Alun Davies, Deputy Minister for Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and European Programmes
Defra has announced a consultation on the future of the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales.
David Heath MP, the UK Government’s Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, issued a written statement re-affirming the UK Government’s intention to abolish the AWB in England and Wales and has launched a consultation in England and Wales on this proposal. DEFRA’s own figures suggest that 12,500 workers in Wales will be affected by this decision. These include some of the more vulnerable and poorer paid workers in Wales who often work long and unsociable hours in difficult conditions. I would like to re-iterate the importance I place upon the comprehensive protection the AWB provides for these people – not only safeguarding the level of their wages, but also protecting their working conditions, such as overtime pay, holiday and sick pay and training requirements. AWB provides the basic framework from which disputes between workers and employers can be resolved. This is not just the opinion of Welsh Government. Key stakeholders here in Wales including workers representatives and both the Farmers Union for Wales and the Young Farmers Club recognise the important function of the AWB in helping avoid drawn out disputes and negotiations with workers over pay and conditions. It is their opinion that the AWB reduces additional costs to employers.
A recent debate in the National Assembly allowed members on all sides of the chamber to express their support for the continuation of the AWB in Wales.
I not only disagree with the UK coalition Government’s policy on the AWB but am also frankly very disappointed by the manner in which they are pursuing their policy agenda with scant regard for the interests of Wales. When I came into office last year I was asked by the UK Government for my consent to the abolition of the Board under the provisions of the Public Bodies Act. I expressed at that time my wish to retain the functions of the Agricultural Wages Board in Wales. By far the simplest way to ensure that this could happen would be for the UK Government to make provision under a Public Bodies Act order to both abolish the Board in relation to England and to enable different arrangements to be made for Wales. With that in mind, I made a request to DEFRA for the functions of the AWB to be transferred to Welsh Ministers by the proposed order to abolish the Board under the Public Bodies Act. I have had numerous additional meetings with UK Ministers, most recently only a week ago, to press for this approach which would enable both Governments to continue to take forward their own policies. The UK Government has continued to turn down this reasonable and practical request. DEFRA has now re-iterated its intention to continue with abolition without regard to the needs of the agricultural community in Wales. DEFRA has chosen to launch a consultation on this issue across England and Wales. Far from consulting fully with the Welsh Government on this approach, DEFRA instead chose to copy their consultation documents to my officials late on Friday 12th October, only days before the consultation was announced.
I am also deeply concerned that within the consultation document the UK Government seems to be suggesting that it could follow a different legislative mechanism to abolish the AWB outside the scope of the Public Bodies Act. Under the Act, consent from the National Assembly is required for abolishing any public body that falls within our legislative competence. This would be the case for abolishing the AWB as we maintain that the functions of the Board relate to a devolved matter; agriculture.
The actions of the UK Government in this matter appear completely contrary to the ‘Respect Agenda’ towards devolved Governments that it claims to follow. Despite this I remain open to finding an amicable way forward and a practical solution for both Governments. However, should negotiations prove fruitless the Welsh Government will continue to explore other available options for ensuring that the functions of the AWB are maintained in Wales.