Neil Parish opposes a motion to reinstate the Agricultural Wages Board, he says it served a purpose when it was set up but we have minimum wage legislation and an industry that has moved on.
Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con:) I am proud to say that I still consider myself to be very much part of the farming community. I was saddened by the way in which the shadow Secretary of State tried to portray farming and farmers. I took part in a debate on Radio Devon after she had made a statement in which she went on at great length about things such as gangmasters, as if to suggest that every farmer was a terrible employer, but I do not recognise that situation in Devon or across the farming sector.I am saddened by how the debate has proceeded. Some 40-odd years ago, I left school at the age of 16 to milk cows. I started on a farm of 50 acres. With the help of NatWest bank, which charged me enormous sums for the privilege, I managed to build up the farm to about 250 acres. During that period, we sometimes employed people, while at other times we did all the work ourselves.Farming and the farming community have changed so much. Many hon. Members have made the case that farm workers are extremely valuable because of the type of farming that we carry out. In dairy farming, the milking parlours are equipped with computers which determine, for example, the amount of feed that the animals have. In the poultry industry, the buildings are temperature-controlled and farmers must make sure that the poultry are fit and free from disease. The same applies in the pig and sheep industries. The entire farming industry has changed hugely.
When one gets on to a tractor, it lights up like a Christmas tree because there is so much computer equipment in it, reflecting the fact that it is difficult to operate. Of course we value the farm workers who operate all that equipment.The farming industry is progressing. Reference was made to the green and pleasant land that we all live in and the good, healthy food that we are fortunate to have in this country. Who produces it? The farmers and the farm workers. We produce it together and I am proud to be part of that industry. I am sick to death of this debate, which is all about the long history of the Agricultural Wages Board and from where it started. I would be the first to admit that there was every good reason for it in those days, but now we have minimum wage legislation and an industry that has moved on. We want agriculture to be competitive and to move forward and employ more people on higher wages. We want a much more efficient industry.
I believe there is a bright future for agriculture. All the Agricultural Wages Board does is hark back to a past that we want to leave behind. It is right for us to take these decisions. The figures that we have show that more than 90% of agricultural workers are, fortunately, paid above the minimum wage, and we welcome that fact. During the debate, the sheer negativity from the Opposition has upset me. I would take their move to defend the Agricultural Wages Board much more seriously if they had replied to the question—they have been challenged three times on this—of whether they would make retention of the AWB a priority of the next Labour Government if this country were mad enough to put them back into power. I will therefore reply for them. They are not going to replace it. That is certain.
All the Opposition are here for today is to play politics and try to portray the farming community as terrible Victorian employers. We certainly are not. I say “we” because I consider myself still part of that farming community. I do not recognise the farming community painted by the Opposition. I find it offensive—I will be blunt about it—to be portrayed in that way. We do not employ people on poor wages. We want to progress people. During my farming career I had quite a number of young people who came and worked on the farm. We trained them, they moved on to other jobs and I am proud of that.Let us not make this a debate about class warfare, with terrible rich landowners who are out there exploiting the workers. That is not what the debate is about. It should be about whether the Agricultural Wages Board is necessary. I do not believe it is. Why is it the only wages board left? It was left originally because there was no minimum wage legislation, but since that legislation has come in, there is no need for it. Hon. Members are worried that farmers and farm workers who have such responsible jobs on the modern farm cannot sit down with one another and negotiate their own wage rates. Surely hon. Members know that that is possible and that it will happen in the real world.We have already abolished the Agricultural Wages Board, but I will be voting against the motion, which seeks to reinstate it, because I know full well that it will not be reinstated. It is a political ploy on the part of the Opposition to have a little debate. I end by reiterating, for the third time, how offended I am by the way in which the farming community has been portrayed this afternoon.| Hansard| Parliament TV