Kevin Maguire has an interesting column today on Wages Councils.
The government recently axed the Agricultural Wages Councils that will hit many low paid rural workers hard. Minimum wage legislation in Britain can be traced back to Winston Churchill’s Trade Boards Act 1909. As then President of the Board of Trade, Churchill argued for the need for a living wage in industries where the bargaining strength of employers greatly outweighed that of employees. The Agricultural Wages Board is historically linked with national food security and financial support for the industry.
Set against the claimed potential savings for the government of around £50,000 a year, the cost to workers and the rural economy of abolition are estimated to be £235.7 million over the next 10 years, according to DEFRA’s own impact assessment. All the ‘benefits’ of abolition are costs for workers – £131 million a year in lost wages; £81 million from annual leave; a further £4.4 million in sick pay, and more.
The consultation to abolish this vital support for rural workers was undertaken using the government’s revised consultation procedures on a tight timescale from 16 October until 12 November 2012. The new procedures essentially allows the government to consult over one month rather than three. When they made the changes, the government made all sorts of guarantees that many think have been broken already. There is a Compact between government and the voluntary and community sector over the details of consultations that has not been respected in this case, for example.
This is particularly relevant because of the omission of a range of significant voluntary organisations from the list of consultees, who may not even have been aware of the consultation before it was over. For example, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, a key umbrella voluntary sector organisation with a wide range of rural affiliates, was not on the list. Nor was Action with Communities in Rural England.
The government said that in the modern age, many consultations could be done more quickly online with groups who are innate digital users. Workers in rural areas are a group for whom the government’s ‘digital by default’ principle is wholly inappropriate; in many ways they are the definition of a ‘hard to reach’ group. DEFRA’s website states that 47% of households in sparse hamlets or isolated dwellings have no or slow broadband. Internet access in rural areas is limited because of the government’s historic failure to invest; mobile reception in many rural areas is unreliable. Added to that is the low pay of the agricultural workforce, not all of whom will have access to new technology, partly because of its cost.
So, the consultation was too quick, failed to consult the right people and ensured that the poorest will carry the heaviest burden. You won’t be surprised to know that I strongly believe this was the intention of Coalition ministers from the outset.
Despite the hurried and inadequate consultation, it did not stop Duchy of Cornwall Nurseries from submitting a very comprehensive dismissal of the current arrangements. I wonder whether the author of the letter had time to consult Prince Charles on such and important matter affecting many of Her Majesty’s loyal but most financially vulnerable subjects?