

There are six grades of pay, from grade 1, which is only 2p above the national minimum wage, up to grade 6 which is—I do not have the figure in front of me, but I am sure the Minister will tell me it—about £8.80 an hour. Grade 6 is paid to farm managers and equivalent positions. I do not think that that is a lot to pay a farm manager. It is important to acknowledge that as little as 20% of the agricultural work force are paid at the grade 1 level. Therefore, 80% are paid above the grade 1 level. That helps to emphasise the point that it is vital to retain those grades.

It is not only the grades that are vital, but the conditions on holidays, sick pay, retention to be available on duty, standing pay, payment for the retention of a dog, and tied accommodation. About 30% of agricultural workers have tied accommodation. The regulations that apply to that are important because once somebody is in tied accommodation, they have a rather different relationship with their employer.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman is actually making some good points in defence of Labour’s amendment 32, not his new clause per se, because it will be not only new employees who are affected but contracted employees and casual workers renegotiating their contracts. I understand that 32,000 of those workers are in England and Wales. Does he agree with the point that I made earlier that if the view of both the Farmers Union of Wales and the Welsh Government is that the Agricultural Wages Board should be retained in Wales, it is inappropriate under the current devolution settlement to outlaw, abandon and abolish it? The Bill provides the people of Wales with no facility whatever to exercise their democratic legitimacy and retain it, let alone the people of Cornwall; we have not even moved on to devolution for Cornwall yet.

5.15 pm

Andrew George: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that the very distinctive region of Cornwall deserves such devolution.

The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly decent point, although I have to say that provided that the Government follow their word about the Bill being the enabling framework for abolitions to be made by order, he and his colleagues in Wales will be able to advance the idea of variable geography with regard to retaining protection for agricultural workers when orders are made. However, that is perhaps a debate for another day.

Gavin Shuker: The hon. Gentleman is being extremely generous with interventions—I appreciate it.

The hon. Gentleman seems to have a lot of faith that the enabling framework in the Bill leaves the Government with an open mind about this matter. He listed a number of matters involved other than the minimum wage, such as other terms of employment and pay and conditions. Unless I am mistaken, I have not heard him mention sick pay so far, but we know from the Commission for Rural Communities, a body that is itself to be abolished under the Bill, that that will take £9 million out of the rural economy.

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Andrew George: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and perhaps I need to move on to the CRC, because I am aware that I have been very generous in giving way—perhaps too generous, judging by the body language of those on the Government Front Bench. I did mention sick pay, although I am not sure I can confirm the figure that the hon. Gentleman gave, and I noticed the Minister shaking his head at that point. However, the negotiated sick pay agreements for certain agricultural workers are clearly very important. They are certainly more generous than others, and I would not have thought that those workers would want to give them up lightly.

I wish to emphasise a couple of points on new clauses 8 and 9. The first is about the Rural Advocate’s role. The disbursement of grants and the other roles of the CRC could potentially be brought in-house or delivered in other ways. However, it is vital to retain an independent rural voice, and I still believe that the Government need to revisit that point. There are two very good reasons for that. One is that although those of us who represent rural constituencies are of course the rural voice in Parliament, and advocates on behalf of our constituents, we need a non-partisan inquisitor and overseer. We need someone to assess the general trends of what is going on in our rural communities and rural life. The nature of how we engage in our debates in the House is that we tend to react to the political issues of the day rather than necessarily approaching calmly, objectively and rationally a significant issue that might otherwise not be addressed at all.

It is also important to recognise that the Rural Advocate should in future speak up on behalf of the most vulnerable in rural areas, as he has in the past. People on below average wages are the minority in many rural communities, but in some, including in my constituency, they are the majority. Indeed, my constituency has the lowest average wage in the country.

The advocate should also speak up for those who fundamentally depend on the range of public services that are the most vulnerable, including rural bus services, small rural schools, and village shops and post offices, which are closing in many communities in many constituencies.

The Government simply propose to press ahead with the abolition of the Commission for Rural Communities. Hon. Members have addressed the manner in which the Government have approached that, but it is notable that the Rural Advocate has already been abolished. I must chide them on starting to deliver the purpose of the Bill, because the Bill is supposed to be enabling legislation. The Commission for Rural Communities must be retained.

I hope the Minister addresses the need to bridge the fault lines between Departments. Very often, rural matters need to addressed between Departments. Rural transport is a matter for the Department for Transport, and village schools are a matter for the Department for Education, but they should be addressed between Departments. The problem of the Government not taking sufficient account of the impact on rural communities of legislation and regulations needs to be addressed, either by retaining an independent rural voice, or by having a Cabinet sub-committee that is obliged to report to Parliament and produce reports regularly. Will the Minister consider that?

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Alun Michael (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman’s expertise, and as a former rural affairs Minister, I thoroughly believe that the threat to the Agricultural Wages Board and the way in which the Government have dealt with rural issues are a disgrace. However, may I point out that he has now been going on about that for more than 40 minutes, and that it would be nice to fit one or two other major issues, such as the Youth Justice Board, into the limited time available?

Andrew George: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that comment. I have been too generous in taking interventions, including his, which has taken a great deal of time.

The Government are aware that people are very unhappy at the loss of the independent rural voice. I hope that my argument gets a warm reception, and that I do not need to press the House to a Division on either of the two new clauses because the Government indicate that they will give ground.

Mr Thomas: I rise to speak to amendment 32, which is in my name and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and to urge the Government to keep the Agricultural Wages Board. Let me say in passing that it is a sad indictment of the modern Conservative party that it can fill its Benches for a debate on Europe, and yet a debate of such considerable significance to the future of the countryside is better attended by Labour Members.

The hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) has done the House a service by raising the issues in the way that he did. His new clause 7, on the Agricultural Wages Board, is a positive and constructive one, as are his other proposals, but it is not as clear-cut or positive as the proposal in amendment 32 in my name and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends. However, if he decides that he does not receive a good enough response from the Minister, which I fear will be the outcome, I shall urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to support his new clause. Nevertheless, we hope that when we press our amendment, he will join us, given its greater benefit.

The AWB helps to ensure fair wages, so it will come as no surprise that the Conservative party wants it abolished. It is more surprising, however, that Liberal Democrat Ministers are signing up to the proposal. Like many others, rural workers will find it difficult to believe that this proposal is proof of the Deputy Prime Minister’s claim that he is a brake on the Conservative party. The AWB helps to ensure that people working in the countryside, be they apprentices, farm supervisors or small farmers, get a fair deal. Frankly, it is difficult to see how, without the AWB, farm workers will not inevitably be worse off.

Mr Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend think it rather ironic that although the Conservative party claims to be the protector of rural communities, only one Conservative Back Bencher and one Conservative Parliamentary Private Secretary are attending this debate? Is it not clear that that party protects certain parts of the countryside, but not others?

Mr Thomas: My hon. Friend makes a good point, emphasising the one that I made about how it is surprising that so few Conservative Members are present.

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Even Margaret Thatcher decided, in the end, that the AWB was too important to axe. Perhaps it would help the House if I gave two examples of the concerns about abolition that have been put to me. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) said, had witnesses been invited to give their views on the Bill before the Committee stage, other Members might have had the opportunity to have direct conversations such as those I have had with the following two people. Richard Neville, from near Haywards Heath in Sussex, is on grade 4 of the AWB’s pay scale, reflecting his additional skills and experience—he has a craftsman certificate and a national certificate in agriculture. If the AWB were abolished, however, there would be no guaranteed protection of the extra wages reflecting his skills.

Richard Neville is particularly concerned about what would happen to overtime pay, which is currently paid at time and a half. He has to work one weekend in six and, obviously, considerably longer hours in summer over the harvest period. If he and those like him move jobs, what guarantee can the Minister offer that his new employer would offer him the same level of overtime pay? I would be happy to take an intervention from him, if he wants to get to his feet.

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr James Paice) indicated dissent.

Mr Thomas: He does not—perhaps a glaring example of what the reality will look like.

My second example is Steve Leniec, from near Wantage in Oxfordshire, who is paid a craftsman’s rates and whose concerns are about the downward pressure on farm workers’ wages, which abolition of the AWB will drive. The House knows that unemployment is high at the moment, and his perfectly reasonable and understandable fear is that wages will slowly drop when the AWB is abolished.

David Wright: My hon. Friend is talking about wages being gradually eroded, but the wages of the 40,000-plus casual workers, who change jobs more rapidly, will fall very quickly indeed. A large proportion of people working in the countryside will quickly take a pay hit if this body is abolished.

Mr Thomas: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is precisely the concern being expressed by many people.

Stephen Mosley: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the NFU, which has stated:

“Claims that farm workers will suffer lower wages if the Board is abolished are simplistic and ill-founded”?

Mr Thomas: On this occasion, I do not agree with the National Farmers Union. As I have said, we consulted widely in preparing our position on this part of the Bill, and we have reached a very different conclusion on the basis of our conversations with farm workers, with small farmers and with other farm workers’ representative bodies, of which more later.

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5.30 pm

Mr Frank Field: Might not the National Farmers Union give a different answer if the Government were to address the question of how we can grow more food to feed our population? We have a huge trade deficit, and the answer must surely be to invest more. If we raise our investment in people, we will raise productivity. The push should be not to lower wages but to raise them and to raise productivity.

Mr Thomas: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, I hope that he will catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker, to enable him to make that point in more detail.

I shall return, if I may, to the concerns expressed by Mr Leniec about the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board. He is also worried about the loss of sick pay that he could suffer. He has never needed it to date, but knows of others who have done so. He also shares Mr Neville’s concern about the loss of protection of the right to overtime if he should move to a different employer.

The Agricultural Wages Board continues to provide an unheralded but important service in helping to protect vulnerable people and their families, who are vital to the rural economy, from seeing their terms and conditions progressively worsen. It helps to regulate basic pay and protection for fruit pickers, farm labourers and other farm workers. It deals with wages, holiday pay, sick pay and overtime, as well as bereavement leave, holiday entitlement and rates for night work. It provides a crucial floor beneath which wages in the agricultural economy cannot fall.

Nearly 150,000 agricultural workers in England and Wales depend on the Agricultural Wages Board. Those workers play a part in maintaining the vibrancy of our rural communities. They are the unsung essential staff who support farmers in helping to keep agricultural businesses thriving. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) has just suggested, they form a vital part of our food production industry, helping to ensure that we and our constituents can all enjoy healthy—and, occasionally, unhealthy—meals.

It is striking that many farmers continue to support the Agricultural Wages Board. Its presence means that they do not have to become employment specialists, and that they can instead concentrate on running their businesses. The deputy director of the Farmers Union of Wales has noted that

“the AWB is considered an important means of avoiding potential conflict and lengthy negotiations with individual staff”.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): To my knowledge, agriculture is the only industrial sector in which there have been no large industrial disputes over the past couple of decades. Is not that testimony to the success of the AWB?

Mr Thomas: The hon. Gentleman is undoubtedly right on this occasion. It is also worth noting that many small farmers also rely on providing their skills to other farmers, at Agricultural Wages Board rates, to ensure the viability of their businesses.

The Government made the important claim in Committee that the board’s abolition would not result in workers becoming worse off, and that minimum wage legislation and the European working time directive would protect their terms and conditions. I put it to the

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Minister, however, that once the Agricultural Wages board has gone, the 42,000 casual workers in the sector will see a drop in their wages as soon as they finish their next job. That point was also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright). The other 110,000 workers could see their wages and conditions corroded over time.

Is it not spurious for Ministers to claim that farm workers will be protected by the minimum wage? As the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) said, only 20% of farm workers are on the Agricultural Wages Board’s grade 1, which is virtually equivalent to the current minimum wage. The rest earn considerably more than the minimum wage and will not enjoy the same protection as the board offers them now. Is it not true, too, that once the Agricultural Wages Board is abolished the right to overtime pay at current rates will disappear when a worker moves job? Is it not true, too, that once the board is abolished the right to sick pay will be at a substantially lower rate than at present for agricultural workers when they move jobs? Then there are children who do summer jobs or part-time work on the land; they usually live in rural villages themselves and often have aspirations to work on the land for a career once they are old enough to do so. They currently receive £3.05 an hour. They are not covered by the national minimum wage, so—if, indeed, the board is abolished—they will have no wage protection when they do holiday or weekend work.

Poverty in the countryside rarely receives the coverage or attention it should. Indeed, the extra costs of living and working in the countryside do not get the attention they should, so the work of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in highlighting the extra 10% to 20% living costs that those in rural areas typically need to spend on everyday requirements in comparison with those living in urban areas, is surely significant. It should further challenge us to do more to combat low pay and poverty in the countryside and it surely poses the question of how the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board can possibly help in that important task. The board is also an important counterweight to the pressures from the food industry, particularly those from the supermarket chains, for ever lower costs of production to increase profitability.

I read through the comments that the Minister made in Committee. He cited how the Agricultural Wages Board's existence discourages the payment of annual salaries and the confusion with non-agricultural work that can occur. Those may or may not be genuine concerns. If they are—I take the Minister at his word—one would have thought that a reform agenda could explore those issues. Instead, the Government want to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, not thinking through the consequences for rural wages of the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board. With rural workers already facing a huge squeeze on their finances from higher energy prices, the increase in VAT and an economy that is being badly mismanaged by the Conservatives, the Government now want to risk rural workers’ wages.

We know from a leaked impact assessment on the abolition of the board that the impact of the loss of entitlement to agricultural sick pay compared with the lower-in-value statutory sick pay that will remain will be a

“transfer, a benefit to farmers and a cost to workers.”

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The impact assessment estimates that the reduction in earnings for farm workers as a result of that measure alone will be some £9 million—£9 million out of the rural high street in lost earnings by workers. All those villages shops—vulnerable now because of the Government’s mishandling of the economy—are hardly going to be helped by yet another squeeze on the finances of those they want as their consumers.

If there is any doubt that the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board will damage the pay of rural workers, let us look at what happened in other parts of our economy when their wages councils were abolished. In evidence published as far back as September 1995, three in 10 jobs were paying less than they would have done if wages councils in the relevant sectors had not been abolished. The fall in pay in shops was particularly severe. A follow-up study one year later showed that half of all vacancies were paying below what they would have done if the wage councils had still existed. The situation had got worse. Such evidence explains why the Labour Government not only brought in the minimum wage, but reformed collective bargaining arrangements. It is also why we will tonight oppose the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board and why I will seek your leave, Madam Deputy Speaker, to divide the House.

Lastly, I draw attention to amendment 39, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) and other hon. Friends and which deals with the Commission for Rural Communities. The abolition of the CRC will leave rural communities without an independent voice, as the Government scrapped the Rural Advocate post last year. It raises the question of whether the Government are really committed to rural proofing Government policies. Indeed, the abolition of the CRC, along with—crucially—the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, following on from the Government’s attempts to sell off the nation’s forests, is surely proof that the countryside is being let down by the coalition Government parties.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I did not expect to be called so soon—I expected a Government Member to be called next—but, in the absence of any speakers on the Government Benches, I shall proceed with my speech.

This morning there was a very good lobby of agricultural workers, during which members of Unite, other union workers and MPs gathered outside Parliament to protest against the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board. Amendments 32 and 39, to which my name is attached, are intended to secure a fair deal for 152,000 farm workers in England and Wales, apprentices and farm managers alike. The amendments are intended to protect their basic pay, holidays, sick pay, overtime, bereavement leave, rent, and security of tenure in farm cottages. They are also intended to protect the compact between Government and farm workers that has existed for decades, since the Attlee Government of 1948, and which—here I echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George)—has recognised the enduring need to provide reasonable recompense for arduous and dangerous agricultural work, to promote food security, and to contribute to the tackling of rural poverty.

Members should be in no doubt about the fact that if the Government axe the Agricultural Wages Board, there will be severe repercussions. According to the

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Government’s own figures, £9 million will be removed from the rural economy every year, at a time when the Government are presiding over what is effectively a zero-growth economy. The Minister did his best on the radio today, saying that he did not expect any of those bad things to happen as a result of the board’s abolition. I did not expect Wales to go out of the semi-final of the rugby world cup, and the Government did not expect to see 80-odd of their Back Benchers in open rebellion last night, only 18 months into a new Administration, but, as the old saying goes, farmyard slurry happens.

More than 40,000 casual workers will experience a drop in their wages when their current jobs finish, and the wages of a further 110,000 will be eroded over time. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) has told us what happens when wages councils disappear, and has described the pattern of the effect on wages and salaries over a sustained period. What assessment has the Minister made of the cost to the taxpayer of the additional claim on that taxpayer through payments of child tax credit and other support for farm workers and their families when their wages and entitlements wither on the vine?

The House has a very long memory, and some Members have been here for many years longer than I have, but I do not think that any Member who is present today was present for the original debates on this subject in 1947 and 1948. Nevertheless, there is a strange echo down the years of the debates that took place both here and in the other place. Archer Baldwin, Conservative spokesman for agriculture, argued in defence of a policy of minimalist—not minimum—wage protection, remarking of the previous pitiful agricultural wages:

“The reason for those low wages was the low prices paid to the farmer, and we want to relate prices to wages.”—[Official Report, 22 January 1947; Vol. 432, c. 251.]

He wanted to relate farm gate prices to wages, rather than ensuring the farmer was given a proper price for his produce and was paid a proper living wage.

I remind Liberal Democrat Members who—again—are wondering which way to turn now that their Conservative bedfellows have once more stolen the duvet that, as I remarked earlier, there was a time when they were wholly against the proposal with which we are dealing today. It was the last time there was a review of the Agricultural Wages Board—not a threat to abolish it, just a review. The Government of the day did not proceed with any proposals to abolish, change, or transfer any functions from the board, because they were faced with a powerful combined front of Labour, Liberal Democrat and assorted other Members who opposed any proposal to change it.

I suggest to the hon. Member for St Ives, who has tried his hardest to make a good fist of putting forward an alternative compromise, that there is a danger that notwithstanding what was a very principled stance on that occasion, the Liberal Democrats will tonight go over to the dark side, or at least put one foot in both sides of the bed. Regardless of which side of the bed they are on—strong Liberal or weak Tory—that is what is proposed, in particular by new clause 7 tabled by the hon. Member for St Ives. I respect the hon. Gentleman. He is trying to do the right thing: he is trying not to upset his party’s coalition partners too much, and he is looking for a neat Lib Dem compromise, but it is a

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compromise. His proposals are a weak and unsatisfying brew compared with our full-strength amendment, which would truly protect the AWB.

5.45 pm

I referred earlier to an early-day motion in 2000. In response to a proposed review of the AWB—not a proposal to abolish it—former Lib Dem Members who prided themselves on their strong rural and agricultural credentials stood alongside Labour MPs in mounting an heroically robust defence of the AWB as it stands. Former Lib Dem Members for South East Cornwall, Cheltenham, Brecon and Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire, Truro, St Austell and North Cornwall, and also the current hon. Members for St Ives, for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), for North Devon (Nick Harvey) and for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), were happy, when in opposition, to sign up to an EDM that was glowing in its praise of the AWB and stalwart in its defence. Among other benefits, they noted

“that the Agricultural Wages Board…sets a series of rates of pay to reflect the varying qualifications and experience of farm workers, thus providing a visible career structure for recruits going into agricultural work and is used as a benchmark for other rural employment”.

They also said that they believed

“that any weakening of the Agricultural Wages Board or its abolition would further impoverish the rural working class”.

What has changed? The EDM added that the abolition of the AWB would lead to

“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.”

I say to the hon. Member for St Ives that he and his colleagues were utterly right then, and they are utterly wrong tonight. I say to him, “Pull the duvet back and show who is in charge. Your rural working class are watching.”

Mr Anderson: Does my hon. Friend also agree that the hon. Gentleman was correct when he was quoted on 11 November last year in the Farmers Guardian as saying:

“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”?

He was right then, and he is wrong tonight.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I agree with my hon. Friend, and I also agree with the hon. Gentleman, as his peroration was, in fact, an argument in favour of our amendment, not his new clause. I therefore say to him that he should by all means press his new clause to a Division, as if he does so the Government Front-Bench team will have to consider whether it supports him. However, if he is not minded to do so, I urge him to support our amendment, as it will do exactly what he has previously argued is right for poor rural farm workers.

Andrew George: The purpose of my new clause is to achieve the Government objective of saving money by doing away with unnecessary quangos and other NDPBs, while also retaining the protections for agricultural workers. It therefore achieves exactly the same outcome as the hon. Gentleman is claiming to want, while also saving public money.

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Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman’s comments highlight the difference between our positions, as I do not think his new clause does anything of the sort. Instead, it weakens and threatens not only pay, but all the other terms and conditions of service that should be protected. His proposal is not an absolute guarantee; rather it is, in effect, a “maybe.” He and his colleagues have to consider tonight whether they are happy with the much more opaque and vague assurances that may come from the Government Front-Bench team.

As I said, the rural working class is watching, and so are people in Wales. The Farmers Union of Wales does not want the functions of the AWB to disappear, noting among its strengths the fact that, operating with few staff,

“the AWB is…an important means of avoiding potential conflict and lengthy negotiations with individual staff.”

As I mentioned, the Minister will doubtless want to confirm today that the Welsh Assembly Government have also indicated their desire to retain the functions of the AWB in Wales and are awaiting a response from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. So may I suggest to him that today is not the day to draw a shroud over the AWB, not least when to do so would be a clear rejection of the legitimate democratic voice of the Welsh people?

Finally, I draw the attention of the Minister and of Conservative Back Benchers—both of them—to the American poet, philosopher and polymath Henry David Thoreau, who asserted:

“Farmers are respectable and interesting to me in proportion as they are poor.”

Farm workers are going to be a whole lot more respectable, a whole lot more interesting and a darn sight poorer if the Government carry out this threat to abolish the AWB.

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I rise to speak to amendments 32 and 39, and I do so as a rural trade unionist and a rural Labour MP. The AWB is not a quango; it involves the Secretary of State, independents, workers in the industry and employers meeting to negotiate pay, and terms and conditions. Its destruction undoes the rightful and valuable recognition of skilled labour in the food manufacturing sector. Its destruction only creates a disincentive to young workers to enter the industry by reducing skilled labour to the level of the national minimum wage. That is a general wage for general work and it should not be used as a general means for conducting pay negotiations across a whole industry.

The scrapping of the AWB will have significant consequences for the rent relationships of workers at their place of work. Furthermore, it will undermine overtime pay arrangements, as the national minimum wage carries no overtime rates. Without the AWB, agricultural workers will have no mechanism to pursue collective bargaining to improve their pay and terms and conditions, and thus pursue their aspirations and improve their lot, not only for themselves, but for their families and their communities—they can only just about afford to live in those. If the AWB is scrapped, they will no longer be able to pursue those things.

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The destruction of the AWB is only one part of this Government’s attack on the countryside. If it were not for the national minimum wage, the AWB’s removal would definitely take industrial relations in the fields of our nation back to an appalling condition not seen since the time of the Tolpuddle martyrs. For many on the Government Benches, “The Hired Man” is not merely a fictional account based on our social history of more than 100 years ago, but an economic vision for the future, exploiting the worker in the field. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats cannot claim to be the parties of rural communities when the only part of rural society they want to talk to is the affluent one. The AWB provides a proper and efficient means for workers and employers to resolve human resources and industrial matters quickly. Its destruction only disfranchises workers—they will not have the right to negotiate a day’s pay—and complicates matters of negotiation. The move is divisive and will undoubtedly divide rural communities between employer and employee.

The destruction of the AWB has a cynical kernel at its heart. It implies that because of record levels of unemployment employers can drive down terms, conditions and pay on the assumption that people will simply be grateful for a job. In that sense, it is intended precisely to let the rural rich exploit the very rural working class who provide the food we eat and feed our families with.

Mr Kevan Jones: I am getting a little concerned for the health of the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) because when he speaks as he did tonight and as he did in the health debate, he seems to be in a certain amount of pain—perhaps the fence he has been sitting on in all these debates is causing pain to his nether regions. Clearly he is trying tonight to give the impression to his rural constituents that he is supporting them, while giving succour to the abolition of the AWB. He has to make a clear decision about whether or not he supports this move. His new clauses are seriously flawed, as was shown by some of his arguments. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) that the hon. Gentleman made a better argument for the AWB’s retention than he did for his new clauses.

I have a problem with the new clauses. The hon. Gentleman said that he had had discussions with the Low Pay Commission, but subsection (1) of new clause 7 would require some form of legislation to amend the LPC’s remit. This is not simply a matter of transferring functions to the LPC, because we would be changing its role and nature greatly. Subsection (2) simply bemuses me. It states:

“The Low Pay Commission shall establish an advisory board of employer and employee representatives from agricultural and related industries to make recommendations to the commission in fulfilment of its duties under the Agricultural Wages Act 1948.”

That sounds very much to me like a description of the AWB. Why do we need to move things to the LPC, given that subsection (2) basically retains the function? If there is a need for the AWB to protect rural workers, we should leave it as it is.

The hon. Gentleman said that he wanted to take this approach to save money. I believe that the AWB costs £272,000 a year, which is less than half what the new special advisers appointed by the Deputy Prime Minister cost—we will keep an eye on the Tory Ministers throughout the coalition Government. So we are paying a small

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price to protect rural workers and rural communities. If the hon. Gentleman really wants to support rural workers in his constituency and the rest of the country, he should support our amendments 32 and 39. They make clear the need for, and importance of, the AWB, not only for workers, but for rural economies.

David Wright: I am delighted that my hon. Friend has talked about agricultural workers, because this is not solely an urban/rural issue. Many people who live in towns such as Telford, which I represent, go out of the town to work in rural areas. So this is not just about sustaining the rural economy; it is also about urban areas.

Mr Jones: My hon. Friend makes a very good point; places such as Telford are surrounded by large rural areas. It is ironic that Conservative Members keep telling us that they are the champions, supporters and voice of the countryside, given that a second Conservative Member has only just arrived for this very important debate. That tells me loud and clear that they will protect certain parts of rural communities but not others—the most vulnerable. May I say, as a former trade union official, that it would be the first time in history if something like the abolition of the AWB led to an increase in the wages of rural workers? It is therefore vital that the AWB is retained.

If the hon. Member for St Ives wants to prove to his constituents that he really cares about their needs, all he needs to do is vote for amendments 32 and 39 and encourage the rest of his party to do so. I assure him that at the next general election the Labour party in his constituency and in other Liberal Democrat rural constituencies will remind constituents of exactly what the Liberal Democrats did. As with a lot of things that this coalition is doing to attack working people in this country, this could not be done without the support of the Liberal Democrats.

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): I will speak briefly, as I am conscious of the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael). I do not represent a rural constituency, but a city-centre constituency which, as the House of Commons Library tells me, has approximately zero agricultural workers living in it. It seems to me that this is about fairness. As many speakers have pointed out, the Agricultural Wages Board covers not only workers’ wages but grading arrangements, skills and qualifications, overtime, training costs, apprenticeships, allowances and grants, holidays, sick pay, leave and housing. It is inconceivable that, if the board were abolished, there would not be downward pressure on the terms, wages and conditions of agricultural workers.

6 pm

I want to address one more issue about the industry more broadly. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), when he was in his place, talked about the need for security of supply and how the industry needs to expand. I am very worried that if the Agricultural Wages Board is abolished, it will lead to destabilisation in the industry. It can be no coincidence that there has not been a major industrial dispute in this sector of the economy since 1923. I am told that the

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industry needs 60,000 entrants. According to some research, because of the machinery and the nature of the work, the industry has the highest death and injury rate per capita. For reasons of security of food supply, we need people to move into the industry and I am deeply concerned that, if the Government get their way this evening, the changes will act as a major disincentive to people entering it.

I said I would be brief, so I shall finish on this point. We have not had an industrial dispute in this sector since 1923, but if we did have one as a result of the Government getting their way tonight it would be a very sad day indeed.

Nia Griffith: The Agricultural Wages Board sets standard rates of pay for 12,000 agricultural workers in Wales and similar workers in England, with six grades ranging from £6.10 an hour to £9.14 an hour to reflect the different types of work involved. As farming is so dependent on maximising effort when the season and weather are right, the board also gives guidance on unsocial hours, night working and dog allowances to mention just a few matters, as well as setting the rate of pay at £3.05 an hour for under-16s, who are not covered by the national minimum wage.

Many farms in Wales are family businesses with just two or three employees, or perhaps only one. Discussions about pay and conditions can be very tricky and, quite honestly, embarrassing, so standard guidance from the Agricultural Wages Board helps farmers and the 12,000 farm workers in Wales. That is the view of the Farmers Union of Wales, which has made that absolutely clear. Many of the inquiries that it receives can be answered by the board and the reason for that is not that it is just an information line but that it sets the wage levels.

In some instances, in family farm situations where there are just one or two employees, conflict can arise over wages even if there is good will on both sides, and reference to the board can avoid a lot of confusion and conflict. In other instances, there are huge temptations for employers to allow wages to be eroded by inflation, and without the Agricultural Wages Board it would be all too easy for employers to drive down wages. In the case of the many seasonal workers, that could happen very quickly indeed after the board’s abolition. In many rural areas, there are few other job opportunities and the driving down of agricultural wages would significantly increase rural poverty. Indeed, we have heard that some £9 million will be taken out of the rural economy. Furthermore, it will lead to an exodus from the countryside, and we know that there is already a skills shortage. If we are to feed the nation in future we should be encouraging decent wage levels and encouraging young people to take up agricultural jobs.

Without the Agricultural Wages Board to set those additional grades above the national minimum wage to reflect the skills and physical effort involved in farm work, there will be a race to the bottom. This is part of the Government’s determined agenda to drive down wages, increase poverty and take away any opportunity for ordinary people to have any redress against exploitation. Let us be clear: this is not about cutting red tape. It is about driving down wages and taking money out of the rural economy. That is why I shall support Opposition amendments 32 and 39.

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John Mann: As I represent one of the largest Labour rural constituencies, I have to ask the House what is wrong with this Government—with these Liberals and Tories—who are taking every opportunity to decimate rural communities in my constituency and across the country? We know the inevitable consequences of removing and abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board: reductions in wages. That means there will be less money to spend on postage stamps, but of course they have an answer to that because the number of post offices closing and the threat to the universal postal system are part of their policy.

There will be less money in the pockets of rural workers to spend in pubs but they cannot find any pubs in rural communities because of the inaction of this Government. There will also be less money to spend in rural shops. But the biggest crime of this Government to date is the fact that across the country we have seen the decimation of independent retailers, especially in rural areas. That is within 18 months. Therefore, this is part of a particular policy and approach. We know the Government’s approach to the countryside: concrete it all over and put every village together by building houses that people do not want and sticking more wind farms in. That is their policy for the rural community. Indeed, that is their only policy other than this one—give us loads of concrete but take away the spending power of people living in the rural community.

There is a reason for that approach, which one might think would be unpopular. Indeed, it is tremendously unpopular in my area as I am sure it is elsewhere in the country—it is a vote loser. The Liberals have lost all their votes already but it is a vote loser for the Tories so why are they doing it? They are doing it because this is the only economic plan they have. This is part of that plan and needs to be seen as part of it. They cannot create growth, so their economic plan is to cut real wages and real standards of living. As the Governor of the Bank of England said to the Treasury Committee today, there has been the biggest cut in living memory in standards of living in this country since this Government have been in, with working people across the country having less money in their pockets. The biggest cut since before the 1930s—that is what they have brought us.

What did Government Front Benchers say when they were going on about Europe yesterday? They said, “We want to meddle in Europe; we want to repatriate some powers”, meaning the paid holidays and agency workers directives. Those very things sit alongside the Agricultural Wages Board. This is part of the same process and ideology, because this is ideology-driven. It is economic nonsense. In my constituency, it is economic nonsense to reduce the real pay of people who do not have a great amount of discretionary spend anyway. I am talking about the poorest people in my community, and I have an ex-mining community. Poverty and pockets of poverty are greater in rural communities than in any mining community in my area. The real spending power of those people will be reduced and that will have a catastrophic effect on the rural community overall. That is what these people in government are doing through a deliberate economic policy. Shame on them for doing that and shame on this lot of Liberals for backing it. I recommend to the House supporting the Opposition’s sensible amendment.

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Mr Paice: We have had a number of speeches on these new clauses and amendments which I shall try to address. I have to say that for the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) to say that the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board is a major issue in the countryside demonstrates a serious lack of understanding about the issues that face the countryside. For the Opposition to talk about rural poverty after 13 years in office in which rural poverty got worse and worse year by year, with nearly everything they did being an attack on rural communities, smacks of hypocrisy.

I am one of those, and I suspect there are others in the House, who has at some stage had their wages set by the Agricultural Wages Board. I am not quite going back to 1948, but getting close to then. However, I recognise that the world has changed. Back in 1948, there were tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, more farm workers. Most of them were horsemen, because horses were the main force of traction in those days. The world has moved on. Farm workers are not the forelock-tugging yokels that many Opposition Members seem to think.

John Mann: That is an insult.

Mr Paice: It is not an insult. If it is an insult, it is an insult to Opposition Members who have been using that sort of analogy to show the relationship between modern-day farmers and their work force.

Mr Kevan Jones: I do not think that I was doing that, but is the Minister really telling the House that, if the Agricultural Wages Board is abolished, farmers—I understand that he was a farmer before he was a Minister—will drive up wages, rather than driving them down?

Mr Paice: The market is what will affect wages. That is the reality of how wages are set in every other—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Harrow West and the hon. Gentleman told us everything that happened after the abolition of the other wages councils and boards. I would take much more seriously all the remarks that we have heard from Opposition Members if they had recreated a single wages council or board in their 13 years in office. They did not do that, and that is why—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says, “The minimum wage.” Yes, we support the minimum wage, and we have got it now.

Mr Jones: The Minister argues that wages should be left to the market. Is he therefore suggesting that there is no need for the Low Pay Commission and the minimum wage? That is the ultimate conclusion of his logic.

Mr Paice: The hon. Gentleman knows full well that that is not what I said. This group of amendments deals with not only the Agricultural Wages Board, but the Commission for Rural Communities.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Paice: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman because I respect his integrity and his contribution on these issues in the past, although I did not agree with everything that he said.

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As the hon. Members for St Ives (Andrew George) and for North Durham (Mr Jones) said, new clause 7 would transfer the Agricultural Wages Board’s powers to the Low Pay Commission and establish an advisory board of employees and employers to advise the commission. Clearly, amendment 32 would strike the whole issue from the Bill. Both provisions would continue the separate minimum wage regime for agricultural workers, although the mechanism would be different.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I want to shed some light, rather than heat. Of course, one of the Agricultural Wages Board’s functions relates to sick pay. How much is the statutory sick pay for grade 1 and grade 2 workers? How much would it be if the board were not there?

Mr Paice: All workers will have exactly the same entitlements as they currently have. Other hon. Members have made the point—I was going to make it later, but I emphasise it now, because there are a lot of myths about—that the Bill will not affect anyone in their current employment. They will be protected by their current terms and contract of employment, whether in relation to rates or conditions of pay.

Mr Thomas: Will the Minister clarify something that he said? If an existing worker moves to a different job after the Agricultural Wages Board has been disestablished, what protection will there be for his overtime rates of pay?

Mr Paice: Clearly, the worker will negotiate with his putative new employer. [Interruption.] I will be more objective: the real world says that that worker is unlikely to move to someone who will pay him less than the job that he is leaving. That is the reality.

Gavin Shuker rose—

Huw Irranca-Davies: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Paice: I will give way, but I will make a little progress first.

I need to emphasise that this is not some secretive plot, as some people would suggest—[Interruption]—or even an open one. Let us not be pedantic. It is not some plot to drive down wages or conditions for agricultural workers; quite the reverse. For many years, there has been widespread employment protection for workers in other sectors of the economy through the national minimum wage regime and working time regulations. Agriculture remains the only sector with a separate employment regime. The terms and conditions and the way that it operates are outdated and gold-plate the provisions of the national minimum wage legislation and working time regulations. There is, therefore, a heavy regulatory burden on employers, and we believe that it is hampering the industry from creating jobs and damaging long-term prosperity and sustainability.

The regime that we seek to abolish dates back to the bygone era that I referred to. It does not relate to today’s widespread legal protections. It no longer reflects modern employment practices. As has been mentioned, it discourages the payment of annual salaries, which is difficult for workers because they have no control over their own financial planning. By contrast, the national

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minimum wage legislation provides for the payment of annual salaries. I emphasise that all our evidence shows that the vast majority of agricultural workers are paid above the level dictated by their Agricultural Wages Board grades.

6.15 pm

Mr Thomas: The Minister says that there is a whole series of new, modern employment protections. I ask him again to draw the House’s attention to which one of them will protect workers’ overtime pay in the situation that I described in my previous intervention.

Mr Paice: Anyone in a post at the moment is protected by their contract of employment. Anyone who changes jobs—and whose contract therefore is no longer valid—will have to negotiate, just like in any other sector of the economy, and the hon. Gentleman was part of the Government who did not change that system.

Mr Thomas: Pay will go down.

Mr Paice: It will not necessarily go down; it will react to the state of affairs.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The Minister is being generous in giving way, but may I probe him again on my previous question, because he did not address those who change contracts? Can he confirm that most people are entitled to statutory sick pay of £81.60? Under AWB grade 1, the figure is £153.30. Under grade 2, it is £274.86. If we abolish the AWB and people go on to new contracts on those terms—I can pull out other examples—they will have substantially diminished terms and conditions. That is the reality that the Minister is painting for us.

Mr Paice: The hon. Gentleman does not seem to grasp that, if someone decides to change their job in the future, they will obviously want to take into account what terms and conditions the alternative is offering them. I will not dispute his figures, because they are the ones laid down at the moment, but anyone changing jobs will want to consider the options available to them.

Mr Kevan Jones: The Minister has just referred to agricultural wages being gold-plated. What does he consider to be gold-plated about the wages paid to agricultural workers?

Mr Paice: I was referring to the wages order, not the wages themselves. The Agricultural Wages Board structure is gold-plated. As other hon. Members have mentioned, the reality is that a lot of agricultural wages order measures go way beyond what is laid down in statute for any other walk of life or sector of employment.

Mr Anderson rose—

Gavin Shuker: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Paice: No; I will make some progress. I, too, heard the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael).

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Andrew George: I very much respect the Minister’s judgment. He argues that the Agricultural Wages Board represents a bygone age, but does he accept that the Conservatives supported the establishment of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which provides necessary additional regulation to protect agricultural workers. If he is predicting, as a result of the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, that wages and terms and conditions will not go down, can he tell the House this evening that he will confidently predict that they will either at least remain the same or, indeed, be more enhanced than they might otherwise be? [Interruption.]

Mr Paice: For once, I agree with whoever is shouting from a sedentary position. Of course no Minister can guarantee such things and it would be crazy for anybody to do that, but it is our firm belief that the overall employment situation in agriculture and in the fresh food sector will be enhanced by the abolition of the wages board.

The amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives to transfer the powers and duties of the Agricultural Wages Board to the Low Pay Commission would mean the continuation of a dual regime, with consequent duplication of effort for employers. A transfer of the wages board functions to the Low Pay Commission would mean that there was still a separate employment regime for agricultural workers. There would be no removal of the regulatory burden on businesses and we would not achieve the simplification of legislation that we believe is necessary.

Moreover, if the Low Pay Commission were to be given powers to set an agricultural minimum wage rate, it would be difficult to argue why the commission should not extend those powers to set rates in other sectors—in other words, to return to the position before 1993. As it is, the Low Pay Commission does not have any statutory powers to set a minimum wage in any sector. It is an advisory body which makes recommendations to Government. The establishment of another advisory body to advise the Low Pay Commission, which the new clause would create, would introduce more bureaucracy, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid.

If the Agricultural Wages Board and agricultural minimum wage regime were abolished, the Low Pay Commission would be asked to consider evidence in the agricultural sector, as it does in other sectors. That evidence would be taken into account when the commission made its recommendations to Government on the rates for the national minimum wage. The national minimum wage rate would thus reflect the situation for agricultural workers. I have emphasised the point about retention of existing contractual rights.

The current evidence shows that for permanent workers aged over 21, well over half were paid well above the hourly minimum wage for the relevant grades in both 2009 and 2010. As in all other industries, agricultural workers with the right qualifications and aptitudes would continue to be able to command a premium. Lower skilled workers who were paid at or around the grade 1 agricultural minimum wage rate would be protected by the national minimum wage requirements. As has been mentioned, the lowest agricultural wage rate is just 2p per hour above the national minimum wage.

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The Government would encourage industry representatives to work together to provide benchmarks for agricultural wage rates. As Members know, a non-statutory approach to wage setting works in many other industries, such as the construction sector, and although there are differences between the sectors, there is no reason why a similar approach should not work in agriculture.

I have discussed the matter with the National Farmers Union and urged it to introduce advisory levels of pay annually, in conjunction with the revisions to the minimum wage and annual levels of premium. The current premiums paid for grades above grade 1 are certain percentages above the basic grade. There is no reason why any employer who wants to employ somebody who they classify as a craftsman, a foreman or whatever grade they wish, cannot continue to use the minimum wage as the base for adding whatever premium they consider appropriate. The annual uprating of the minimum wage would be the opportunity for annual changes to agricultural wages.

In Committee and again tonight, there was considerable debate about the position of the Agricultural Wages Board in Wales. I accept that the Welsh Government take a different view. We are continuing to engage with them on the arrangements that should apply to agricultural workers in Wales.

Finally, the future of the board will be subject to public consultation, as required by the provisions of the Bill. We hope to consult before the end of the year. That will ensure that the consultation is widely advertised to meet the requirements of the Bill. Equally important and relevant to points that have been made tonight, an impact assessment and equality impact assessment will be published as part of the consultation.

That brings me to the issue of £9 million being taken out of the economy, which the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) said—well, it was broadcast this morning, but I suspect that, like me, she did not actually say it this morning—was per year. The figure of £9 million was one of a number of possible scenarios, but I will not take it back. It did originate from DEFRA, but it was not an official impact assessment. I do not dispute its origin, but the figure was £9 million over 10 years—less than £1 million a year.

Mr Anderson: Is the Minister telling the House that the measure will cost workers £9 million, when the AWB cost only £270,000, to quote the figures read out at the other end of the Chamber?

Mr Paice: The hon. Gentleman is mixing his figures. Nobody is disputing £270,000-odd as the annual cost of running the board. That is not the reason for abolishing it. The purpose of abolition, as we have tried to say, is to release the industry and free it up to increase employment opportunities.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): I have seen a DEFRA impact assessment, which says that the cumulative impact of holiday pay and reductions in sick pay is £90 million over 10 years, which is where the £9 million a year net present value comes from. I am happy to send the Minister that document if he has not seen it yet.

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Mr Paice: I am happy to debate that matter with the hon. Lady outside. [Interruption.] I do not have the document to hand and I am not in a position to dispute the point. I certainly do not wish to be responsible for misleading the House.

On the second part of this group of amendments about the loss of an independent voice for rural communities, the Government have clearly stated that they are firmly of the view that democratically accountable Ministers should take responsibility for policy functions. A single centre of rural expertise, the rural communities policy unit operating within DEFRA, has already been able to engage more effectively since it was started earlier this year. It is already established.

In response to two points made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, I should say that the commission has not been legally disbanded. That is part of the proposal in the Bill. The rural advocate’s post to which he referred is not a statutory post. It did not require any legislative change.

The work programme of the rural communities policy unit will shortly be published on the DEFRA website and the unit will be using a range of methods to provide public updates about progress and impact. I emphasise that we believe it is DEFRA Ministers who are primarily responsible for ensuring that rural issues are championed within the whole of Government. There are many rural commentators and independent organisations who already advocate strongly, work to us and see us regularly, and all of us are Ministers with strong rural backgrounds. It is our job to be accountable to Parliament for the way that we fulfil our role as rural champions. We will publish various documents and policy proposals over the coming weeks and months to demonstrate clearly that we understand the real needs of rural communities.

I am pleased to say that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has indicated that it will wish to scrutinise the work of the rural communities policy unit. The Government welcome that as further evidence of the importance that many in this House and in the other place attach to the interests of rural communities.

Mary Creagh: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I want to apologise for misleading the House earlier. The total loss to agricultural workers is in fact £93 million over 10 years.

6.30 pm

Mr Paice: The House will have heard the hon. Lady’s apology.

If new clauses 8 and 9 were agreed to, we would create two new statutory bodies, an office of rural affairs and a rural advocate, both of which would be responsible for exercising the advocacy, advice and watchdog functions currently undertaken by the CRC. Instead of moving towards a single source of rural expertise, we would be funding two new organisations to gather evidence of rural impacts and to seek to bring about changes in policy, which would be a muddled arrangement, and, if anything, replicate and extend the duplication of functions that we seek to address.

We have had a long debate. I am conscious that other Members want to move on to other issues. There are other things that I could say about rural communities, but suffice it to say that we have a Government and a

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Department that passionately care about rural communities, and in that light I ask my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives to withdraw the new clause.

Andrew George: I am conscious that we have still to debate the Youth Justice Board and S4C, so I will not detain the House unnecessarily. However, I should like to respond to the Minister’s comments on the new clauses and his comments on the Commission for Rural Communities. New clauses 8 and 9 were mutually exclusive, so they would not both have to be agreed to. I appreciate that they may not be sufficiently technically adequate to achieve my objective, but the Minister must accept the need for some independent, out-of-Government advocate, and I hope that some overarching brief to maintain the rural perspective is a debate that we can still have, as the Minister acknowledges that the issue requires affirmative resolution following this enabling legislation.

I will not respond to all the Minister’s remarks on new clause 7, which dominated the debate, but he predicted that it would not drive down wages and conditions, and I respect his judgment. That is obviously a brave prediction, but when I asked whether he could predict that it would at least protect and result in the exceptional enhancement of agricultural workers’ wages and conditions, he could not provide that reassurance. I am pleased that in the past Conservatives supported the very necessary legislation to establish the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. The Minister said that this reflected a bygone age, but the bygone age is one before gangs and gangworkers were brought in and exploited in the manner in which they have been. That issue has been addressed, but agricultural workers are still very much present. After the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, should that proceed, it is predicted that we still need to attract another 60,000 agricultural workers over the next 10 years, which will be a challenge indeed.

I accept that new clause 7 is technically deficient, but I still believe that the Government should reflect on the proposal to bring responsibility for the enforcement of the regulations under another body such as the Low Pay Commission. Given that we are not making the decision today to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board, we have had a good debate and there are other matters for consideration, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 11

Youth Justice Board powers and responsibilities in relation to Wales

‘A joint committee shall be established to oversee the exercise of powers and responsibilities relating to youth justice jointly between the Youth Justice Board and Ministers of the National Assembly for Wales.’.—(Alun Michael.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

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New clause 12—Youth Justice in Wales—

‘A joint committee shall be established to oversee the exercise of powers and responsibilities relating to youth justice jointly between the Secretary of State, or any body to which the duties of the Youth Justice Board have been transferred under an order made under section 1, and Ministers of the National Assembly for Wales.’.

Amendment 33, page 22, line 17, schedule 1, leave out

‘Youth Justice Board for England and Wales.’.

Alun Michael: I am very pleased to be able to defend the Youth Justice Board, which was established by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, for which I had responsibility as deputy Home Secretary. The Act is widely respected as a practical and effective piece of legislation, which also established the youth offending teams, the local crime and disorder reduction partnerships and antisocial behaviour orders, changes that have all been effective in cutting crime and reducing reoffending.

The success of the youth offending teams is due in large part to the insight, independence, creativity, leadership and clear focus on cutting youth crime that the Youth Justice Board has provided, and which a Government Department cannot provide. The facts of that success are clear. Around 90,000 young people under 18 were brought into the youth justice system for the first time in 2000, and there were about 50,000 first-time entrants in 2010, a reduction of 45%. Reoffending by young people was reduced by 27% between 2000 and 2009, the latest year for which figures are available. The number of young people under 18 held in custody is down by more than 25%. In August 2000, 2,968 young people under 18 were in custody, and in August 2011, 2,106 were in custody. The Audit Commission has confirmed that the system works well.

In 2010, the incoming Justice Ministers, including the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), pledged to use the justice reinvestment report of the Justice Committee as their textbook for their time in office, but to do away with the Youth Justice Board signals that they have abandoned that promise. A wide range of organisations is appalled by the proposal to do away with the Youth Justice Board, but I will mention just two.

The Association of Chief Police Officers said:

“The recent disorder in London and indeed other areas of the country have shown that crime committed by young people should be carefully and seriously considered. The performance of the youth justice system under the leadership of the YJB has been considerable.”

It went on to warn that we would lose some of the successful joint initiatives that have been developed between the police and the Youth Justice Board. Finally, it makes the damning comment:

“There has been no evidence put forward to date that demonstrates the proposed transfer of the YJB’s functions to the Ministry of Justice will deliver better results.”

The fact is that it will not.

The Magistrates Association, speaking of the Youth Justice Board, said that

“the Magistrates Association from first-hand experience would say that it has a vital and continuing role to play in the justice system. Its very raison d’etre for magistrates is that it provides continuity of policy, strategy and implementation in a way that a general approach through the wider Ministry of Justice cannot deliver.”

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It warns that

“the coherence that is now one of the successes of the system will be compromised and seriously damaged.”

By implication, the Government know that the Youth Justice Board has been a success, because they are not abolishing its role, but nationalising it. I did not know that Ministers were quite so left-wing or old-fashioned in their approach. I can only assume that No. 10 is demanding a tick in the box for abolishing a quango and does not care about the damage that will be done.

Over time, if the Youth Justice Board is taken into the Department for Justice, the Department will lose the expertise that has been drawn together within the board. If those who work in the board wanted to be civil servants, they would have applied to join the civil service. I hope that that attrition will be slow, but it will be inevitable. Government Departments are not good at running things, and the strength of the board is its focus on cutting youth crime, the independence and respect that it has earned and its capacity for working in partnership with others, which is why new clauses 11 and 12 are important. That point about partnership is demonstrated by the two organisations that I quoted and many others.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman has a very good record both in the work that he did as a Minister and in the work that he did on the Justice Committee on this matter, but I think he would acknowledge that it would be wrong to ascribe to the board, for all its good work, the achievements that are really those of youth offending teams at local level, where partnership really matters.

Alun Michael: The point I made, and the point that is made by the Magistrates Association and by chief police officers, is that success at the local level depended on the coherence, independence and energy of the Youth Justice Board in supporting their work. All of them value the Youth Justice Board and all of them say that a Department cannot do it. From my experience in government I am convinced that a Department, working internally, cannot effectively replace the work of the Youth Justice Board.

New clauses 11 and 12 would protect the partnership approach between the Youth Justice Board and the Welsh Assembly. I pay particular tribute to the Minister responsible in the Welsh Assembly Government, Carl Sargeant, for his engagement in this issue and to the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, for his commitment to the cause of cutting crime, particularly youth crime. Criminal justice is not a devolved matter, but the devolution of children’s services, education and health policy means that a significant part of the delivery of local youth justice services is subject to Welsh Government oversight, and the Youth Justice Board has specific objectives in Wales to take account of this.

The Youth Justice Board has worked closely with the Welsh Government and other delivery partners in Wales to improve the youth justice system, and that partnership working must not be underestimated. It works. The inclusion of a board member for Wales on the Youth Justice Board has been critical in navigating the different arrangements that exist in Wales for youth justice. The board member has lead responsibility for Wales and enabled the Youth Justice Board to work effectively in Wales and develop key stakeholder relationships.

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I pay particular tribute to my good friend Professor Howard Williamson—we worked together when I was a youth worker—for the massive contribution he made to enabling that partnership to work. I could illustrate that in detail at some length and wish I had time to do so, because there is a tremendous amount of important material that I would like to expand on, particularly how ensuring that placements in England have worked for young people who are returned to Welsh communities. Essentially, it is the partnership that has worked, and it is the partnership that would be put at risk unless Ministers accept, preferably, that the Youth Justice Board should be allowed to continue and, in particular, that there is a need for partnership arrangements to continue.

New clause 11 would put the current committee arrangements between the Youth Justice Board and the Welsh Assembly Government on a statutory basis, which implies the board’s continuation. The alternative, as set out in new clause 12, would be to create a partnership, through a joint committee, between the Ministry of Justice, or any other organisation to which the Government transferred the powers, and the Welsh Assembly Government.

When the Home Affairs Committee recently took evidence in Wales, we heard from an individual who was working in the Assembly as a result of a joint appointment by the Assembly and the Youth Justice Board. It is that joint working that has built up the confidence that is needed. The Youth Justice Board has developed a model that works, and it should be the model for other Government agencies and Departments, many of which still do not understand how to get the best out of the complementary roles they share with the Welsh Assembly.

I urge Ministers to accept the new clause and not include the Youth Justice Board within the ambit of the Bill. I urge them, in any event, to accept that the partnership arrangements between the Government, or their agency, and Wales should be put on a statutory basis and to understand and support the importance of partnership, because it has been effective in reducing youth crime and we need it to continue.

Sir Alan Beith: The Justice Committee has taken a close interest in this matter, as it did when the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) was a member; he contributed extensively to our work on it. We have been considering it lately but are yet to take a formal view on whether the Youth Justice Board needs to survive. However, we have explored thoroughly what needs to happen if it is abolished. The Youth Justice Board has done a lot of good work, not least in leading a reduction in the use of custody for young people. That led to the closure of a youth offenders institution in my constituency, but the places have of course been taken as a result of the prison system’s other requirements.

I want to make three points about what is essential in this field, whether the Youth Justice Board survives or not. First, the crucial element is that youth offending teams work at local level. The Youth Justice Board has given the initial leadership to develop youth offending teams, following initiatives taken by the right hon. Gentleman when he was a Minister. The ability of all relevant agencies at local level, including the police, social services, local authorities and housing authorities, to work together is crucial.

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6.45 pm

Secondly, we must retain a degree of difference from how the National Offender Management Service has operated. The Committee has been pretty critical of NOMS—its life must surely be limited as a result of how the Ministry of Justice is organising things, but that is a matter for another day. What is quite clear is that the youth justice functions must not be subsumed into NOMS, which has not succeeded in carrying out any of the key objectives it was set on bringing together decisions about custody, and its alternatives, and the management of offenders when they leave custody. The Committee received assurances from the Minister that there will be an entirely separate division of roles and that no youth justice functions will be subsumed into NOMS.

Thirdly, the Youth Justice Board, as an autonomous, arm’s length body, is in a position to share its views and advice publicly, and that is a crucial feature that we must not lose. It is of course accountable to Ministers as its chair, as she pointed out herself, is appointed by Ministers. If the board was not pursuing the Minister’s objectives, its membership might not necessarily last very long, but its ability to advise independently is important. We pressed the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) on that matter, and he showed an unusual and commendable willingness to recognise the value of making the advice that would be given by the advisory board that will be created publicly available and bringing it before Parliament, and the Committee could, for example, question the advisory board on its work. What we must not have are assertions that that advice is for Ministers and, therefore, must be kept in confidence. That would not be an acceptable situation. I do not think that that is what the Minister envisages, but he must realise that that is what will happen if we do not build in such protections from the start. The civil service machine closes in around advice to Ministers, and we cannot have that.

There are perfectly good arguments for saying that we should continue to have an arm’s length Youth Justice Board. It is possible to carry out the functions of the Youth Justice Board effectively under different arrangements, but there are certain essentials, three of which I have sought to identify: the local role of youth offending teams; the importance of not allowing the role to be sucked into NOMS; and the importance of knowing what kind of independent advice Ministers are given. Those are the things the Justice Committee cares about, and I want to be satisfied that the Minister cares about them too.

Simon Hughes: I want to say a few words, following what my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) has said and on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who might join us later but is unable to be here at the moment. He has engaged with the Minister, as I have, and I thank the Minister for his engagement with colleagues on this matter, which is much appreciated.

I have always thought that the decision to create the Youth Justice Board was a good one, a view vindicated by its reputation and record. It has done a good job. The right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) made the point, which I agree with, that

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it has clearly helped bring down offending and reoffending rates among young people and produced more successful ways of dealing with youth offending, both strategically at a national level and at the level of youth offending teams, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred. I have a few questions for the Minister. My honest position is that I am nervous about the proposal, because I do not want to lose a good thing, but I know that the Minister sees that it has many good elements and I hope that he can reassure us.

We know from a parliamentary answer that there have been 70 responses to the consultation, but we have not heard what the balance is between those who support the Government and those who oppose them. We do know that many of the key voices—the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth quoted some of them—to whom we should listen think that the Youth Justice Board is a good thing and ought to stay. If chief police officers and the Magistrates Association want the arrangement to stay, we should be very careful before proceeding down a road that changes it. Will the Minister share with us slightly more explicitly the answers to the consultation?

I would be grateful if the Minister responded to my right hon. Friend and put it on the record. It is imperative that the ability to plan, manage, organise, give advice on policy and take policy decisions on youth justice is retained separately—obviously linked with other parts of the criminal justice system, but separately. The way to deal with youngsters coming into the criminal justice system is entirely different from dealing with adults or old lags who reoffend.

Importantly, I would like the Minister to put on the record the fact that there will be absolute freedom for the successor body, if there is one as an advisory council, to speak when it wants to speak, to be able to say what it wants to say, and therefore to contribute to the public debate, as well as to the private debate. Will the Minister make it clear that if functions are to be transferred—I understand the Government’s argument about reducing the number of quangos—a Minister, for the moment presumably the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), would be accountable to Parliament specifically for youth justice issues, and would see that as a separate component within the realm of the prison service and justice issues as a whole.

Some of us remain to be persuaded that this is the right way to go, because of the good record of the Youth Justice Board, and some of us are troubled that we might lose those good things if it were to go, but we are open to persuasion if clear assurances are given and the questions asked by my right hon. Friend, the right hon. Gentleman and me are answered adequately.

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): The Youth Justice Board has played a central role in reducing the number of criminal offences committed by young people since its creation, but the Government’s proposal to transfer its functions to the Ministry of Justice threatens to roll back the progress of the past decade. As we have heard, the YJB has pioneered the creation of a distinct youth justice system, separate from the adult estate, recognising that the factors that lead young people to commit crime are complex, and can be addressed only through specifically targeted crime prevention and rehabilitation strategies.

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As we have heard, during the last Parliament the Youth Justice Broad oversaw a 43% reduction in the number of first-time youth offenders by working with youth offending teams to focus on the causes of crime. We have also heard, but it is worth repeating, that there has been a 34% reduction in offences committed by young people and a 15% reduction in the number of young people in custody, down from 2,830 per annum to 2,418 per annum by May 2010.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I am sorry that time will not allow me to make a speech about this matter. I had the privilege of holding the youth justice portfolio for the Opposition for the past year before handing it over to my hon. Friend. That allowed me to see, while going round the country, the best practice in youth offending institutions, foundation training companies and youth offending teams. Without exception, they all praised the Youth Justice Board as the organisation that gives coherence, example and structure to what is happening. They cannot understand why the Government are abolishing a body that is proving to be such a success.

Robert Flello: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes his point extremely well. If we had had a proper amount of time for this debate, I am sure that he would have made his contribution.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned the reduction in the number of young people in custody. I am sure that he is aware that that reduction has led to savings of some £38 million a year. Is he not amazed that a Government who are seeking to save money in public expenditure are prepared to take such a risk?

Robert Flello: I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. The whole case for cost savings does not stack up in the slightest.

The Secretary of State has argued that bringing the Youth Justice Board into the Ministry of Justice will improve ministerial accountability, and thereby secure better outcomes for young people. That is nonsense, and was dreamed up to try to justify the ill-considered, back-of-a-fag-packet dumping of a mishmash of organisations associated with the Ministry of Justice into what amounts to a public relations Bill.

Let us consider ministerial accountability. Board members of the YJB are already appointed by the Secretary of State, and may be removed by the Secretary of State. The board provides a body of experts, who are accountable to Ministers, so where the lack of accountability comes in, heaven only knows. It also provides uniformity, bringing together local authorities, the prison service and the police.

The Youth Justice Board has a host of dedicated, experienced and specialist board members, but with the best will in the world, they will just be replaced by civil servants with limited knowledge of and less expertise in youth justice. Internalising the YJB in the Ministry of Justice will not replace the expertise. Indeed, the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service tend to follow the Youth Justice Board, not the other way around. Moreover, the YJB is widely respected for its expertise and independence, which have allowed it to build up important relationships with senior people

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across the youth justice sector. That will be lost if the Justice Secretary goes ahead with transferring the Youth Justice Board’s functions to the Ministry of Justice. Responsibility for placing children in the secure estate will be moved to the Ministry of Justice, but what will happen to youth justice research, performance monitoring, consultation with YOTs and the dissemination of good practice backed by solid evidence? At best, they will be reduced; at worst, they will be completely negated.

If nothing that I or anybody else have said so far convinces the Minster, surely the riots during the summer highlighted why an independent body for youth justice is required. When young people, many of them in their early teens, were attending courts around the clock, it was the Youth Justice Board that worked with them in their journey through the criminal justice system. The Government’s policy was, rightly, to make sure that those guilty of offences were brought to justice, but the same Department cannot be expected to support those young people while pursuing the Government’s justice policy. If the Minister was not aware of the contribution made by the Youth Justice Board, that is further evidence of how seamlessly the YJB works with the Ministry, because it was one of the organisations briefing him.

The Government argue that abolishing the Youth Justice Board will improve accountability and efficiency, but elsewhere the Government are squandering money on, for example, elected police commissioners and creating the biggest ever quango for the NHS. Ever since the Minister had a whip-round in his Department to rustle up some bodies to satisfy his Cabinet Office colleagues, the Justice Secretary has continued to make the case that the Youth Justice Board must be abolished to save costs.

The Government estimate savings of £6 million by 2014-15 but, as we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), they have not undertaken a cost-benefit analysis of the YJB or the social impact of its abolition. They have not calculated the cost arising from the possibility of an increase in reoffending among young people. Perhaps the Minister will comment on the fact that in the past year the Ministry of Justice spent almost £8 million on furnishings. That is incredible. It is worth noting that the Youth Justice Board has cut its administration costs by 26% since 2008-09. It clearly understands how to be properly cost effective.

Cutting the Youth Justice Board will not save much money. Instead of saving the big sums that the Government have dreamt up, it is more likely that the real savings, if any, will amount to no more than a few hundred thousand pounds over a number of years. Instead of saving money, it threatens to undermine a youth justice system that is working, increasing costs over the longer term through higher criminality and the attendant costs to individuals and the state.

The Justice Secretary’s proposal to abolish the Youth Justice Board is opposed by a range of charities and organisations, including the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the Prison Reform Trust and the Children’s Society. The Association of Chief Police Officers and the Magistrates Association have written to the Minister urging him to retain the Youth Justice Board as an arm’s length body.

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During the riots, the police gold command and the National Offender Management Service commended the Youth Justice Board on its fantastic performance.

The organisation Catch 22 said:

“any reorganisation of the functions of the Youth Justice Board will result in a decreased focus on young people in the criminal justice system”.

In its report of February 2010, the Public Accounts Committee noted:

“In recent years, the Youth Justice Board has been effective in leading reform within the youth justice system and diverting resources to the offenders most at risk of committing future crimes. Since 2000, the number of young people entering the youth justice system, the number held in custody and the amount of reoffending committed by young people, have all fallen. Youth custody, which is expensive relative to other ways of dealing with young offenders, has fallen during a period when the number of adults in custody has continued to rise. This is a particularly noteworthy achievement.”

That says it all.

7 pm

If the Secretary of State and the Minister do not think again and remove the Youth Justice Board from the Bill, they will be turning back the clock in handing the responsibility for youth justice back to a Government Department even though, as we saw just over a decade ago, that was a wholly unsuitable way to oversee youth justice. I urge the Justice Secretary not to waste the progress made over the past decade in reducing the number of young offenders. I urge him to reconsider, in association with his Cabinet colleagues, and to remove the Youth Justice Board from the Bill by agreeing to amendment 33.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): It is a pleasure to reply to this debate, not least to the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael), given his role in establishing the Youth Justice Board in the first place, and to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), who is Chairman of the Justice Committee.

The right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth made what he thought was a gibe in saying that I was not abolishing the Youth Justice Board but nationalising it and that he was surprised by how left-wing I was. He thereby gave the game away on the central weakness of the arguments made against the Government’s intentions.

To some degree, there is a significant element of truth in the right hon. Gentleman’s words, because this issue was first addressed in the context of looking at all arm’s length bodies given that ministerial accountability had been significantly diluted by the proliferation of such bodies. In that sense, it is appropriate that this area is brought back within the ambit of direct ministerial accountability. The longer I have held these responsibilities as the Minister responsible for youth justice, the more confident I have become that that is the proper thing to do. We are not changing the delivery of youth justice on the ground and all the achievements of the Youth Justice Board but protecting them. In my prepared remarks, I will elaborate on exactly how we are going to do that. I hope that I will be able to bring comfort to the right hon. Gentleman and to the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), who sought the same assurance.

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The right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth concluded his remarks by talking about the importance of partnership. The youth offending teams are indeed an exemplar of partnership working at the local level, and that will remain unaffected by the changes that the Government intend. The Chairman of the Select Committee commented on the importance of the ability of local agencies to work together, and none of that will be changed by the Government’s taking the Youth Justice Board within the ambit of the Ministry of Justice. I can give him the assurance that he sought about NOMS, which will sit within the central Youth Justice Division as a separate body on youth justice. I will attend to the detail of that shortly. I was properly subjected to questioning about the role of advice that will come to Ministers. I will have more to say about that in the substantive part of my remarks, and I hope that that will give comfort to my right hon. Friends on the Liberal Benches.

The new clause would remove the Youth Justice Board from the list of organisations that may be abolished by order made under clause 1. The two amendments in relation to Wales would set up a joint committee to oversee the exercise of the powers and responsibilities of the Youth Justice Board. That joint committee would be a committee of the Youth Justice Board, if it is not abolished, and Welsh Ministers. If the Youth Justice Board is abolished, the joint committee will be a committee of the Welsh Ministers and the body to which the Youth Justice Board’s powers have been transferred. Under our proposals, this would effectively mean a joint committee of Welsh Ministers and the Ministry of Justice.

The amendment to remove the Youth Justice Board from the Bill is the same as the amendment originally moved by noble Lords. Subsequently, the Government successfully reintroduced the Youth Justice Board to schedule 1 during the Committee stage in this House, having further addressed the most substantive issues raised in the other place and by other interested parties. The Government remain convinced that the national governance of youth justice, but not its front-line delivery, should be done differently. This reform is consistent with our principles of localism, our drive to reduce the number and cost of public bodies, and our commitment to clarifying lines of accountability.

The Youth Justice Board forms one part of the youth justice system, the aim of which is to prevent offending and reoffending by children and young people under the age of 18. I want to emphasise again that the delivery of youth justice by youth offending teams on the front line will not be affected and that a distinct, secure estate for young people will remain in place. I am happy to pay tribute to the achievements of the Youth Justice Board, which was established at arm’s length from Government to provide strategic leadership and coherence to the then youth justice system. This was, in part, a response to the 1996 Audit Commission report, “Misspent youth”, which found that there was no integrated youth justice system and that what did exist at the time was inefficient and expensive. The Youth Justice Board’s arm’s length status gave it freedom to establish the current system.

A decade on, we are in a completely different place, nationally and locally. A coherent and effective youth justice system has now been established, and it is the Government’s view that direct accountability should now be returned to Ministers. I am also clear that

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Ministers should determine the standards required in youth custody. Each year, £300 million of taxpayers’ money is spent on the provision of secure accommodation for under-18s. It cannot be right that unelected individuals in a non-departmental public body are responsible for such a sum.

That is why the Justice Secretary, in his written ministerial statement of 23 June, set out his intention to carry out the core functions of the Youth Justice Board within a newly created Youth Justice Division. The division will continue the Government’s focus on meeting the needs of children and young people in the justice system, overseeing the delivery of youth justice services, identifying and disseminating effective practice, and commissioning a distinct secure estate and placing young people within it. The division will form a dedicated part of the Ministry of Justice separate from the National Offender Management Service. It will ensure that the commissioning of the youth justice secure estate and the placement of young people within the estate is driven by people whose responsibility is for and whose focus is on the needs of young people. Its structure will also ensure that youth justice work in the community remains closely linked to work with young offenders in custody. That is at the heart of our ambitions for a rehabilitation revolution.

The new Youth Justice Division will be a powerful impetus behind future improvement, with the policy leverage within Government to effect change. At a time when Departments have a wide range of priorities and scarce resources, it is Ministers, led by the Justice Secretary and me, as the Minister with responsibility for youth justice, who are best placed to lead the youth justice system.

Simon Hughes: I am encouraged by what the Minister has said so far. Will the head of the new division proposed by the Government have direct access and direct accountability to the Secretary of State and the appropriate Minister rather than always being subject to having everything cleared by the permanent secretary in the Department?

Mr Blunt: The Justice Secretary has announced that John Drew, the chief executive of the Youth Justice Board, has agreed to lead the transition to the new Youth Justice Division structure and to continue to lead it beyond that. That will ensure continuity in senior management. As regards his reporting responsibilities, he will report to the director general of justice policy within the Department, but, as now, I will continue to have bilateral meetings with officials of his seniority in any event. Of course, he will occupy a special place by virtue of leading the Youth Justice Division within the Department. There are further safeguards that I will come to, and I hope they will give my right hon. Friend some comfort.

We appreciate that the Youth Justice Board successfully brought together staff from a number of backgrounds, including those with direct experience of youth justice, social and health services, and police and probation officers. I and the Department will not abandon that expertise and experience, nor will we fail to replenish it. That is wholly consistent with the Government’s policy that the civil service remains open to recruits of high quality from outside its immediate ranks.