Agriculture: Farmers promised abolition

FARMERS have been promised the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board and a hard new look at food imports from countries with lower animal welfare standards by the new Government.

The promises were made at the first meeting between the new all-Tory Ministerial team at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and farmers and conservation groups.

It was made clear that the Agricultural Wages Board, set up by law in 1948, was a priority target for the axe. It only costs about 200,000 a year to run but its decisions have expensive effects.

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It annually negotiates a few pence above the minimum wage for unskilled farm labour and a complicated grading system above that. Employers say it achieves nothing which would not be better left to local negotiation.

Abolition is likely to require repeal of the 1948 Agricultural Wages Act and it is not yet clear how quickly that could happen but those at this week's meeting were left in no doubt that it will. Liberal Democrat sources say they are not likely to stop it.

The president of the CLA, William Worsley of Hovingham, North Yorkshire, said yesterday: "I particularly welcome this abolition. It is more important for the employer to sit down with the employees once a year and have a proper conversation. A tractor driver today is a highly skilled individual and I think a free market would reward him much better."

A major vegetable grower in the Goole area and a member of the NFU horticulture board, Guy Poskitt, said he was not surprised by the news because the new number two at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, James Paice, had told him a year ago that the board would go if he got the job.

Mr Poskitt said: "It's a hangover from the past which still specifies an amount to be paid as a sheepdog allowance, and all that sort of stuff. No good farm hand will lose out from its abolition."

Another team member, Lord (Oliver) Henley, said he would be bringing a lawyer's mind to a review of the UK's application of EU rules on Nitrate Vulnerable Zones.

n For more on Defra cuts, see report by Agriculture Correspondent Mark Casci in today's Country Week or listen to the debate in our podcast, available at