Saturday, 27 October 2012

103 years of a Liberal reform to end

It is piquant that a Liberal Democrat in a coalition with Conservatives should administer the funeral oration over the last vestiges of something initiated by a Liberal who went on to become a famous Conservative prime minister. David Heath, the new minister for agriculture, is presiding over the consultation about the ending of the Agricultural Wages Board.

On Thursday 25th October, this interchange took place during DEFRA questions in the House:
Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): In 2009, the Minister said : “any weakening of the Agricultural Wages Board or its abolition would further impoverish the rural working class, exacerbating social deprivation and the undesirable indicators associated with social exclusion”. What has changed, and how would he explain that change to the 1,020 workers who were previously protected by the board in his constituency?
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr David Heath): I think I know rather more about workers in my constituency than the hon. Gentleman. I am aware of the circumstances in the agricultural industry, and I am also aware that there are now many protections for low-paid workers. I would not be proceeding with the consultation unless I was convinced that this was in the interests of those who work in my constituency and throughout the country.

Winston Churchill, when a minister in the great reforming Liberal administration of the early 1900s, pushed through the Trade Boards Act 1909. The incentive for the Act was described in the 1928 "Yellow Book":

The determination of wage-rates is pre-eminently a subject for collective bargaining, and constant readjustment is needed as the conditions change through the introduction of new processes, the expansion and contraction of markets, and the rise and fall of prices or of the cost of living. But there are many minor trades so ill-organised that collective bargaining cannot take place.

The Act

set up machinery for the fixing of minimum wage-rates where lack of organisation deprived the worker of  adequate protection, and for enforcing these rates by process of law

The boards mirrored collective bargaining elsewhere, the workers and management both being represented under a neutral chairman. However, representatives were appointed by the government. Before the Great War, only seven trades were covered, but after a revising Act of 1918, a further twenty-nine were added before the Conservatives took control in 1922. Agricultural wages had to wait for a minority Labour government in 1924.

The system was given a boost and new names by the Attlee administration with the Wages Councils Act 1945 and the Agricultural Wages Act 1948. It survived successive Conservative and Labour administrations until the advent of Margaret Thatcher. The putsch which she began was virtually completed by John Major in 1993. The only survivor was the Agricultural Wages Board.

Blair-Brown did not resurrect the wages boards, but instead gave us the minimum wage. The AWB may therefore be seen as something of an anomaly.

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