Kendall and Benn clash at Labour Party Conference
FORMER Defra Secretary Hilary Benn and NFU president Peter Kendall have clashed over the decision to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board.
The issue dominated a heated NFU fringe event at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester on Monday evening (September 28).
In his opening speech, Mr Benn said he could not understand why the coalition Government had decided to abolish the body that sets agricultural wages and conditions.
He said it was not sufficient to argue that workers would still be protected by Minimum Wage legislation as the AWB also sets higher pay grades 2-6, well above the minimum wage, and other conditions like sick pay and bereavement leave.
He claimed the prime motivation for the move, which he said was driven by the horticulture sector, was to ‘reduce workers’ terms and conditions’ and pledged that Labour will be ‘fighting’ the decision.
“We are talking about taking away the floor of protection,” he said. “I do think this is a shabby little plan and I hope it is defeated because there are a lot of unanswered questions about what the purpose behind it is.”
Mr Benn said he regretted the change in the NFU’s stance from when it supported the AWB the last time it was under threat.
The meeting was attended by a group of around 10 protestors from the Unite union, who, decked in identical t-shirts carrying the slogan ‘Save the Agricultural Wages Board, repeatedly raised the issue, forcing Mr Kendall onto the back foot.
The NFU president said the AWB heaped more bureaucracy onto farms and added costs to a business. He defended the move to abolish by saying it reflected the desire of farming to be treated like other industries.
“I am really concerned that we don’t paint farming as some sort of back water, an old- fashioned industry that needs special treatment,” he said.
“This is emphatically not about having the flexibility to drive down terms and conditions. It is about being in a position where we are professional and making more exciting decisions,” he said.
He insisted that market forces would ensure fair wages in a sector short of skilled workers that ‘needs to attract another 60,000 people’.
“I want market forces to work so workers are incentivised, where we have salaries and a career structure as well. In most parts of the country now we have shortages of agricultural labour, which means we have to pay significantly above the minimum wage to get the skills and labour we require,” he said.