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“The Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) for 2010 showed that 90% of workers employed in agricultural trades received gross pay above £6.50 an hour”,

which I think was the minimum set by the AWB. If he is seriously concerned about wage levels in the agricultural sector, how does he respond to that review of actual pay levels?

Mr Hanson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I am genuinely worried that wages will fall when the AWB is abolished, and I am not the only one: the Farmers Union of Wales, which I will come on to later and which represents the bulk of farmers in my area and other farmers in Wales, supports the official Opposition’s stance against the abolition of the AWB. There is a division of opinion and we need to expose it.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I am not sure that I follow the right hon. Gentleman’s logic, so could he talk us through it a little more? If 90% of pay is already above the AWB’s minimum, how come it has not already fallen back to that minimum?

Mr Hanson: If the hon. Gentleman will let me develop my argument, he will see that this is not just about pay. He was not here at the time, but the Secretary of State kept me up for 36 hours so he could vote against the minimum wage. He did not do that so that wages could rise; he did it so that wages would not rise. My worry about the abolition of the AWB is based on exactly the same principle: it will remove a floor that protects the work force in my constituency.

As I have said, my constituency depends on agriculture and more than 11% of my constituents work in agriculture. Courses in horticulture and agriculture at Northop college bring in people to train in agriculture. These are key issues. Although Government Members may view minimum rates of pay, overtime, holiday entitlement, sick pay, rates of pay for young workers, compassionate leave, rest breaks, maximum deductions for tied housing, allowances for keeping working dogs and payment of on-call and night allowances as issues of regulation, to my constituents they are bread and butter matters that impact on their lives and they want their representative and others who represent rural areas in Parliament to stand up and speak on their behalf. They are not idle issues.

I am getting a bit long in the tooth. I have been here for 21 years and the first Bill Committee I sat on was for the 1992 employment Bill that abolished every single wages board apart from the AWB. That Bill was taken through this House by the then Member for Stirling, the now noble Lord Forsyth, who is not known for his left leanings, but who decided to maintain the AWB because he recognised, even at that time, that it was crucial for conditions as well as wages.

The national minimum wage has been mentioned. I was very proud to vote for the national minimum wage and am grateful that my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) is here. It was one of the greatest achievements of the Labour Government. The then Opposition kept this House up late into the evening because they did not support it. Why should we

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trust a party that does not support the national minimum wage when it says that this measure will maintain or improve pay and conditions?

Yasmin Qureshi: Is it not right that over the past 15 or 20 years, the Conservative party has always taken away working people’s rights and benefits when in government?

Mr Hanson: My main worry is that the assessment of the Welsh Assembly that some £26 million to £28 million will be taken out of agricultural wages in Wales over the next 10 years will prove to be correct and that rural poverty will increase. That is money that will not be spent in the shops of Mold, Holywell and Flint in my constituency, that will not help to sustain the rural economy in my constituency, and that will not be spent in the rural post offices, pubs and communities of my constituency. That money will be lost to the area. This measure will be damaging for the 13,829 people across Wales who work in the agricultural sector and who depend on the wages board.

As I have mentioned, the Farmers Union of Wales, which, with respect to the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), is not affiliated to the Labour party, has said on many occasions that it opposes the moves by the UK Government to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board. It stated:

“The Union has always supported the AWB and remains concerned that unless there are systems in place to protect payments to agricultural workers, the industry will not attract the highly skilled individuals it needs to thrive”.

It went on to say:

“As many farms in Wales run with relatively few staff, the AWB is considered an important means of avoiding potential conflict and lengthy negotiations with individual staff”.

It also said:

“The economic climate within the agricultural industry has made it a less attractive option for young people, and rewarding skills, qualifications, and levels of responsibility is a vital means of persuading high calibre people to remain or enter into the industry.”

As my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) said, the Labour-controlled National Assembly for Wales was not consulted about the abolition of the AWB, as it should have been by statute. The Government failed to do that and passed the measure through the back door in a Bill that did not require consultation. The Secretary of State knows that he should have consulted the National Assembly. These are important matters for my colleagues there. As has been mentioned, the National Assembly may outline shortly its plans to keep the minimum wages and conditions set by the Agricultural Wages Board in a Welsh context. However, that will involve bureaucracy and cost. It would have been far better, particularly from a Unionist party, if the conditions had been maintained across England and Wales.

As I mentioned in an intervention, the Secretary of State represents a border area. His constituency of North Shropshire is not far from mine; his borders Wales and mine borders England. If there are different terms and conditions on either side of the border, the market will flow across it. If the conditions are worse in England than in Wales, which they may be if the Welsh Assembly retains the board, the Secretary of State will find that there is a flow of individuals looking for better

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terms and conditions, who will perhaps only have to travel 1 or 2 miles across the border. I find it strange that that will be caused by a Unionist politician. Mold, Holywell and Flint in my constituency will lose income because of this measure, but I believe that there will also be a confidence issue.

In conclusion, 63% of the people who were consulted did not support this measure and the Welsh Assembly does not support it. I accept, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire said, that Unite the Union does not support the measure to abolish the board, but it is part of a broad-based coalition that does not accept it. The Minister of State—the Tonto to the Secretary of State’s Lone Ranger—did not support this proposal in opposition, but is an advocate of it in government. He should examine his conscience and think about what is in the interests of his constituents.

The people driving the change are the same people driving tax cuts for millionaires. They are out of touch with their communities and with rural areas. I am proud to represent a rural area and speak up for it in Parliament, and I will be proud to vote today and say that whatever has already happened in legislation, I support the AWB.

4.4 pm

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): This is a difficult debate, and I am grateful to the Labour Opposition for having brought it forward. In a point of order after the debate on Lords amendments to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill last week, I said how strongly I opposed our having had neither a debate or a vote on this significant matter. As I indicated earlier in an intervention, we had only limited opportunities to discuss the abolition of the AWB, among a large number of other measures, in our debates on the Public Bodies Act 2011. We were reassured throughout those debates that the House would have ample opportunity to debate the issue and come to a conclusion on it at a later stage, when a specific proposal was brought forward under the powers in schedule 1 to that Bill. I come at this debate on the basis of a significant disagreement with how the Government have handled the matter and frustration that we are shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Nevertheless, it is important to have the debate.

I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and did not get the impression that the AWB was being abolished because it was holding back wages and conditions for agricultural workers. In fact, I still have a strong impression that the opposite is true. I know that there has been a lot of speculation about the outcome of the abolition, but I am clear that it is not happening to enhance agricultural workers’ pay and conditions.

I also find it difficult to understand the impression that the Government are giving, given the slogan “We’re all in this together”, which they adopted in their first Budget and which I approve of entirely. One good proposal from the European Commission on the common agricultural policy is to cap the single farm payment at €300,000 and disburse the money saved in different ways. That could have been on the agenda under the previous Administration 10 years ago, but we are where we are. On the one hand, the Government are content

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to pay cheques of more than £1 million to large farmers who, frankly, usually do not need it. On the other hand, I fear the abolition of the AWB will mean that more public funds need to be deployed to pay the wages of agricultural workers who find their conditions and wages cut, or to pay benefits to those whose standard of living falls below a certain level. In both cases, a lot of public money is involved, in one case enriching large farmers and in the other subsidising poverty in our rural areas. I am not content with that contrast, and I will draw conclusions about it at the end of my comments.

The abolition of the AWB was not in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. It was in the Conservative party manifesto, however, and indeed the NFU made it clear in the lead-up to the last general election that it was very much in favour of the abolition of the AWB. That was certainly the case in my area, so my experience contrasts with that of the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on that point. One of the NFU’s key asks was the abolition of the AWB, yet when I raised the issue with farmers, I found that a significant number of them were opposed to that policy. They were opposed to it for the reasons the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) has outlined, such as that it would leave them in the position of having to negotiate individually. The collective approach through the AWB provided them with a framework that enabled them to avoid considerable embarrassment and difficulty or having to buy-in human resources consultants to resolve things. My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) is right: few small-scale farmers employ agricultural workers, but those who do will encounter great difficulties if they have to negotiate these arrangements with their workers.

I have regularly worked with the NFU over many years, not least on the creation of the groceries code adjudicator, on which the Government must be warmly congratulated. I have worked with it on a wide range of issues, and often agree with it and stand shoulder to shoulder with it—but not, I am afraid, on this issue. Regrettably, on matters such as this the NFU tends to resort to becoming a large farmers’ union, rather than an all farmers’ union; I have accused it of that to its face, so I am not saying this behind its back.

Many pertinent issues have already been raised in our debate, and I shall not repeat the concerns expressed about the impact this move will have, and about the Government simply saying, “We have the national minimum wage, so we no longer need an AWB.”

Mr Spencer: Can the hon. Gentleman define for me what a large farm is? Is an intensively farmed three-acre poultry farm a large farm? Is a 200-acre dairy farm a large farm?

Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman might be drawing me into a different debate, but he knows about standard man days—I do not want that to be interpreted as a sexist term—and the number of jobs a holding generates, or requires in order to be maintained. That is calculated irrespective of the acres covered, because as his question implies, especially in less favoured areas—some of which fall within my constituency—there are geographically very large farms that have low productivity. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, some farms that are small in acreage are intensively farmed and have high levels of

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productivity. He makes a good point, but the point I was making about larger farms was in the context of the fact that some—although admittedly very few—receive hundreds of thousands of pounds, or even over £1 million pounds, in public subsidy. He cannot deny that that is the case. Those sums are given to a very few large farms as a result of the arrangements through the single farm payment.

I regret finding myself in this position. I know the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), has been handed a hospital pass with this issue since taking up his post, and I am enormously grateful to him for the work he is already doing through his conversations and meetings with people in the sector. Despite this regrettable decision, he is working with them to try to identify opportunities for voluntary agreements within the sector. I hope that will serve to provide some of the protections which I fear will be lost to agricultural workers as a result of this Government decision.

There is something further that I regret. Normally, I feel enormously disappointed by Opposition day debates, because they usually degenerate into rather tribal, finger-pointing and teasing events, in which it is not possible to take the Opposition line on an issue because of how the debate has been handled. I regret that on this occasion—partly as a result of how the Government have handled the matter so far, by not giving us an opportunity for a debate or a vote—after a considered debate, I will be voting against the Government in the Division.

4.15 pm

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): The backdrop to this terrible and petty Government measure is the fact that real wages have fallen by £1,700 since this Government were elected. This is a Government who preach about making work pay, yet raise the national minimum wage by only 1.9% while consumer prices index inflation is at 2.8%. This is a living standards debate. Instead of raising standards for farm workers, the Government are engaging in a race to the bottom on pay and fair treatment.

The first early-day motion I ever tabled in this House —early-day motion 754, on 6 September 2010—was a motion opposing the Government’s then proposals to eradicate the AWB. I did it with the full support of the Labour party, because we on the Opposition Benches know that the AWB protects pay and conditions for 152,000 farm workers in England and Wales and is used as a benchmark for others employed in food manufacturing. Some 3,360 of those workers live in the north-east of England and 170 of them are in my constituency. Once the AWB is gone, 42,000 casual workers could see a drop in wages as soon as they finish their next job. The remaining 110,000 could see their wages eroded over time.

Let me ask the Minister straight out: why are the Government taking £260 million out of the rural economy in disposable income? That is how much will be lost in sick pay and holiday entitlement over a 10-year period. How do we know that? We know because the Department’s impact assessment tells us so. The loss to local businesses

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is not the only part of that cost, which also includes estimates for new HR costs and litigation for farming businesses that will no longer have the collective negotiating umbrella under which the whole labour market is regulated. Indeed, the last time an attempt was made to get rid of the AWB, even Baroness Thatcher had to U-turn. Not only did she U-turn, but the gravity of the deprivation that could have hurt hard-working people did not make economic or moral sense then, and it does not make economic or moral sense now. We believe that those people—often they do not own even 1 square foot of soil on the land—should at the very least be able to afford the food they grow on that land. The Government should be helping families across this nation to deal with rising living costs, not actively participating in driving down hard-working people’s pay—and all this from a Government who are doubling the nation’s debt in a five-year period, with accrual of debt outstripping any allegations of debt accrual against us over the 13 years of Labour governance.

That is the perverse backdrop against which the demolition of the AWB is juxtaposed—a demolition that saves virtually nothing in Treasury terms, but which will ultimately bestow a huge tragedy upon rural communities. I repeat: it is a policy that saves virtually nothing, while the Government are also, as we know, cavalierly forgoing more than £1 billion in revenue that could be used for investment or to pay off the debt they are accruing. Instead, that money is being sacrificed to give millionaires a cut in the top rate of tax. Those millionaires could use that tax rebate, stick it with the Government’s spare home subsidy and buy up the surplus housing stock in some rural communities. The Government have just shafted people on AWB pay and terms and conditions.

Farm workers work in all elements. They do tough, hard-working jobs, much like those in the steel industry that I know—hard labour, shifts and working outdoors. Those jobs lead to a far greater incidence of ill health. Farm workers on the lowest grade will lose between £150 and £264 in sick pay once the AWB is abolished. The Secretary of State disagreed and said it would continue, but that is as long as TUPE regulations exist, and that is worth about 90 days in the current currency. A new employee in that sector will not be grandfathered like previous workers but put on statutory minimums, and the Secretary of State knows that.

A quarter of the current work force covered by the AWB are over 55, and the change to sick pay damns those workers to the self-fulfilling perpetuation of grinding poverty that those on the Government Benches simply choose to ignore. Another point is just how exposed an individual is under the new terms. They will be negotiating their pay, terms and conditions while the AWB is being abolished. For example, if an individual is tied into accommodation, how will they be able or confident enough to raise the issue of sick pay or holidays without collective bargaining when their home is at stake? We are talking about real living standards. This is not some sort of arithmetical debate; these are real people who are going to suffer.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, but does he recognise that 41% of farm workers currently earn considerably

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more than the national minimum wage, as prescribed by the Agricultural Wages Board? That is a substantial difference.


Tom Blenkinsop: As my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) said from a sedentary position, that means that 59% of workers do not earn that. Therefore, 41% have enhanced terms because a statutory minimum is in place—the same principle as for the national minimum wage. It is a different sector, but 59% of people do not earn that and there is no guarantee about what direction their pay, terms and conditions will go in. In economic terms, for the agricultural sector, that is mad.

It is totally and utterly crazy to say that by undermining a statutory minimum at the bottom, pay will go up. That is just not the case, as the past 13 years of the Labour Government proved. The national minimum wage was put in place, but collective bargaining allowed enhancements to be brought in. If the floor is taken away, the floor goes through the floor—it goes lower and lower.

Neil Carmichael: If the hon. Gentleman is so determined on the matter of the Agricultural Wages Board, why did the previous Labour Government not renew all other wages boards that were abolished under the Major Government?

Tom Blenkinsop: I would take those on the Government Benches more seriously if—pardon my slight diversion, Madam Deputy Speaker—the Government were not giving the full pay reward to the Army. Armed forces were awarded a 1.5% pay increase. The Chancellor announced the increase in the Budget at the Dispatch Box, yet delayed the start of those payments until 1 May. That is unique in the private or public sector. I have never heard of that in the steel industry, or any other manufacturing industry in the private sector, yet the Government are doing that to the armed forces—I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Tied accommodation affects 30,300 farm workers and their families. Will Ministers at least guarantee that those properties will not be taken from under the noses of those workers, and potentially opened up to the new spare homes subsidy market so that millionaires can increase their property portfolios? This is a piece of despicable legislation, outdone only by the sheer cowardice of a Government who wish to pass this measure without attempting to justify one scintilla of it to the House in open debate.

4.23 pm

George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con): I worked in the farming industry for 10 years and was involved in this debate when the issue was last discussed some 20 years ago—I will come back to that in a moment. It is worth noting—this has been alluded to by some, including the Secretary of State—that in the early ’90s, all other remaining wage councils and wages boards were scrapped. There was no rationale for them. Some 26 remained in about 1993, and all were abolished. Many covered sectors such as hotels, catering, retail, hairdressing and clothing manufacturing, but as the Secretary of State said, there were also some rather odd-looking boards such as those for the ostrich and

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fancy feather industry, or rope and net manufacturers. One has only to read lists of some of the industries to which the boards applied to realise that the whole concept is anachronistic and out of date.

Andrew George: I should have said that, like my hon. Friend, I too was an agricultural worker and worked on our farm. He says that the agricultural sector is the one sector that has been left alone, but it is also the sector into which the Gangmasters Licensing Authority was introduced, which demonstrates that it requires some underpinning with regulation.

George Eustice: Equally, we could say that the introduction of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority deals with some of the working conditions problems that Opposition Members have highlighted in a way that makes the AWB ever more redundant.

To return to the 1993 debate, the then Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Gillian Shephard, held a consultation. A small number of us in the farming industry said that the AWB should go; that it was out of date and anachronistic; that farming should not be treated as a special case; and that the AWB read like something from the 1950s. It tended to be the larger, more forward-thinking farmers who took that view, led by a large salads company, the G’s group, which was run by Guy Shropshire. It was not one of my most successful campaigns. The Government had some 3,500 responses to the consultation, of which only 11 were in favour of abolition. I was one of those 11. That highlights the massive swing in opinion. Opposition Members have highlighted the current consultation, but 40% of people who responded to it have said that abolition is the right thing to do.

Mr Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk) (Con): I want quickly to comment on a point before my hon. Friend moves on. Surely gangs now have that protection. They are totally different from the average farm worker in East Anglia, where very often someone is in charge of £500,000-worth of equipment and on a very high wage, on a farm that 40 years ago might have employed 40 people, but now employs two people who are highly skilled, very responsible and well paid.

George Eustice: My hon. Friend is right and underlines my point that the GLA has made the AWB ever more redundant. Those at the bottom on those low incomes have new protections.

One big thing in this debate compared with the last one—it is important to recognise this—is that the National Farmers Union is on the right side. For once, it is saying that we should get rid of the AWB because it is out of date. In 1993, the NFU let down its members. David Naish, the then president, supported the retention of the AWB, and he was wrong to do so. The NFU board of directors at the time was out of touch and behind the curve, but the NFU now recognises that things need to change and fully supports and endorses the abolition of the AWB. If even the NFU supports the abolition of the AWB, it is time to act. Another big change since 1993 is, as many hon. Members have said, the introduction of the minimum wage, which is yet another measure that makes the AWB out of date and no longer necessary.

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How does the AWB frustrate rather than improve career development in the agricultural sector? The most important thing is the huge lack of flexibility. The board is based on old-style wage grade rates dating from the ’60s and ’70s, and completely ignores the fact that, in the most progressive farm businesses, many people are paid a salary and have management responsibilities. The best farm businesses have profit shares and payment by results. Piece rates are increasingly used when people earn far in excess of the minimum wage rates. Those modern day pay practices are completely ignored by the agricultural wages order, which can frustrate the development of more progressive pay policies in the farming industry and keep it trapped in a 1950s mindset.

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): I am following the hon. Gentleman’s argument closely, but cannot understand why anyone would want to do away with the minimum. He suggests that, in many sectors of the agriculture industry, people are highly skilled and receive higher remuneration than would be set as a minimum by the AWB, but why argue for its abolition if it does not affect those people? Surely the AWB protects a group of people who do not receive such higher remuneration.

George Eustice: The group of people the hon. Gentleman is concerned about are protected by the minimum wage. That is already there and is set at roughly the same level as a grade 1 agricultural worker, so I do not think that that is an argument at all. What I am saying is that being too rigid can actually frustrate the development of more progressive pay policies.

The other point, which the Secretary of State touched on earlier—we had this in our farm business where some of the work was in pack houses—is that someone could be running a conveyor belt packing strawberries one minute and working in the field the next, with totally different wages rates applying. We ran a farm shop, in which different rates applied, even though there were sometimes shared staff.

Yasmin Qureshi: The hon. Gentleman states that this is a progressive pay policy. In the past 30 years, have a Conservative Government ever passed any legislation that has helped the working person, whether in terms of payment, work and conditions, or equality? Conservative Governments have never, ever advocated and voted for the rights of the working person.

George Eustice: I do not want this debate to get distracted, but even in the current Parliament the coalition Government have changed tax thresholds that help all working people, especially those on the lowest income.

Another problem with the rigid pay structure is that, as currently structured, it can discourage training and career development in small farm businesses. I will explain why. A small farmer might have two or three employees. He might not be able to afford to employ someone on grade 2, grade 3 or grade 4. He might not really have a need for those staff to be trained to those grades, but might nevertheless take the view that to aid the career development of a new employee—perhaps

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someone who has just left school and joined their business—he will give them time off work and support them in proficiency tests and training. At the moment, if they do that, the next thing that happens is that they suddenly have to pay that person more money. Is it not better if that person can develop and train, and has a farmer who wants to facilitate that, so that maybe, when a neighbouring farm needs somebody who has the proficiency test skills and a different type of skill set, they are able to progress and take a job that is higher paid in that neighbouring farm? The farmer will want that to happen; he will be happy to encourage somebody and see a career develop. At the moment, however, we are in a situation where the rigid grade structure discourages farmers from wanting to have their employees seek further training.

We have heard a lot in this debate, both from my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) from my neighbouring constituency—we take different views on this, as people will have noticed—and others, about how difficult it is for farmers to negotiate with their staff, as if it is something that is dreadfully embarrassing and they cannot possibly do it. I reject that idea completely. Farmers, if they are still in business today, have to do all sorts of challenging things: they have to negotiate with people day in, day out; they have huge amounts of paperwork to deal with; and they have to negotiate and fight over the costs of their feeds, fuel bills and all sorts of things. The idea that they cannot sit down with the people they work with every day and have an intelligent conversation about their pay review is, frankly, ludicrous.

Farm businesses are no different from any other businesses. Even if they do not have to have discussions with their employees about pay rates, one can guarantee that there will still be times when they have to have discussions about people turning up for work late and staff who have problems at home and need some time off—all those sorts of issues. There is nothing different about farming. I was in the young farmers club in Cornwall with many of the farmers in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I know many of them and I can tell him that they are perfectly capable of having those conversations with their employees.

Neil Carmichael: I endorse what my hon. Friend is saying. I, too, was a farmer in the 1990s, and know that farmers can easily negotiate. It is also important to recognise that agriculture today is a modern industry that is moving forward, with added value products, retail sectors and so on. All of that is happening to farms, so we cannot anchor them down to something as archaic as the AWB. It is not just a floor, but potentially a ceiling—something to which my hon. Friend has referred.

George Eustice: My hon. Friend makes an incredibly good point. Farming has changed.

The biggest farm employer in St Ives is a firm called Winchester Growers, which does not receive subsidies like the large farmers and tends to rent land and employ lots of people. Quite often, young men who would have had farms themselves become managers and supervisors within such businesses and have a proper career structure, with profit options, share options—all sorts of things. It is very important that we modernise and move on.

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The AWB is a relic of the past. It is full of “bosses versus workers” rhetoric that is frankly 40 years out of date. It is right that it should go.

4.35 pm

Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): I start by declaring an interest: as deputy general secretary of the old Transport and General Workers Union and then Unite, I represented agricultural workers for much of my working life, and was proud so to do.

I start by celebrating England’s green and pleasant land—our hills, our valleys, our forests, our farms, our rivers and our seashores, captured in that great hymn to the countryside, Linden Lea:

“Within the woodlands, flow’ry gladed,

By the oak tree’s mossy moot,

The shining grass-blades, timber-shaded,

Now do quiver under foot…

And brown-leaved fruits a-turning red,

In cloudless sunshine, overhead…

To where, for me, the apple tree

Do lean down low in Linden Lea.”

But elsewhere in that great hymn to the English countryside it reads:

“I don’t dread a peevish master;

Though no man may heed my frowns”.

That great hymn captured both the beauty of our countryside and another reality, which is that all too often the countryside has been scarred by the unfair treatment of workers and rural poverty. I have worked with farmers all my working life, so I am the first to acknowledge the changes in the industry and the many very good farming industry employers, but there remain to this day real problems.

The 19th century, from Tolpuddle onwards, was a century of struggle, with real progress being made in the 20th century, but before anyone argues today that exploitation in the countryside is a thing of the past, let me say this. I listened to the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Question Time speaking, and rightly so, about modern-day slavery. Some of the worst examples of slavery, historically and in the modern day, were practised by gangmasters, as was seen at its most obscene in the tragic death of 22 young Chinese cockle-pickers on the bleak, cold shores of Morecambe bay.

As a consequence of that incident, I chaired the coalition of support that brought the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 into law. It was a private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan). There was a remarkable coalition from plough to plate, from the National Farmers Union to the supermarkets. I shared platforms with Baroness Gillian Shepherd, and we stood together, arguing for a measure that was essential to tackle some of the most obscene practices in the world of work in our country. Sadly, now, we are seeing, on the one hand, the scaling back of the operation of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and, on the other hand, the proposed abolition of the AWB.

It was Winston Churchill who first took action, as President of the Board of Trade, in 1908. He argued then that we needed fair treatment and to act to keep labour on the land. That was legislated for by the Attlee

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Government and championed by Harold Macmillan. That is 100 years of history now about to be torn up. I absolutely do not accept the argument that the Agricultural Wages Board is no longer relevant in modern times.

Mr Bellingham: The hon. Gentleman obviously has a great deal of expertise, and I agree entirely with his points about the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. I supported that Bill, as did a number of my colleagues, when we were in opposition. After the war, many farmers employed perhaps 50 or 60 people on what would now be considered a smallish family farm, and there was of course a need for a trade union and for the Agricultural Wages Board. It would have been difficult for those farmers to negotiate with their farm workers without such a board. Now, however, those farmers employ a tiny number of people who are much better paid because of the relationship between the farmer and the workers which never existed in the past.

Jack Dromey: We have an atomised work force. There has been a progressive change in employment patterns from what was typically the case 50 years ago to smaller, more flexible work forces with a lot of contract labour and very few people being permanently employed on farms. Having said that, the statistics show that the majority of those covered by the AWB still need the minimum standards that the board lays down. I will come to that point in a moment.

I do not accept that the board is an historical anachronism—far from it—not least because half the work force is aged 55 and over and we still need to recruit and retain people to work on the land. Nor is it true to suggest that the board was set in aspic and never changed. Over the years, as a consequence of some very good dialogue, a modernisation process took place.

The proposal for the AWB’s abolition is fundamentally wrong for four reasons. The first involves fair treatment. This is not just about minimum standards. Crucially, it is also about other conditions of employment, which really matter. The simple reality is that the difference between the statutory arrangements and the board’s arrangements will be that, in future, it will be possible for a farmer to pay someone who is off sick £81.60 a week less. Farming is a dangerous occupation for some, and we often see high levels of sickness as a consequence of the work.

Secondly, abolishing the AWB is an inefficient way of proceeding. I asked the House of Commons Library to research the costs of the board, and I was surprised by the answer. I knew that it was lean and effective, but even I was surprised to learn that its administrative costs were £179,000 a year and its enforcement costs were £150,000. That fully functioning Agricultural Wages Board therefore cost a grand total of £329,000.

Now, however, we shall see tens of thousands of negotiations taking place throughout the agriculture sector. I accept that, depending on the nature of the employment pattern, people can often get paid more than the level strictly laid down by the AWB. That happens all the time, as a result of a demand for a particular skill. However, the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) was right to say that, other than in circumstances of exceptional demand, it is convenient for farmers to use the framework laid down by the

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board. Farmers have said that to me, too. In future, however, we shall see negotiation after negotiation consuming the time and effort of our farmers.

Andrew George: My hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) suggested earlier that farmers were used to sitting down and negotiating with suppliers of feed, seeds and so on, but there is of course a framework involved in those cases as well, and those farmers know what the framework is when they commence their negotiations. If there is a total free-for-all, we run the risk of creating a race to the bottom.

Jack Dromey: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to be concerned about a race to the bottom. There are tens of millions of people on the continent who are desperate for work, and the last thing we want to see as a consequence of these proposals is a race to the bottom. My experience suggests that even where farmers depart from the AWB rates of pay—and they often do—it is helpful to have a clear framework and starting point, varied as appropriate in particular circumstances, depending on the skill level required, for example. Something very similar to that was put to me.

My third concern is the impact on local economies. There is no question but that we run the risk of taking out badly needed spending power from our hard-pressed local economies. It is interesting to note the Department’s impact assessment of the costs over a 10-year period: £260 million was, I think, the figure referred to.

Fourthly, we have heard time and again that “other wages councils have been abolished, have they not, and have not been reinstated”. This board is, however, unique in terms of its scope—including, crucially, the issue of tied accommodation. I repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) said earlier about the criteria: fit for human habitation, safe and secure, a bed for sole use, drinking water and sanitation. Some might say that all that sounds a bit 19th century, particularly the idea of a bed for one’s own use. They would not say that if they had seen the sort of places I saw when I was deputy general secretary of the old T and G and then of Unite. I saw some of the most shameful accommodation—and not just for those employed by gangmasters, as it was sometimes for those employed by farmers. The great thing about the Agricultural Wages Board is that it lays down very clear basic minimum standards for the kind of accommodation that I hope we would all like to see agricultural workers occupying in our countryside.

Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): I am most grateful, particularly as I was not able to be here for the opening speeches. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about rural poverty, and I strongly support the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, as I campaigned for its existence and it is doing great work in my constituency. In a genuine spirit of curiosity, I ask the hon. Gentleman whether he is saying that farmers are uniquely incapable or uniquely exploitative so that they alone require the Agricultural Wages Board to regulate their behaviour, while every other boss in Britain does not. Is that what he is saying?

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Jack Dromey: The board was born out of the experience of the agricultural economies. I have already said that, mercifully, our country has many good farmers who are dealing with changing patterns of mechanisation, the demand for greater skill levels and so forth. Pretending, however, that the exploitation of agricultural workers in the past is somehow simply a problem of the past and not still a problem to this day is not to live in the real world that I have lived in for many years.

Winston Churchill must be turning in his grave. Dare I say it, the two parties of which he was a member have come together to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board for which he laid the path. The Prime Minister has said, after all, that he is proud to be a member of the union—not the Transport and General Workers Union or Unite, but the National Farmers Union. His position, then, is not surprising. It is astonishing, however, that the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), who has talked in recent years—not 50 or 100 years ago—about the need not to impoverish the rural working class should now, presumably following a Damascene conversion, talk about the need to get rid of the Agricultural Wages Board as a burdensome anomaly. Perhaps he will explain later how he squares those statements.

In conclusion, this issue is above all about what is in the best interests of the countryside. The question we need to ask ourselves is what kind of country and what kind of countryside we want to live in. I could put it no better than the hon. Member for St Ives did when he spoke earlier about the meaning of us all being “in it together” in circumstances where a £1 million cheque can go to a big farmer on the one hand, while the Agricultural Wages Board is abolished on the other hand. That is why we are unashamedly standing up for the best traditions of our country and the best traditions of our countryside—and the best traditions of our countryside are best served by a fair deal for our countryside.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I remind the House that the debate is time-limited, and must end at 5.47 pm. It will be necessary to draw it to a conclusion at about 5.27 pm in order to allow the Front Benchers to respond.

I ask Members to curtail their remarks to eight minutes—which will include interventions on their speeches—because otherwise not everyone who wishes to speak will be able to do so. I ask those who are intervening repeatedly, and who may have already spoken, to exercise a bit of discipline. I ask those who do not plan to speak to restrain from intervening out of respect for those who are still to speak. I remind those who are still to speak that they do not have to give way. It will then be possible to accommodate everyone who has sat patiently through the debate thus far.

4.50 pm

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): I am grateful for that guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. Let me begin by drawing the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

We should recognise the progress that agriculture has made over the last 70 years. We are now well fed as a nation, without the worry of food security. We should

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recognise what a good job agriculture, agricultural workers and farmers have done in feeding the whole of Europe during those 70 years since the second world war, and, when we compare the industry of today with agriculture in the 1940s, we should recognise how different it is now, and how different are the relationships of agricultural staff with their employers.

The first argument that we heard from the Opposition—that abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board would not save any money—wholly missed the point of the debate. This is not about saving cash for the Government; it is about recognising the changing dynamic of agricultural work in the United Kingdom in a modern setting, and recognising the safeguards that have been introduced by other Governments and other parties. The minimum wage established a floor for the wages of all workers and has given them wage security, while changes in the legislation governing gangmasters have protected agricultural workers who are employed by them. The Agricultural Wages Board has become redundant. It is no longer a necessity because there are other safeguards, irrespective of the changes in the dynamic of agriculture.

Let me draw a few comparisons. If an agricultural worker who is charged with the responsibility of driving quarter of a million pounds’ worth of combine harvester makes a mistake in setting the sieves, much of the crop may go over the back of the combine. For the farmer, it is vital that the right member of staff, with the right skills, is sitting in that seat to protect his crop. I do not understand why a warehouse worker driving a forklift truck for Amazon does not need extra protection, but the combine harvester driver does.

A potato harvester can probably harvest £50,000 worth of crop, so damage to just 10% of that crop could cost a farm business £5,000 a day. Again, for the farmer it is vital that the right member of staff is driving that tractor and helping to ensure that the business is well looked after. If the right member of staff with the right skills is to sit on that seat, the farmer must pay him the right amount. The farmer must give him the right terms and conditions, or else he will walk off to another farmer.

The market for skills of that kind is driving agricultural wages to a much higher level than was provided for by the Agricultural Wages Board. Agriculture as an industry has changed dramatically since the 1960s. The House must recognise that.

Another argument we heard was that agricultural workers are particularly vulnerable because they live in tied cottages. I do not understand why the Opposition do not make the same argument for public house managers who work for a brewery and whose home is the public house itself. Why do they not require the extra protection farm workers supposedly have from the Agricultural Wages Board? The manager of a post office often has a flat above the business. Their accommodation is tied, so why do they not require extra protection? Double standards are in play.

Agriculture has moved on. The key question is whether the Opposition would overturn the abolition if they were in power. They were challenged on that point several times during the debate and on three occasions they refused the opportunity to answer. There is some cynicism on the Government Benches. Is it a political

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game? Is it about making a political point rather than a genuine one about improving the lot of people working in rural communities?

As a number of speakers want to follow me, I shall keep my comments as short as possible. I hope that in summing up, the Opposition speaker will address some of the points I made.

4.56 pm

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I am pleased to take part in the debate. I have a constituency interest, and I led for the Opposition in the Committee on the Public Bodies Bill, so it is a matter of some disappointment to me that in the intervening two years the Government have not refined their arguments, nor have they produced further evidence to suggest why the board should be abolished. Given the catastrophic effect abolition could have on the pay, terms and conditions of the country’s 152,000 agricultural workers, not least in my constituency, where well over 100 workers will be affected, it is important to ask serious questions of the Government about why they consider it necessary and, in particular, whose interests they are serving.

As we have heard, the Agricultural Wages Board was formed in 1948, but its lineage goes back to 1924. The fact that it has survived so long is testament to its continuing relevance. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) is right: it has modernised over the years and could modernise further. The board has demonstrated its importance for protecting the rights of workers in the sector. Those rights are now very much at risk.

The Government’s response when asked why they want to abolish the AWB is that agricultural workers, like others, are now covered by minimum wage legislation. Excellent though the minimum wage legislation is, it does not cover the same range of wage levels and categories as the AWB. The agricultural industry needs to attract people with the right skills and aptitude, which is becoming more important as farming methods continue to develop technologically. The AWB has a grading system for the terms and conditions of employment for agricultural workers that reflects the diversity of skills needed and the responsibilities attached. As many others have said, minimum wage legislation does not cover the many other areas overseen by the AWB, such as the standard of tied accommodation, overtime rates, sick pay and holiday entitlement. Why are the Government abolishing the board, and in whose interests will it be?

When the Public Bodies Bill was being considered in Committee, far from Labour Members being out of line, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) suggested, it was Government Members who were out of line, because the only people supporting abolition were some parts of the National Farmers Union. Indeed, it was only some in the union. We received many representations from farmers and farm workers who thought that getting rid of the AWB was an extremely bad idea because they liked the structure that it gave to negotiations.

We know that the abolition is not in the interests of not only hard-pressed agricultural workers, who stand to lose significantly from the change, but those wishing to enter the sector. I have a very good agricultural and horticultural training college in my constituency. From

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talking to several of the young people studying at Houghall, I know that they are worried about what will happen to terms and conditions in the sector following the abolition of the AWB. They are also concerned that they will no longer have a clear career ladder after leaving college, yet no Government Member has addressed that problem. We know from Lantra, the skills body overseeing the sector, that another 60,000 people will soon be needed in the industry because 25% of agricultural workers are over 55. Ministers cannot seriously be suggesting that the abolition of the board will make the industry more attractive to young people, because they have told me directly that it will not.

The abolition is not in the interests of the rural economy as a whole, especially in the north-east, given that millions of pounds will be taken out of an economy that is already suffering from high unemployment. The Government’s policies have hit my constituency hard. The latest unemployment figures show that City of Durham’s claimant rate has almost doubled in the past 12 months, which is one of the biggest rises in the country. It will be difficult for people in the agricultural sector to argue for a better standard of living when unemployment is so high, because they will be told, “If you don’t like it, lump it, because there are lots of people in the county who will be able to take your job.” The Government simply are not addressing that problem, yet because the abolition of the board will remove workers’ protections, it will be more difficult for them to argue for a better standard of living.

I will conclude, because I want to give others time to speak, but it is difficult to understand what the abolition of the board will achieve. It does not cost much to operate, but it protects workers in the sector, and sets a clear framework for negotiations and a career structure. It could be modernised in line with the new skills needed for farming, but one can only assume that the Government, as they have shown with other policies, are hellbent on driving down the wages of the low-paid in this country while at the same time giving tax cuts to millionaires.

5.3 pm

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I am proud to say that I still consider myself to be very much part of the farming community. I was saddened by the way in which the shadow Secretary of State tried to portray farming and farmers. I took part in a debate on Radio Devon after she had made a statement in which she went on at great length about things such as gangmasters, as if to suggest that every farmer was a terrible employer, but I do not recognise that situation in Devon or across the farming sector.

I am saddened by how the debate has proceeded. Some 40-odd years ago, I left school at the age of 16 to milk cows. I started on a farm of 50 acres. With the help of NatWest bank, which charged me enormous sums for the privilege, I managed to build up the farm to about 250 acres. During that period, we sometimes employed people, while at other times we did all the work ourselves.

Farming and the farming community have changed so much. Many hon. Members have made the case that farm workers are extremely valuable because of the

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type of farming that we carry out. In dairy farming, the milking parlours are equipped with computers which determine, for example, the amount of feed that the animals have. In the poultry industry, the buildings are temperature-controlled and farmers must make sure that the poultry are fit and free from disease. The same applies in the pig and sheep industries. The entire farming industry has changed hugely. When one gets on to a tractor, it lights up like a Christmas tree because there is so much computer equipment in it, reflecting the fact that it is difficult to operate. Of course we value the farm workers who operate all that equipment.

The farming industry is progressing. Reference was made to the green and pleasant land that we all live in and the good, healthy food that we are fortunate to have in this country. Who produces it? The farmers and the farm workers. We produce it together and I am proud to be part of that industry. I am sick to death of this debate, which is all about the long history of the Agricultural Wages Board and from where it started. I would be the first to admit that there was every good reason for it in those days, but now we have minimum wage legislation and an industry that has moved on. We want agriculture to be competitive and to move forward and employ more people on higher wages. We want a much more efficient industry.

I believe there is a bright future for agriculture. All the Agricultural Wages Board does is hark back to a past that we want to leave behind. It is right for us to take these decisions. The figures that we have show that more than 90% of agricultural workers are, fortunately, paid above the minimum wage, and we welcome that fact. During the debate, the sheer negativity from the Opposition has upset me. I would take their move to defend the Agricultural Wages Board much more seriously if they had replied to the question—they have been challenged three times on this—of whether they would make retention of the AWB a priority of the next Labour Government if this country were mad enough to put them back into power. I will therefore reply for them. They are not going to replace it. That is certain.

All the Opposition are here for today is to play politics and try to portray the farming community as terrible Victorian employers. We certainly are not. I say “we” because I consider myself still part of that farming community. I do not recognise the farming community painted by the Opposition. I find it offensive—I will be blunt about it—to be portrayed in that way. We do not employ people on poor wages. We want to progress people. During my farming career I had quite a number of young people who came and worked on the farm. We trained them, they moved on to other jobs and I am proud of that.

Let us not make this a debate about class warfare, with terrible rich landowners who are out there exploiting the workers. That is not what the debate is about. It should be about whether the Agricultural Wages Board is necessary. I do not believe it is. Why is it the only wages board left? It was left originally because there was no minimum wage legislation, but since that legislation has come in, there is no need for it. Hon. Members are worried that farmers and farm workers who have such responsible jobs on the modern farm cannot sit down with one another and negotiate their own wage rates. Surely hon. Members know that that is possible and that it will happen in the real world.

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We have already abolished the Agricultural Wages Board, but I will be voting against the motion, which seeks to reinstate it, because I know full well that it will not be reinstated. It is a political ploy on the part of the Opposition to have a little debate. I end by reiterating, for the third time, how offended I am by the way in which the farming community has been portrayed this afternoon.

5.10 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Ministers have still not convinced me about why they want to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board. If they are so convinced that agricultural wages will not go down, why are they so determined to abolish it? Why should it matter to them if it continues to exist and people continue to be paid at the rates it sets?

DEFRA’s own assessment has calculated that abolishing the AWB will take £260 million out of the rural economy over the next 10 years. That can mean only one thing: the 80% of agricultural workers who are on grades 2 to 6 will be vulnerable to having their pay driven down to minimum wage levels, regardless of the skills involved, not to mention the antisocial hours and the need to be out in all weather, using complex machinery, but still getting wet and dirty. Of course, that means less money in the rural economy, with a knock-on effect for the village shop and others employed locally.

We talk about fair trade for developing countries and getting a fair price for their products so that their farming communities can get reasonable rewards for their efforts. After much campaigning by Opposition Members, and indeed the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), the Government have agreed to give the groceries code adjudicator some teeth, which is an important step towards tackling exploitation and giving farmers a fair price for their produce. However, it is equally important to ensure that the workers who harvest that produce are fairly remunerated, and the AWB has a vital role in protecting agricultural workers.

In other words, it is not enough that the groceries code adjudicator ensures that the supermarket does not exploit the farmer; the AWB’s conditions also ensure that the farmer does not exploit the worker. That is particularly important because, as a response to the Macdonald report, the Government are now threatening to reduce the impact of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, whereas we would like to see its remit extended to cover sectors such as care homes and construction.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) said, the Farmers Union of Wales is firmly opposed to the abolition of the AWB. I find it quite insulting that the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) seems to have completely ignored what the FUW has on its website and what it has repeatedly said when it has come to see us.

Simon Hart: What I actually said was that the members of that union in my constituency who have approached me take a different view.

Nia Griffith: Well, farmers in general want to be fair to their staff, and I would certainly say to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) that

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the good guys do not need the legislation, but legislation is necessary for those who do try to exploit people and who do not necessarily play by the rules. As I have said, most farmers want to be fair.

Many farmers in areas such as rural Wales are both employer and employee, because they often work on contract for other farmers. They might sometimes employ agricultural workers, but they or members of their family might also be employed as agricultural workers. They have said themselves that it is not about being unable to set pay rates, but that it is far simpler and fairer in a rural community to say that everyone will go by the same rate. That is the importance of the AWB, and that is exactly what the FUW has been telling us.

Of course, it is not just about a minimum wage, because there are all the other things that the AWB sets, such as allowances for night work and being on stand-by, bereavement, sick leave, holiday entitlement and the rates for under-16s, none of which are covered by the national minimum wage legislation. In a rural community there are few alternative job opportunities and it is difficult for agricultural workers to find alternative employment. The cost of living is often higher because of the higher costs of transport and fewer opportunities to shop around for cheaper deals.

Those who rely on their employer for accommodation are even more vulnerable. There is often no alternative accommodation in rural areas, and the AWB plays a vital role in setting maximum charges for accommodation and minimum standards of sanitation, and in making sure that each worker has their own bed to sleep in.

What will happen when casual workers start their next job and find that the going rate is less? For many of them that will mean that their households incomes fall, so more families will become more reliant on higher levels of tax credit, which will not be good for the public purse. It would be far better to make sure that they had the proper rate of pay for their work and a proper wage from their employer, so that they could be less reliant on handouts.

This is part of a seemingly much wider attack by the Government. I regret that the legislation to abolish the AWB is being passed in such an unpleasant way and by the back door, when the Welsh Government made a very strong case to keep it in Wales when it was part of the Public Bodies Bill, not the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. This has done a terrible disservice to our rural communities.

5.16 pm

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): I support the Opposition motion to resist the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board. Government Members have accused us of waging class war, but this is an issue of social justice and if that means that it is also an issue of class, I make no apology.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) quoted Winston Churchill, who, amazingly, has been quoted three or four times by some surprising sources in this place over the past couple of weeks. I looked up Mr Churchill’s quote, and hon. Members might be interested to know that he spoke in class terms:

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“It is a serious national evil that any class of His Majesty’s subjects should receive less than a living wage in return for their utmost exertions…where you have what we call sweated trades”.

There are no bankers or accountants present on the Government Benches, but there are some farmers and others associated with the industry. They will know what sweated trades are, so I do not need to explain that to them. On sweated trades, Churchill said that

“you have no organisation, no parity of bargaining, the good employer is undercut by the bad, and the bad employer is undercut by the worst…where those conditions prevail you have not a condition of progress, but a condition of progressive degeneration.”—[Official Report, 28 April 1909; Vol. 4, c. 388.]

That was Winston Churchill arguing for the establishment of the Agricultural Wages Board, so who am I, as a socialist, to argue with Winston Churchill? He was absolutely right.

In his excellent speech the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) spoke of how the industry has developed and how farming has morphed into large agri-businesses and the food trade has gone global, and how that has put particular pressures on rural workers.

We on the Opposition Benches are concerned that the living standards for rural workers will go backwards. It is scandalous that last week we were not even afforded the courtesy of a debate, let alone a vote. The Government should think a thousand shames that they whisked through their plans to not just dismantle, but to abolish the AWB. It was disgraceful that Parliament was disregarded by a Government in a hurry to sweep away 100 years of workers’ rights and a century of consensus on rural living wages and housing standards.

Members keep asking why those rights should apply to rural workers and not to other groups of workers. As we have heard from a number of Members, the answer relates to tied accommodation, training and compassionate leave. The provisions also apply to workers who have to have dogs, presumably for sheep farming, so the AWB is different and there is a strong case for retaining it.

We saw just this week in The Sunday Times rich list that there is still massive personal wealth in the United Kingdom. Among those who are doing the best and who are luxuriating in extreme largesse are a number of UK food manufacturers—not large farmers—including Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and 2 Sisters, which is one of the biggest food processing companies in Europe. At No. 80 in the rich list is Lord Vestey, the owner of Stowell Park, which is one of the businesses that lobbied for the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board.

Government Members accuse Labour Members of arguing the case of the trade unions. I am a proud member of Unite the Union and make no apology for that. If standing up for agricultural workers is a sin, I am guilty and unrepentant. However, it is also clear who is behind the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board. It is the big businesses that are tightening their grip on the food industry that lobbied for its abolition.

The abolition will affect 150,000 people in England and Wales and about 5,500 agricultural workers in my region. I have discovered that 55 families in my constituency will be affected. We have heard about the history of the establishment of the Agricultural Wages Board, so I will not rehearse it.

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I was intrigued when my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) mentioned that the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), used to be a vociferous supporter of the retention of the Agricultural Wages Board. Early-day motion 892 of the 1999 to 2000 Session, which he supported, stated that

“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? Is it that the AWB is outdated and bureaucratic? Have the conditions of agricultural workers changed so much that we do not need it? I do not think that that is the case.

The third of agricultural workers who live in tied accommodation will no longer be protected by a cap on the amount that their employers can charge them for accommodation. They would risk losing their homes if they rejected downgraded contracts. That implication of the abolition was raised with me by an agricultural worker. We have also heard that the abolition will potentially cost agricultural workers £260 million in lost sick pay and holiday pay over the next 10 years.

Although the Government’s mantra is that they want to make work pay, the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board will lead to a race to the bottom in wages and terms and conditions for agricultural workers, and will therefore make work pay less. If wage protections are abolished, agricultural workers will see their terms and conditions squeezed. Nobody is tarring all farmers with the brush of being unscrupulous employers and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington was at pains to point out that many of the farmers he came across were very good employers, but there will be some who pass the pressure from the supermarkets on to their workers. That is a real concern.

Costs are much higher in rural areas than in urban areas. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found in 2010 that people living in rural areas spent between 10% and 20% more on everyday needs than those in urban areas. The Office for National Statistics estimates that the weekly spending of rural households is more than £50 higher than that of urban households, which must be a problem for a rural workers.

It would not have been acceptable not to have a debate, and it is not acceptable for the Government to ignore the outcome of the consultation; let us put it on the record that it indicated that the board should be retained. They are facilitating the redistribution of income away from some of the most vulnerable workers in the land to some of the wealthiest private individuals in the land. That is why the Opposition motion and the debate are to be welcomed.

I ask the Government to show the same care and attention to the living standards and wages of the poorest as they have to the richest 1%, who are now enjoying a top rate tax cut. If they wanted to protect the living standards and wages of the poorest in society, they could make a good start today by not abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board and by allowing trade unions, employers and independent representatives to continue to negotiate fair terms and conditions for vulnerable workers.

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5.25 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): On occasions such as this, at the closing of a debate, we often hear words about what a fine debate it has been, what eloquent testimony Members have given and what a fine day it is for Parliament. There have indeed been some very fine contributions today, from both sides of the House, and I will return to some of them in a moment.

Today, however, I have to say that this is not a shining occasion for Parliament. Far from it. It is a disgrace that the Government seem to have been dragged kicking and screaming into the sunlight to debate an issue that they seem to want hidden from democratic oversight. That is no fault of yours, Mr Deputy Speaker, but entirely the fault of Ministers. The attempts to curtail debate, or even to bypass the elected House of Commons and the democratic will of the Government in Wales on the matter, have been shameful and truly desperate.

Today, the views of parliamentarians, including Members representing rural areas, will be revealed to their constituents through both the debate and the vote. Their views will be revealed on stripping away the protections of 152,000 workers in England and Wales—protections on pay scales and accommodation; sick pay, holiday pay and overtime; caps on charges for tied accommodation; protections for children under 16 working in the fields; and the simple and basic entitlement of an agricultural worker in a team of workers at the end of a long shift to their own bed—their own bed, for goodness’ sake. The Minister of State has argued that the national minimum wage has changed all that, but he knows that it was in place before he signed an early-day motion warning that the abolition of the AWB would

“impoverish the rural working class”.

We are now in the most preposterous situation. A Liberal Democrat Minister is working, I suspect—he will clarify this—against his own long-held and principled position; against the views and interests of more than 1,000 workers and their families in his constituency, many of whom will have lobbied him in recent weeks and months,; against the views of many smaller, hard-pressed farmers who see the abolition as an increase in complexity in wage negotiations; against the views of the Liberal Democrat lead on rural and environmental issues in Parliament, the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), which prompts the question: will the real Lib Dems please step forward?; and in favour of an ideology that could well be one of “beggar the hindmost”.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I have been chairing a meeting of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee this afternoon.

I apparently have the largest number of agricultural workers in my constituency, and not many of them have contacted me on this matter. I do not think more than three have done so. Where is the hon. Gentleman getting his information from?

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Lady says she has been contacted by just three, but three is three, and I know for a fact that a large number of Members—many of whom are, for understandable reasons, not present for this debate, but who will, I assume, be passing through

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the voting Lobby—have been extensively lobbied by agricultural workers in their communities. The question is this: how will they vote today?

In the midst of the economic gloom of Osbornomics—that is a commentators’ phrase—with the economy flat-lining and the rural economy suffering too, the Government’s own figures show that more than a quarter of a billion pounds could be taken out of the rural economy following abolition of the AWB, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) pointed out, we could well add to the burden by increasing rural poverty and the in-work benefits bill to the taxpayer. This is, indeed, the world turned upside down.

Jack Dromey: My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Members on the Government Benches have asked what Labour would do when in power in 2015. I know how difficult it will be to pick up the pieces of this appalling mess, but would my hon. Friend care to comment on that?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I welcome the opportunity to do so, because it has wrongly been said that we have already made up our mind not to re-establish the AWB. When the AWB is abolished, it will, in effect, be shattered into little pieces. Its mechanisms will be entirely taken away, but I will tell my hon. Friend what we will do: Labour has already made clear its proposals under the Fair Work Commission—which I hope Members on the Government Benches will support, even though they opposed the work of the Low Pay Commission, which resulted in the national minimum wage, which they have been praising today. There will be a new commission that will consider our emerging proposals on the rural living wage, extending the remit of gangmaster legislation and tackling the agency workers question, and thereby addressing the undercutting of pay and conditions in local areas. That will no doubt be the arena in which our response to the abolition of the AWB will be developed. I suspect—in fact I can guarantee—that the Government parties will not be carrying out any similar piece of work. [Interruption.]

Any pretensions to respect—[Interruption.] I think Government Members want to know whether we would put the egg together again after they have broken it into a thousand pieces. I hope they understand from what I have just said that many of the proposals we already have in relation to the Fair Pay Commission run completely contrary to the free market, deregulatory ideology, and therefore both the Conservative Secretary of State and the Liberal Democrat Minister would oppose them, but I suspect many of the Minister’s Liberal Democrat friends would support them.

Any pretensions of respect for the views of this democratically elected House and the Welsh Government were ripped apart by this coalition Government when they sought at every opportunity to bypass votes and debate in this House. This proposal should have been taken through in full in what was then the Public Bodies Bill, and then brought back here and fully debated at length in this Chamber—and the issue of the legitimate right of the Welsh Government to be heard should also have been discussed. Instead, the proposal was rushed

24 Apr 2013 : Column 969

through a pitiful four-week consultation after the new Secretary of State arrived in post. The majority of respondents to that consultation in England and Wales opposed the abolition of the AWB, but that was ignored.

The proposal was then snuck into Committee in the other place in a different Bill, the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which had already left the Commons, thus avoiding the need for any awkward debate here. After heated exchanges, and opposition from bishops, Labour peers and some Cross Benchers, the Lords eventually supported the abolition. When the proposal returned to this House as Lords amendments, we were denied the time and the opportunity to debate it or even to vote on it. So here we are today, in a debate brought by the Labour Opposition.

As we debate this matter today, therefore, the Government have conspired to abolish the AWB through the unelected House of Lords. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State for Education says “Hear, hear.” He may regard democratically elected representatives so lightly, but we do not; we like to have a say on behalf of our rural, and other, constituents. I ask the Government to think again.

I appeal to all parliamentarians who support the abolition to think again. My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) appealed to Unionist Conservatives who are concerned about taking a cross-England and Wales approach and about cross-border issues to maintain the AWB. In no way is the hon. Member for St Ives somehow in hoc with union paymasters—contrary to the allegations that have been made against Members this afternoon—or acting at someone else’s behest. He speaks independently as the lead voice for the Liberal Democrat party, as opposed to the Minister, on rural issues. On that basis, what we are seeing is quite fascinating.

My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) called this a living standards debate. He is quite right. He said the proposal did not make economic or moral sense in the 1980s, under former Prime Minister Thatcher, and it does not make sense now either. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) brought some poetry and morality to the debate. He raised the real alternative to abolition, which is further modernisation, which has happened before—a point made also by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods)—and asked the fundamental question: what type of countryside do we want?

My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) said that fairness was about not just the groceries code adjudicator, but fair pay and conditions. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) cited Churchill in defence of the Agricultural Wages Board. As we noted earlier in the debate, even former Prime Minister Thatcher stayed away from abolishing the AWB. There were also great contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) and others.

I appeal to all those Lib Dem parliamentarians who long held this as a point of principle and who have been lobbied by their constituents. They should stand with their constituents and with us, support low-paid workers

24 Apr 2013 : Column 970

and smaller farmers and stand against rural poverty. I appeal to Conservative MPs who want to speak up for all their constituents, small farmers as well as large, low-paid as well as wealthy. They should be compassionate, one nation Tories, not just the representatives of the wealthy and the powerful in the countryside. If I cannot appeal to their better nature, let me appeal to their baser political instinct—not least those whose parliamentary majorities are smaller than the number of agricultural workers in the constituencies affected, such as the hon. Members for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) and for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), and many others.

I am glad we have had this debate. Some have commented that it is like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. That is no fault of ours, but when the vote comes, people will see where Members stand on a fair rural community, fair wages and fair conditions for everyone.

5.37 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr David Heath): The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) did the House a service by pointing out the disparity between last night’s excellent debate in the name of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies)—in which we heard contributions from all parts of the House, from Members who knew rural areas, knew the agricultural industry, were deeply committed to it and understood what the implications were—and today’s debate, which sadly has on occasions fallen short of that ideal.

That is not to say that there are not Members present who very much understand rural areas and represent their constituents, but that is not how I would characterise the opening speech from the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), representing Islington Labour and its deeply patronising view of what happens in rural areas and the capabilities of people who work in rural areas. I resent that in the same way that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) did. However, we welcome the fact that the hon. Lady has finally returned to the Chamber to hear the conclusion, if not the substance, of the debate that she called.

Let us deal with the issues raised, the first of which is the lack of debate on this issue. I am extremely sorry: I regret that there have not been debates on the precise motions that came from the other place last week. However, to say that there has been no debate on the issue is nonsense. Over the last three years I have debated this subject for hours with Members represented in this debate. We have had endless debates on a subject on which everybody knew every side of the argument, so that claim is nonsense. We could even have addressed it—I say this to my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who made the point of order—when we had the debate on the Lords amendments the other day. Indeed, had the shadow Business Secretary, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna)—whom we are always glad to see in this country from his clubbing expeditions abroad—decided that this issue needed to be debated, as colleagues say it does, he could have done so. There was time to debate it but he chose to make speeches on other subjects instead. That is why we had no debate.

24 Apr 2013 : Column 971

The hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) said that there was no meaningful consultation and that we did not notify people. I sent 13,000 letters to every single person or organisation covered by the order on agricultural wages, explaining what was to be done and asking for comments. That is unprecedented. It did not happen under the Labour Government but we did it because we wanted to ensure that people had the opportunity to respond.

The issue of Wales was raised. Let me let the House into a secret: I did not produce the legislation that provided for the devolution settlement in Wales, and Labour’s devolution settlement did not devolve employment issues to the Welsh Assembly Government. That is why such matters remain an issue for this House and this Government. No amount of argument from Welsh Ministers will change that settlement, only a change in the statutory format for the devolution settlement, which I do not believe the Labour party supports.

Let us consider the substance of this case, which is the crux of the matter.

Jack Dromey: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Heath: I will because the hon. Gentleman has some knowledge on this subject and I therefore welcome his views.

Jack Dromey: Will the Minister tell the House at what point and why he moved from believing that the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board would

“impoverish the rural working class”

to his current position of saying that it must be abolished as it is a “burdensome anomaly”?

Mr Heath: There were a number of points. There was the introduction of the Part-time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2000, the Employment Act 2002, the Fixed-term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002, the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004, the Pensions Act 2008, the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009, and the Agency Workers Regulations 2010. All those provided the protections that I wanted for rural workers. They exist, and that is why we no longer need the Agricultural Wages Board, because it duplicates that position. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I am glad he asked me that question.

In reality, when we debated these issues, Labour Members in support of the Labour Government resisted me when I spoke about rural poverty and denied that the biggest single removal of money from rural areas was the fuel escalator, which far outweighed anything that could possibly happen through the provision under discussion. They resisted my Fuel Poverty Bill applying to rural areas; they would not even allow for the existence of rural poverty, yet now they have the nerve to lecture the Government about what happens in rural areas.

Let me be clear because misinformation—deliberate I think—is being spread about some areas of this subject. There is a suggestion that people who work in the agriculture industry will no longer have any protection, which is absolute nonsense. The national minimum wage affects 99.5% of all workers in this country but is

24 Apr 2013 : Column 972

apparently hopelessly inadequate for the other 0.5%. However, I believe that the national minimum wage—which after the recent settlement is now well ahead of the first grade of pay for agricultural workers—is a valuable protection.

Every single worker who is currently paid under the protection of the Agricultural Wages Board will continue to receive that protection and to enjoy every aspect of their pay and conditions, and we shall ensure that they receive the benefit of legislative protection on that.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Heath: I am afraid I have no time left.

Opposition Members are telling us that the basement protection for the lowest-paid workers is the 2p difference per hour between last year’s AWB rate and the national minimum wage, and that that makes all the difference to rural poverty. I am afraid I do not believe that.

As many Government Members have said, agricultural workers are a precious resource in our rural areas. Do Opposition Members not understand that farmers cannot get a skilled stock man or woman in many areas? They have to pay them to attract them. Do they not understand that farmers do not put someone on the national minimum wage in charge of a £500,000 machine? That is the reality of the modern agriculture industry.

We are therefore left with a statutory body that, uniquely, deals with career progression in one half of one industry—the AWB does not apply to everybody in food and farming. I simply do not believe that a statutory body is necessary to do that—we can do it in better ways. I want to see career progression, flexibility of contracts and modern conditions. Those are the keys to a modern and effective agricultural industry.

Mr Alan Campbell (Tynemouth) (Lab) claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).

Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.

Question agreed to.

Question put accordingly (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.

The House divided:

Ayes 215, Noes 283.

Division No. 225]


5.46 pm


Abbott, Ms Diane

Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Alexander, Heidi

Ali, Rushanara

Allen, Mr Graham

Anderson, Mr David

Ashworth, Jonathan

Austin, Ian

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Bain, Mr William

Balls, rh Ed

Barron, rh Mr Kevin

Bayley, Hugh

Beckett, rh Margaret

Begg, Dame Anne

Benn, rh Hilary

Berger, Luciana

Blackman-Woods, Roberta

Blears, rh Hazel

Blenkinsop, Tom

Blomfield, Paul

Blunkett, rh Mr David

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brennan, Kevin

Brown, Lyn

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Brown, Mr Russell

Buck, Ms Karen

Burden, Richard

Byrne, rh Mr Liam

Campbell, Mr Alan

Caton, Martin

Champion, Sarah

Chapman, Jenny

Clark, Katy

Clarke, rh Mr Tom

Clwyd, rh Ann

Coffey, Ann

Cooper, rh Yvette

Corbyn, Jeremy

Crausby, Mr David

Creagh, Mary

Cruddas, Jon

Cryer, John

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Cunningham, Sir Tony

Curran, Margaret

Danczuk, Simon

Darling, rh Mr Alistair

David, Wayne

Davidson, Mr Ian

De Piero, Gloria

Dobson, rh Frank

Docherty, Thomas

Donohoe, Mr Brian H.

Doughty, Stephen

Dowd, Jim

Doyle, Gemma

Dromey, Jack

Dugher, Michael

Durkan, Mark

Eagle, Ms Angela

Eagle, Maria

Edwards, Jonathan

Efford, Clive

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Esterson, Bill

Evans, Chris

Farrelly, Paul

Field, rh Mr Frank

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flello, Robert

Flint, rh Caroline

Flynn, Paul

Fovargue, Yvonne

Gapes, Mike

Gardiner, Barry

George, Andrew

Gilmore, Sheila

Glass, Pat

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Godsiff, Mr Roger

Goggins, rh Paul

Goodman, Helen

Greatrex, Tom

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Lilian

Griffith, Nia

Gwynne, Andrew

Hain, rh Mr Peter

Hamilton, Mr David

Hamilton, Fabian

Hanson, rh Mr David

Harman, rh Ms Harriet

Harris, Mr Tom

Havard, Mr Dai

Hendrick, Mark

Hepburn, Mr Stephen

Hermon, Lady

Hillier, Meg

Hilling, Julie

Hodge, rh Margaret

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hoey, Kate

Hopkins, Kelvin

Howarth, rh Mr George

Hunt, Tristram

Irranca-Davies, Huw

Jamieson, Cathy

Jarvis, Dan

Johnson, rh Alan

Johnson, Diana

Jones, Graham

Jones, Helen

Joyce, Eric

Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald

Keeley, Barbara

Khan, rh Sadiq

Lavery, Ian

Leslie, Chris

Llwyd, rh Mr Elfyn

Long, Naomi

Love, Mr Andrew

Lucas, Caroline

Lucas, Ian

Mactaggart, Fiona

Mahmood, Mr Khalid

Mahmood, Shabana

Malhotra, Seema

Mann, John

Marsden, Mr Gordon

McCabe, Steve

McCann, Mr Michael

McCarthy, Kerry

McClymont, Gregg

McDonagh, Siobhain

McDonald, Andy

McDonnell, Dr Alasdair

McDonnell, John

McFadden, rh Mr Pat

McGovern, Alison

McGovern, Jim

McGuire, rh Mrs Anne

McKechin, Ann

McKenzie, Mr Iain

McKinnell, Catherine

Meacher, rh Mr Michael

Mearns, Ian

Miliband, rh Edward

Miller, Andrew

Mitchell, Austin

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Morden, Jessica

Morrice, Graeme


Morris, Grahame M.


Mudie, Mr George

Munn, Meg

Murphy, rh Mr Jim

Murphy, rh Paul

Murray, Ian

Nandy, Lisa

Nash, Pamela

O'Donnell, Fiona

Onwurah, Chi

Osborne, Sandra

Owen, Albert

Pearce, Teresa

Perkins, Toby

Pound, Stephen

Powell, Lucy

Qureshi, Yasmin

Reed, Mr Jamie

Reed, Mr Steve

Ritchie, Ms Margaret

Robertson, John

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Rotheram, Steve

Roy, Lindsay

Ruane, Chris

Ruddock, rh Dame Joan

Sarwar, Anas

Sawford, Andy

Seabeck, Alison

Sharma, Mr Virendra

Sheerman, Mr Barry

Sheridan, Jim

Shuker, Gavin

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Smith, rh Mr Andrew

Smith, Nick

Spellar, rh Mr John

Stringer, Graham

Stuart, Ms Gisela

Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry

Tami, Mark

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Thornberry, Emily

Thurso, John

Timms, rh Stephen

Trickett, Jon

Twigg, Derek

Umunna, Mr Chuka

Vaz, rh Keith

Vaz, Valerie

Walley, Joan

Watts, Mr Dave

Whitehead, Dr Alan

Williams, Hywel

Williamson, Chris

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wood, Mike

Woodcock, John

Woodward, rh Mr Shaun

Wright, Mr Iain

Tellers for the Ayes:

Susan Elan Jones


Phil Wilson


Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Aldous, Peter

Amess, Mr David

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Bacon, Mr Richard

Baker, Steve

Baldry, Sir Tony

Baldwin, Harriett

Barclay, Stephen

Barker, rh Gregory

Baron, Mr John

Barwell, Gavin

Beith, rh Sir Alan

Bellingham, Mr Henry

Benyon, Richard

Beresford, Sir Paul

Berry, Jake

Bingham, Andrew

Binley, Mr Brian

Birtwistle, Gordon

Blackwood, Nicola

Blunt, Mr Crispin

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradley, Karen

Brady, Mr Graham

Bray, Angie

Brazier, Mr Julian

Bridgen, Andrew

Brine, Steve

Brokenshire, James

Brooke, Annette

Browne, Mr Jeremy

Bruce, Fiona

Bruce, rh Sir Malcolm

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burley, Mr Aidan

Burns, Conor

Burns, rh Mr Simon

Burrowes, Mr David

Burt, Alistair

Cairns, Alun

Campbell, rh Sir Menzies

Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair

Carmichael, Neil

Carswell, Mr Douglas

Cash, Mr William

Chishti, Rehman

Clark, rh Greg

Clarke, rh Mr Kenneth

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Collins, Damian

Colvile, Oliver

Cox, Mr Geoffrey

Crabb, Stephen

Crockart, Mike

Crouch, Tracey

Davey, rh Mr Edward

Davies, Glyn

Davies, Philip

de Bois, Nick

Dinenage, Caroline

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Dorrell, rh Mr Stephen

Dorries, Nadine

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Duddridge, James

Ellis, Michael

Ellison, Jane

Ellwood, Mr Tobias

Elphicke, Charlie

Eustice, George

Evans, Graham

Evennett, Mr David

Fabricant, Michael

Farron, Tim

Field, Mark

Foster, rh Mr Don

Fox, rh Dr Liam

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freeman, George

Freer, Mike

Fuller, Richard

Garnier, Sir Edward

Gauke, Mr David

Gibb, Mr Nick

Glen, John

Goldsmith, Zac

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Gove, rh Michael

Gray, Mr James

Grayling, rh Chris

Green, rh Damian

Greening, rh Justine

Grieve, rh Mr Dominic

Griffiths, Andrew

Gummer, Ben

Halfon, Robert

Hames, Duncan

Hammond, Stephen

Hands, Greg

Harper, Mr Mark

Harrington, Richard

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Harvey, Sir Nick

Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan

Hayes, rh Mr John

Heald, Oliver

Heath, Mr David

Hemming, John

Henderson, Gordon

Hendry, Charles

Herbert, rh Nick

Hinds, Damian

Hoban, Mr Mark

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Holloway, Mr Adam

Hopkins, Kris

Horwood, Martin

Howell, John

Hughes, rh Simon

Hunt, rh Mr Jeremy

Huppert, Dr Julian

Jackson, Mr Stewart

James, Margot

Javid, Sajid

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Johnson, Gareth

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, rh Mr David

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kelly, Chris

Kirby, Simon

Knight, rh Mr Greg

Laing, Mrs Eleanor

Lancaster, Mark

Lansley, rh Mr Andrew

Latham, Pauline

Laws, rh Mr David

Lee, Jessica

Lee, Dr Phillip

Leech, Mr John

Lefroy, Jeremy

Letwin, rh Mr Oliver

Lewis, Brandon

Lidington, rh Mr David

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lloyd, Stephen

Lord, Jonathan

Loughton, Tim

Luff, Peter

Lumley, Karen

Macleod, Mary

Main, Mrs Anne

May, rh Mrs Theresa

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Jason

McIntosh, Miss Anne

McPartland, Stephen

McVey, Esther

Menzies, Mark

Mercer, Patrick

Metcalfe, Stephen

Miller, rh Maria

Mills, Nigel

Milton, Anne

Mitchell, rh Mr Andrew

Moore, rh Michael

Mordaunt, Penny

Morgan, Nicky

Morris, Anne Marie

Morris, David

Morris, James

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Mulholland, Greg

Munt, Tessa

Murray, Sheryll

Newton, Sarah

Nokes, Caroline

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

O'Brien, Mr Stephen

Offord, Dr Matthew

Ollerenshaw, Eric

Ottaway, Richard

Paice, rh Sir James

Paisley, Ian

Parish, Neil

Patel, Priti

Paterson, rh Mr Owen

Pawsey, Mark

Penrose, John

Percy, Andrew

Phillips, Stephen

Pickles, rh Mr Eric

Pincher, Christopher

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Prisk, Mr Mark

Pugh, John

Raab, Mr Dominic

Randall, rh Mr John

Reckless, Mark

Redwood, rh Mr John

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reevell, Simon

Reid, Mr Alan

Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm

Robathan, rh Mr Andrew

Robertson, rh Hugh

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Rogerson, Dan

Rosindell, Andrew

Rudd, Amber

Ruffley, Mr David

Russell, Sir Bob

Sandys, Laura

Scott, Mr Lee

Selous, Andrew

Shannon, Jim

Shapps, rh Grant

Sharma, Alok

Shepherd, Sir Richard

Skidmore, Chris

Smith, Miss Chloe

Smith, Henry

Smith, Sir Robert

Soames, rh Nicholas

Soubry, Anna

Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stanley, rh Sir John

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Streeter, Mr Gary

Stride, Mel

Stunell, rh Andrew

Sturdy, Julian

Swales, Ian

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Swinson, Jo

Tapsell, rh Sir Peter

Teather, Sarah

Thornton, Mike

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Truss, Elizabeth

Turner, Mr Andrew

Tyrie, Mr Andrew

Uppal, Paul

Vaizey, Mr Edward

Vickers, Martin

Walker, Mr Charles

Walker, Mr Robin

Wallace, Mr Ben

Ward, Mr David

Weatherley, Mike

Webb, Steve

Wharton, James

Wheeler, Heather

White, Chris

Whittaker, Craig

Whittingdale, Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Williams, Stephen

Williamson, Gavin

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wright, Jeremy

Wright, Simon

Yeo, Mr Tim

Young, rh Sir George

Zahawi, Nadhim

Tellers for the Noes:

Mr Robert Syms


Mark Hunter

Question accordingly negatived.

24 Apr 2013 : Column 973

24 Apr 2013 : Column 974

24 Apr 2013 : Column 975

24 Apr 2013 : Column 976

Business without Debate

European Union Documents

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11)),

Counterfeiting of the Euro and other Currencies

That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 6152/13 and Addenda 1 to 3, a draft Directive on the protection of the euro and other currencies against counterfeiting by criminal law, and replacing Council Framework decision 2000/383/JHA; and welcomes the opportunity to consider whether the UK should opt in to the draft Directive.—(Nicky Morgan.)

Question agreed to.


Detrunking of part of the A69

6.1 pm

John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): I am pleased to be able to present this petition on behalf of my constituents asking the House of Commons to urge the Department for Transport to examine the feasibility of the detrunking of the A69 from the roundabout at Brampton to junction 43 of the M6. The petitioners and I believe that that would make the road a great deal safer for all concerned, including those in the villages along the route, which includes a primary school. The petition has more than 1,600 signatories.

The petition states:

The Petition of County Councillor Nick Marriner,

Declares that the A69 should be detrunked from the roundabout at Brampton to Junction 43 of the M6 and rerouted along the A689 and that this will make the current A69 a safer road for the communities which live alongside it.

The Petitioner therefore requests that the House of Commons urge the Government works with Cumbria County Council to ensure this happens.

And the Petitioner remains, etc.


24 Apr 2013 : Column 977

Mobility access to Goring and Streatley Station

John Howell (Henley) (Con): I should like to present a petition from more than 1,000 local residents about the railway station at Goring in my constituency.

The petition states:

The Petition of residents of Goring and Streatley and the surrounding area,

Declares that the Petitioners are concerned about the provision of mobility access to Goring and Streatley station.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to support the installation of lifts at Goring and Streatley railway station when the station footbridge is rebuilt in 2013–14 as part of the track electrification programme, thus ensuring that mobility impaired passengers are able to have equal and step-free access to the trains that serve the station.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


24 Apr 2013 : Column 978

Girls and ICT Careers

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Joseph Johnson.)

6.3 pm

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to the House on such an important issue today. Tomorrow is international girls in ICT day, so it is particularly appropriate that we should mark the occasion by debating what we can do to attract more girls into information and communications technology. I understand that the Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), will be marking the day by speaking at a “Little Miss Geek” celebration of fashion and technology; I am glad to see a Government Minister supporting efforts to encourage girls into ICT. Celebrating technology, and women’s contribution to it, is one way of helping the sector to become more representative of the 51% of the population who do not have the Y chromosome. Right now, women make up only 12% of professional engineers and 15% of those applying for computer science degrees.

I hope that the Government, and particularly the Minister, will do more than speak at events and offer warm words of encouragement. I hope—indeed, I expect—that they will implement concrete measures to ensure that we overcome the dreadful disparity in the representation of women in ICT—a disparity that shames us as a nation, as well as impeding our economic and social progress. As you may know, Mr Speaker, this subject is dear to my heart. Having worked as a professional engineer in telecommunications for 23 years before entering this House, I know just how much more can be done to encourage and support women in ICT.

Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): Speaking as one who has been a computer programmer, I, too, understand the need for increased opportunities for girls to go into the communications and technology industries. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need a cross-government strategy that involves the education system as well as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport? We need to improve the opportunities available for girls at schools and to encourage them by role models to learn about science, computer programming and other useful subjects.

Chi Onwurah: I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution and welcome the bringing of her direct experience of computer programming to this debate. She is absolutely right. I shall explain in the remainder of my speech the wide range of issues that need to be addressed if we are to overcome this disparity. We really need a positive approach and champions for it across the whole of government.

When I started my degree, 12% of my fellow electrical engineering students were women. That was almost 30 years ago. It sounds like a very long time, and it is indeed depressingly long. The most depressing thing of all, however, is that although women now make up 43% of GPs, 41% of solicitors and even 22% of Members of Parliament—a third in the Labour party, I should add—the proportion of female engineering students has not increased at all. That is scandalous. In computer science, as my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) may well know, the figures are getting worse.

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The proportion of computing A-levels taken by women went down from 12% in 2004 to 8% in 2011. There is only one girl for every 11 boys in the average UK A-level computing class. We should imagine how it feels to be that girl.

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing a debate on this incredibly important subject. In the specific part of the video games industry, only 17% of staff are females and the industry is crying out for more. What we really need is role models to inspire the next generation and address that imbalance.

Chi Onwurah: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. It is certainly the case that the video games industry is a modern one; one would hope that it would be reflective of society, including those who play games, but it is not. I shall show a little later that the figures I have for females in the video games industry are even worse than the hon. Gentleman’s 17%.

At the same time, half of the UK’s co-educational state schools send no girls at all to sit A-level physics. In 2012, 2,400 female students from the UK went on to full-time undergraduate computer courses, as opposed to over 15,000 men. Between 2001 and 2011, the percentage of technology jobs held by women declined from 22% to 17%. My figures show that only 6% of those who work in ICT in the UK games industry are women, despite the fact that they make up 50% of those who play the games.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) raised an important issue earlier. I spoke to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) before the debate, asking if I too could intervene on her speech.

According to e-skills UK in Northern Ireland, the potential for Northern Ireland to be a global leader in the field of technology will increase over the next few years, and 9,200 jobs will be needed over a five-year period. Along with the industry, e-skills UK in Northern Ireland is taking active steps to encourage ladies and young girls to become involved. Does the hon. Lady think that the active measures that are being taken in a region of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland might serve as an example for the rest of the United Kingdom?

Chi Onwurah: I agree that we need to be very active in encouraging girls into the industry. I am pleased to hear about the job opportunities in Northern Ireland. There are other job opportunities throughout the country, and we need to ensure that girls are in a position to take advantage of them.

Gender segregation is at its most extreme in skilled trades such as that of electricians. Women constitute only 1% of the work force in such occupations, which is barely significant in statistical terms. I commissioned House of Commons Library research which has armed me with a large—depressingly large—number of similar statistics. It is clear that we are doing much worse in this regard than many of our European and OECD counterparts. I want to focus on what we can do about it, “we” being the ICT sector, civil society and, as I hope the Minister will acknowledge, the Government.

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I worked in ICT as an engineer for 23 years. I must emphasise that I was often fortunate enough to have great male bosses who were determined that working in an all-male, or almost all-male, environment should not be a barrier to a successful career for a woman. However, I have known other managers who were not so supportive, and company cultures that worked against attracting girls and women into ICT and did absolutely nothing to help them to stay there.

Last year, when I was a shadow business, innovation and skills Minister, I wrote to 10 of the leading companies in the engineering and technology sector to ask what they were doing to improve the situation. I wrote to BAE Systems, Google, Microsoft, IBM, ARM, Rolls-Royce, BP, Shell, Ford and Jaguar Land Rover. Their responses are summarised on my website. What was quite amusing was that two of the companies addressed their letters of response to “Mr Onwurah”. I shall not name them, but it did make me wonder how accustomed they were to engaging with women.

Not surprisingly, nearly every company claimed that it was hiring women in proportions above the national average. The exception was ARM, which candidly said that the proportion of women was higher in its divisions outside the UK, especially in India. Female literacy in India is just 65%, while male literacy is 82%. The fact that India is doing so much better than we are in regard to ICT gender balance is particularly striking for that reason.

It is also striking that IBM did not respond to my inquiry despite repeated entreaties, while Google and Microsoft responded but refused to release any figures. As relatively young companies, at least in comparison with, for instance, Shell and Rolls-Royce, they might be expected to be at the forefront of gender equality. Both Google and Microsoft cited confidentiality as their reason for not revealing the proportion of women whom they employed in ICT. That is rather strange, because it suggests either that Google and Microsoft do not know how to aggregate and anonymise such information—which, given that they are leaders in big data management, is worrying—or that they have so few women employees that giving the figure would necessarily identify individuals. That is also very worrying.

The more traditional companies were more open about releasing figures, with Ford giving the most detailed breakdown across different job types. Most firms said that the main problem was a lack of qualified female candidates in ICT, engineering and science, and all the firms said that getting more women into those fields was a corporate priority. Most outlined steps that they were taking, from overhauling corporate procedures, for example, making sure that women were on interview panels, to intervening early in schools to steer girls towards STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects and careers.

Companies emphasised the importance of female role models in encouraging female graduates or apprentices to join them, and detailed the steps they were taking to develop networking forums or to push high-potential females up the employee hierarchy. ARM was the most forthright when asked what private or public sector initiatives firms found useful. It said

“most initiatives that directly address the issue are clearly failing at a national level and make little difference.”

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According to the ARM representative, the most effective means would be role models and TV commentators or presenters who make the subjects sexy and exciting. I agree in part. A high profile ICT series on TV would probably change perceptions overnight. We saw what the success of “Silent Witness” did for the proportion of women in forensics.

The responses I received showed that there is such a wide range of challenges to address that we need a wide-ranging response, as was mentioned earlier.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that employers could do much more by offering work placements, early apprenticeships and visits to factories, and that the Department for Education needs to do more to encourage interaction? Young people could then make decisions much earlier about whether ICT was a career they would be interested in. Often, it is too late when they are 18.

Chi Onwurah: I thank my hon. Friend. She raises an extremely important point and I shall dwell on it in more detail later. She is right. One of the key messages that I hope the Minister will take from the debate is the importance of ensuring engagement with employers. Often employers are willing to make arrangements to go into schools, but do not feel that they can identify schools or know how to set about it.

We should encourage employers to engage with schools. One of my first parliamentary questions was to ask who was responsible for ensuring engagement between industry and primary schools. The response was that no one in the Government was responsible, in either the Business or Education teams. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that in her response.

As well as improving the image of ICT, we need to look at the working environment of women in ICT, and at higher, secondary and, very importantly, primary education, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and careers advice. We also need to look at our culture, which socialises girls to think that ICT is not for them.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend have a view about the suggestion of some educationists that it would be helpful if some schools separated girls in ICT classes? Some people say that when boys get into the ICT classroom they dominate the machines.

Chi Onwurah: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. In single-sex schools, it is certainly the case that more girls study A-level science than in co-educational schools. There is evidence that girls do better in a single-sex environment. It is not clear whether that is due to the presence of strong female role models or, in other schools, the influence of boys who may be more aggressive in taking resources. I would say to my hon. Friend that schools should examine ways of ensuring that girls are engaged and excited. For example, I know that all-girl science and computer science clubs successfully engage girls with ICT in an environment that they find comfortable and stimulating, which is what we are trying to achieve. If we are considering how society socialises girls away from ICT, we could wonder why

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girls’ toys are generally pink and patronising, and rarely involve any ICT participation, while boys’ toys tend to be more centred on engineering, machines and ICT.

The sample of responses that I received demonstrates just how much is being done. I am worried that Microsoft and Google, which are role models in their own right, do not appear to want to let anyone know how well—or how badly—they are doing. I trust that the Minister agrees that it is essential that we have such information if we are to understand what we need to achieve. However, I was impressed by the measures that many companies are taking to attract girls to ICT, which suggests that there an increasing desire for change which was missing during large parts of my career in the industry. Indeed, I was at an industry event only last night at which several representatives of large ICT companies raised that issue with me before I had the chance to ask them about it. Given that I usually raise the issue with such companies at a very early stage, one can imagine how quickly they beat me to it by talking about that to me.

There is a large number of initiatives in place, and as part of my preparation for this debate, and given that tomorrow is girls in ICT day, I crowd-sourced examples from Twitter. I was impressed by the number of organisations that are actively working to attract girls to ICT. For example, Nominet is sponsoring computer clubs for girls and Sunderland Software City in the north-east is setting up a coders academy. Primary Engineer encourages primary school pupils to engage with STEM education. As we have heard, we know that it is critical to engage girls at a young age, before preconceptions have formed, because by the time that they are taking their GCSEs, they might have ruled themselves out of ICT due to earlier choices. Little Miss Geek, Girl Geeks and ScienceGrrl try to inspire girls into ICT, while WISE promotes female talent in science, engineering and technology from classroom to boardroom. Athena SWAN and STEMNET—the science, technology, engineering and mathematics network—support women in ICT and STEM careers, and help to them become role models for the next generation.

While there are many initiatives, the challenge is to know how well they are working and how to help them to work better, yet I fear that the Government are failing to take up that challenge. I suspect that the Minister will disagree with that, but let us look at the evidence. The Government ended funding for UKRC, the organisation dedicated to supporting girls and women into ICT. They claim to be making the ICT curriculum more flexible, but they are in fact simply disapplying all standards and requirements of the national curriculum. They have reduced support for, and undermined, careers advice, which is the key way of helping into ICT those many girls who have no direct contact with ICT professionals as part of their background.

The Government have reduced support for small and medium-sized businesses. Increasing diversity in the workplace can be more challenging for SMEs that do not have dedicated human resource departments and may instead rely on older recruitment methods—for example, employing friends of current staff, which means that the work force do not become more diverse over time. Of course, employing one’s friends can happen in larger organisations, and even in Government. But the Government should be offering more support for skills

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in small businesses, rather than turning Business Link from a face-to-face support organisation into a website and a phone line.

We have no roadmap, no plan, no targets and no framework to help us assess whether we are on the right track to attract more girls into ICT. Can the Minister explain what the Government are doing? Can she say how, for example, if I am a teacher in a primary school in Newcastle, I can find out what resources are available to make ICT more appealing, and what incentives there are for doing that? What steps are the Government taking to use subjects which do engage girls, such as climate change, to make ICT more appealing? Will removing climate change from the national curriculum make that easier or harder? How is the Minister ensuring that primary school teachers in particular have the right ICT skills themselves, given the higher salaries paid in the private sector? Research shows that because of the cultural factors relating to ICT and girls, the quality of teaching is a far more important factor in girls’ decisions in relation to ICT than it is in boys’ decisions.

What are the Government doing in response to the Nesta report on video games entitled “Next Gen—Transforming the UK into the world’s leading talent hub for the video games and visual effects industries”, which said:

“The content and delivery methods of computer science teaching will need to change to address ... misperceptions (especially in the eyes of girls)”?

In December 2011, Ofsted said in its report “ICT in schools 2008-11”:

“Very few examples were seen of secondary schools engaging with local IT businesses to bring the subject alive for their students. This was a particular issue for girls, many of whom need a fuller understanding of ICT-related career and education options to inform their subject choices at 14 and 16 years of age.”

How has cutting back the careers service Connexions to become solely an online and telephone service helped this? The House of Commons Education Committee described this change as resulting in a “worrying deterioration” in the overall standard of careers advice.

The lack of women in ICT is a scandal but it also a huge loss. It is a loss to the country, with a talent pool half the size it could be. Every year the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s skills survey shows a severe skills shortage, and it is no wonder if we are excluding half our population. I am sure the Minister will be interested to know that it also represents a loss to women in not having entry to these rewarding careers and therefore contributes to the gender pay gap. The average technology professional’s salary was over £38,000 per year in 2011, 50% higher than the average across all sectors.

The lack of women in ICT represents a loss to society of the types of ICT that might come from non-male perspectives. I do not hesitate to say that an ICT work force that was more representative of humanity would result in technology which was more humane. All too often technology is imposed upon us aggressively and before it is fit for purpose. And yes, I am thinking of automatic tills at supermarkets when I say that. It is common sense, because we know that innovation comes from the creative exchange of ideas between individuals. If all the individuals in a company or sector come from the same background, there is necessarily a limit to the ideas and innovation.

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There is also an intangible loss, but a hugely important one, to our society. Many of the challenges we face, such as climate change, an ageing population with greater health needs and a world of 7 billion people, have technology at their heart, but we are handicapped in addressing them because technology does not have a place in our hearts. Technology will never have the position it merits at the heart of our society and economy if it remains the preserve of such a narrow section of society. To drive our economy forward sustainably, ICT needs to be a part of our society and our culture. Given the challenges we face as a nation, we cannot allow ICT to remain such a male occupation.

In conclusion, to improve the gender balance in ICT the Government need to show leadership in ways that are more concrete than mere warm words of support. I hope that is what I will hear in the Minister’s response.

6.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for raising this important subject and respect her experience in the sector. It is a crucial area for the economy, and one where we need to increase the number of people, particularly women, who have relevant IT skills.

Earlier today I attended a “hackathon” event at Facebook headquarters, where 80 talented young coders from around the world were developing applications for social learning, and I am pleased to say that there was a good representation of young women there. Organisations such as Facebook are doing an enormous amount of good work with schools to inspire young people to take up careers in IT, but let us be honest: we have a long-standing problem with computer science in this country and with the number of women studying it.

As the hon. Lady will be aware, under the previous Government the proportion of women taking computing A-levels fell from 12% to 8% as a proportion between 2004 and 2011. The current situation is indeed poor. For A-level computer studies in 2012, only 255 of the 3,420 entrants—just 7.5%—were girls, which represents a decline of three quarters over the past 10 years. There is a similar problem with physics, as 6,500 girls took physics A-level in 2012, which is only 21% of the total cohort, and the situation has remained static over the past 10 years. The number of girls studying maths A-level has doubled over the past 10 years, but the situation is not as positive for further maths, which is very important for STEM subjects at university. Some 3,700 girls took further maths in 2012, which is only 30% of the cohort.

As the hon. Lady pointed out, the situation is very different in other countries, particularly emerging economies, which have seen their share of women studying computer science and engineering increase drastically. In India the proportion of female undergraduates has doubled, and in Malaysia technical jobs are dominated by women. As she pointed out, 26 April is international girls in ICT day, which is very important. The Government think that the situation has to change.

A lot has changed in IT since I used to program BASIC at school in the 1990s. There has been a technology revolution. Technology affects every area of our lives

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and so many different jobs. It has changed the way we do politics and business and so many things about how we deliver public services. A sound knowledge of how ICT works and of the underlying architecture of computing is important for everybody, whether they are looking to get into motor manufacturing, politics or any area of commerce. It is a universal skill that we all need, and all young people will need it. It is a very important part of our curriculum developments. That is why we are reforming the ICT curriculum. We disapplied the existing curriculum because it was not fit for purpose.

Justin Tomlinson: That is an incredibly important point, because when I visit representatives of the UK games industry, they say time and again that graduates simply are not equipped with the necessary skills and almost have to start again, and that more often than not it is easier to import labour from abroad, which is creating further barriers to females and males in this country who could play an important part in this growing economy.

Elizabeth Truss: I thank my hon. Friend for that point and agree with it. Our new computing curriculum is very different, because it is not just about how to use the software and programmes, but about getting young people coding from a very early age and understanding the architecture of computing.

Chi Onwurah: Can we clarify this point? We have the ICT curriculum and the computing curriculum. There are no guidelines or standards for ICT, because the national curriculum has been disapplied, but are there any guidelines to encourage girls and make it more appealing to them? I am pleased to hear that the computing course has been made more vigorous.

Elizabeth Truss: To be clear, under the national curriculum, what was the ICT curriculum will be called the computing curriculum, so we are renaming the subject. We have been working with the British Computing Society to create a new curriculum that addresses issues such as how to use digital devices, but that also focuses much more on understanding programming and coding. Primary school students will, therefore, be doing programming from quite a young age, using programmes such as Scratch, which has been developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and which enables young children to programme an on-screen cat to do certain things. It is attractive for children and gives them an understanding of how programming works. By the time they get to key stage 3, they will be learning at least two programming languages, so this is a real step change.

We have also recently announced that GCSE computer science will be added to the list of science options in the English baccalaureate. We are, therefore, taking computer science very seriously as a subject. We recognise the importance of computing knowledge and skills for the future of the economy, so we want to raise its quality and profile in schools. We also want to make it a universal subject that is attractive to boys and girls alike, which is important.

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The Department has been working in partnership with the British Computing Society to help to prepare teachers for the challenges of teaching this curriculum. I assure the hon. Lady that many employers and leading companies in the IT industry are already engaged in helping schools to implement that curriculum.

I announced this morning that the Government will provide the British Computing Society with more than £2 million over the next two financial years to support the training of computer science master teachers, who will then communicate with other teachers across the network to make sure that the subject is taught well in all our schools.

I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to start young in encouraging girls to take up these careers. It is important that young people should be encouraged not to close off options by dropping subjects that may be important later. That points to a wider issue relating to engineering, IT and other STEM disciplines, because those subjects have the highest earning premiums with regard to A-level, degree and PhD, and women often lose out on the possibility of valuable and engaging careers because they do not study those subjects earlier in their school life.

We think that primary school is really important, and we are strengthening the mathematics curriculum. It is also important that children are exposed to programming and coding at an age when they can see their potential and how exciting they are before going to secondary school. That is a critical part of our programme.

Britain has a wider cultural problem—I think a few other countries suffer from it as well—with the perception of careers in computing, IT and engineering and people not understanding the wide variety of careers available. I have been in discussions with leading companies, some of which the hon. Lady has mentioned, about how we can raise the profile of engineering, show the myriad options available and raise the profile of IT and make it an aspirational career for young people. I think that primary school is particularly critical in being able to do that.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who is interested in financial education, will be interested to know that I discussed with the Personal Finance Education Group this morning how we can talk about the value of careers as part of financial education, so that children understand what skills will be expected in the careers of the future and what they should study if they want to achieve those goals in their life.

It is important to mention that a career in ICT is not just about computing. Scientific and mathematical skills are needed as well. We are working to ensure that everybody studies mathematics to age 18 by introducing new core mathematics qualifications for students who have a GCSE but are not doing A-level maths. We have announced an expanded further mathematics support programme to ensure that the number of students who take maths and further maths continues to increase. The feedback that I have received from the IT industry is that it often recruits from other countries because there are more students with higher level maths skills.

We are giving computing a new impetus through a challenging new curriculum, sustained support for teacher training and robust qualifications.