HC Deb 05 August 1975 vol 897 cc345-53

Amendment made: No. 163, in page 69, line 25, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.—[Mr. Harold Walker.]

Miss Joan Maynard (Sheffield, Brightside)

I beg to move Amendment No. 226, in page 69, line 33, at end insert— '(6) This section and sections 81 and 82 of this Act shall apply to Agricultural Wages Boards as they apply to wages councils; but in applying the provisions of this section to an Agricultural Wages Board the Secretary of State shall act jointly with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. (7) For the purpose of the application of this section and sections 81 and 82 below to agriculture—

  1. (a) any reference to a wages council shall be construed as a reference to an agricultural wages board;
  2. (b) any reference to the Wages Councils Act 1959 shall be construed as a reference to the Agricultural Wages Act 1948 or to the Agricultural Wages (Scotland) Act 1949 and, in particular, references to section 11 of that Act shall be construed as a reference to section 3 of either of those Acts, as appropriate;
  3. (c) a reference to Part II of the Wages Councils Act 1959 shall be construed as a reference to sections 3 to 11 of the 1948 Act or to the corresponding sections of the 1949 Act, as appropriate'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We may consider at the same time the following amendments:

No. 227, in Clause 85, page 70, line 41, at end insert— 'In the case of agriculture, "nominated", in relation to an employers' association or trade union means an association or union for the time being nominated under the appropriate Agricultural Wages Act or Agricultural Wages Board Regulations to appoint persons to represent employers or workers on the wages board in question'. No. 228, in Schedule 8, page 1229, line 8, at end insert— '(2) On the conversion of an agricultural wages board to a statutory joint industrial council the provisions of sub-paragraph (1) above shall apply as if for the references to a wages council and to the Secretary of State there were substituted references to a wages board and to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, respectively'. No. 229, in page 129, line 20, after '1959', insert 'or under section 3 of the Agricultural Wages Acts 1958 and 1949, '. No. 230, in page 130, line 10, at end insert— '(2) Any of the following things done by, to or in relation to an agricultural wages board, that is to say—

  • any order made under section 3 of the Agricultural Wages Act 1948 or of the Agricultural Wages (Scotland) Act 1949 (power to fix terms and conditions of employment);
  • any proposals published in relation to making of such an order, and any notice published and representations made with respect thereto;
  • any permit issued under section 5 of either of those Acts (permits to infirm and incapacitated persons); 347 shall as from the date when the board becomes a statutory joint industrial council be treated as having been done by, to or in relation to the latter council'.
No. 231, in page 130, line 12, after first 'council', insert 'or wages board '.

No. 232, in page 130, line 13, after 'council', insert 'or wages board'.

No. 233, in page 130, line 18, after first 'council', insert 'or wages board '.

No. 234, in page 125, line 19, after 'council', insert 'or wages board'.

Miss Maynard

All these amendments cover the same principle in relation to the Agricultural Wages Board. My hon. Friends and I put forward similar amendments in Committee, and the Government accepted them in principle, so I do not intend to argue the principle again at this stage. However, I understand that they still need some redrafting, and there has not been time to do this up to now. I hope that the Government accept the amendments as they stand. Of course, at the end of Report the Bill will go to another place. Should the amendments be thrown out there they could be reintroduced subsequently in this place. I hope that I shall have an assurance tonight that they are acceptable as drafted.

Mr. Harold Walker

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Miss Maynard) is right to remind the House that these amendments were tabled in her name and in the names of other of my colleagues in Committee. At that stage I said that I could see no reason for those persons connected with agriculture not to have the same provisions applied to their industry as apply to other industries if that was their objective. I refer to the power to convert themselves from a statutory wages council into a statutory joint industrial council, including the other provisions relating to the relevant parts of the Bill.

I could see no reason for not concurring with a wish to go in that direction. I informed the Committee that in principle the Government accepted the amendments tabled in Committee. However, they were unsatisfactory as drafted mainly because unlike wages councils the agricultural wages boards are set up by Act of Parliament. Therefore, the amendments need to be drafted in a different way. I said that we would seek to find an appropriate method of drafting and would hope to be able to come to the House on Report with properly drafted amendments. I pointed out in Committee that there were the most formidable difficulties and that it was feared that the matter would have to wait until the Bill was dealt with in another place.

I am sorry to have to tell my hon. Friend that in spite of the most intense efforts, the most careful consideration and the fullest discussion, we have not been able to do what my hon. Friend and I had hoped—namely, to have the revised amendments ready for Report. I must also tell my hon. Friend that we cannot accept the amendments now before the House as she had hoped, in the sense that they will subsequently be amended in another place and that whatever happens to them there they will be returned here for consideration. That cannot be done.

However, I want to reassure my hon. Friend that we accept the principle and the spirit of her amendments. In another place we intend to introduce amendments that will realise the objective that she and I share. I know that what I have said does not meet what my hon. Friend wanted, but we must hope that their Lordships respond to my statement. It is clearly the wish of the agricultural workers' unions that their Lordships should respond and enable this place subsequently to express its own judgment.

I know that the National Farmers' Union has sent out its usual good briefing to Member of Parliament. I make no complaint about that. I know that the union has some reservations which are expressed in its brief. I recall that the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) asked me in Committee whether the Government had heard of any reservations on the part of the NFU. Yes, I understand that it has some reservations. It is clear from its briefing that it has doubts about what is being proposed.

It is also clear that there is some misunderstanding. The NFU seems to understand that we are seeking to effect a conversion which will be enabled by the proposed amendments. It seems to understand that my hon. Friend is seeking to give the Secretary of State and the agricultural wages boards the powers that are available, and will be available to the wages councils. We are considering an enabling power, but the decision will rest with the membership of the agricultural wages boards and the participants given the full process of consultation and the procedures laid down in the Bill. That process will apply before any conversion takes place. They will be put in the same position as wages councils. It will involve a residual power.

I regret that we cannot implement what my hon. Friend hoped, but let us at least hope that their Lordships will respond to what we are saying tonight.

Mr. Prior

I am grateful for the Minister's explanation. I do not think the situation was clear to many people. That applies to me, and I know that it applies to the National Farmers' Union, of which I am a member—although not perhaps the most active member, and in some respects not perhaps the most popular member.

Can the Minister go a little further in his explanation? As I understand the situation, he is saying that Amendment No. 226 would be merely enabling and would enable the Agricultural Wages Board and its members, if they so wished, to convert themselves into a joint industrial council. The Agricultural Wages Board consists of an equal number of employers and employees, together with a number of independent members. Therefore, the decision whether they should convert into a joint industrial council would presumably have to be a decision of the board as a whole taken on a vote of the board—in which case it is likely that the independent members would decide the policy.

Presumably, up to that time the Minister of Agriculture would still be responsible for the appointment of independent members to the board and the board would continue to exist as it is at present. We do not know whether the Secretary of State would have to approve any such application to enable a conversion from the Agricultural Wages Board to a joint industrial council. I presume that he would have power to take that step. I presume that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Miss Maynard) in moving her amendment spoke on behalf of the National Union of Agricultural Workers.

Miss Maynard


Mr. Prior

Will the hon. Lady give her reasons for wanting the amendment? The Agricultural Wages Board has enjoyed an almost unique position in wages negotiation machinery and, compared with the majority of wages councils, has been very effective. The Ministry of Agriculture has had the power to nominate independent members and to guide the hand of the board without interference, and I am sure that nobody would deny that it has worked very well. Therefore, I do not see what purpose the National Union of Agricultural Workers hopes to achieve by such a change.

If I thought that the board had not been operating well, or was not a proper body to represent the interests of the industry as a whole, I would have regarded the hon. Lady's case as a much stronger one, but I do not think that her case has been made out. If the Government at a later stage feel that the Agricultural Wages Board needs to be wound up, it would be better to have separate legislation. I am worried that from now on the board will face the prospect of the sword of Damocles hanging over its head—namely, the threat that it could be turned into a joint industrial council. I am not certain that that is a very good position for the board to be in.

9.0 p.m.

I hope that the Government will consider this carefully. It is obvious that the National Farmers' Union is of the view that it prefers matters left as they are. I do not know whether the chairman of the board or its independent members have been consulted in any way. I know from what the hon. Lady said that the NUAW has wanted this amendment, but again it left it to her to raise the matter in the House rather than doing it through the Government, which is surprising in view of the number of other measures taken by the Government in this Bill. Therefore, for all those reasons it seems an unsatisfactory way to do it. It is also unsatisfactory for the hon. Lady in that the amendment has been tabled for a long while. This amendment and those associated with it were some of the first to be tabled, and obviously the Government have not yet found a satisfactory way to carry out the hon. Lady's intentions.

In the circumstances, would not it be better to allow matters to go on as they are, for the hon. Lady to ask leave to withdraw her amendment and for the Government to say that, although they are sympathetic to her point of view, they see no real case for carrying it out at this juncture and that perhaps it should be looked at in the cold light of day with the NFU, the NUAW and the independent members of the board being properly consulted and with the Ministry of Agriculture maintaining its parental rôle towards the Agricultural Wages Board, which, as most people will recognise, has been the most successful of all the wages boards that have been set up?

The Donovan Commission, which made an investigation into employers' associations and trade unions, singled out the Agricultural Wages Board as being uniquely effective in wage determination. Before we move to wages councils, perhaps we ought to consider whether we are taking a wise step in the interests of both agricultural workers and their employers who, on the whole, have perhaps the best relationships of any industry in Britain, which I for one do not wish to harm in any way. It is not my wish to say or do anything likely to prevent agricultural workers having the best possible representation, because they are just about the most deserving section of society not properly recognised by the nation as a whole. Certainly I do not wish to say anything detrimental to their case. But neither do I want to see this House take a decision on such an important matter on a quick examination of some amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside which are not considered to be in order in any event.

Miss Maynard

Perhaps I may explain the position to the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) and to the House. My union decided in May that it would like these amendments to be tabled. The union is committed to the Agricultural Wages Board. There is no dispute about that. I do not wish to argue the merits or demerits of the board. But the purpose of these amendments is to provide the right at some subsequent time to move from the board to a joint industrial council if there is a desire to do so. In other words, as the Secretary of State said, these amendments provide enabling powers. But that is not to say that the union wishes to move from the board. The purpose of the amendments is merely to enable a move from the board if at some future time it is felt desirable to do so.

It is not true that the Ministry of Agriculture was not consulted. It was consulted, and it accepted the amendments. It is true that the amendments have not been drafted correctly. That is partly because it is rather a complicated business. This is a statutory board set up rather differently from wages councils.

The right hon. Gentleman thought that it would be better to have subsequent amending legislation. I disagree strongly. That would be virtually impossible without providing cover under this important Bill. We are asking for the same cover as other wages council workers get so that we can transfer in future to an SJIC.

Mr. Harold Walker

With the leave of the House, may I point out that Clause 81 deals with the conversion of wages councils to statutory joint industrial councils, which my hon. Friend seeks to apply to the Agricultural Wages Board? The clause says that the Secretary of State may by order do certain things and subsection (3) lays on him a requirement to consult …every employer's association and trade union nominated in relation to the wages council in question"— in this case, the Agricultural Wages Board— and (whether so nominated or not) all organisations of employers and workers which in his opinion represent a substantial proportion of employers and workers respectively in relation to whom that council"— again, in this case, the Agricultural Wages Board— operates". Subsection (4) as first amended says that he "shall" …before making an order under this section refer the question…to the Service"— that is, ACAS— and the Service shall inquire into it and report on that question. So a number of safeguards are built in which should reassure the NFU and the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior).

This is a matter for the House as a whole to decide. That is why I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to withdraw her amendment and that in the other place their Lordships will agree to amendments which the Government will propose. The matter will then be available for debate and decision here. I hope that that is how we shall proceed.

Miss Maynard

With that assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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