“I soon realised that I had heard only one side of the argument..”

The Review of Public Adminstration recommended that the Agricultural Wages Board should cease to exist and, in March 2006, the then-Secretary of State, Peter Hain, announced that it would, cease to exist that is – Lord Rooker did the deed in the Lords. The decision was described by Hain as “[delivering] on his promise to cut needless bureaucracy in Northern Ireland”. But two weeks later he reversed his decision, after some heavy lobbying from Trade Unions who described the reversal as the “quickest comeback since Lazarus”, in a move interpreted here as being due to the Warwick agreement between the Labour Party and Trade Unions. On the 15th October the NI Agriculture Minister defended her decision not to abolish the AWB. Yesterday the Assembly debated a motion calling for the abolition of the AWB which brought to light some interesting quotes from an earlier debate on 8th January this year.In January this year the transitional assembly debtaed a motion co-sponsored by the UUP’s Tom Elliot and the SDLP’s P J Bradley.

That this Assembly deplores the over-bureaucratic administration within the Northern Ireland agricultural industry and calls on the government to implement legislation / regulations with less gold-plating, and to put in place a review of current legislation and regulations with a view to reducing any unnecessary bureaucratic burden; and further calls on the government to implement the initiatives set out in the Ulster Farmers’ Union document ‘Five Steps to a Better Future’.

That earlier debate contained contributions from Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew, MP, MLA, and now the NI Agriculture Minister, as well as a contribution from her party colleague Caitriona Ruane, now NI Education Minister.

Caitriona Ruane then said

My party supports the removal of the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) because, with the introduction of the minimum wage in 1999, the AWB has become yet another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy.

And then Michelle Gildernew also expressed her party’s position in relation to the AWB,

“The abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board is also one of the UFU’s five priorities. Sinn Féin endorses all five priorities and gives its commitment to champion them.”

Yesterday, in the Assembly the NI Agriculture Minister spoke against the motion.

“I have listened to the points that Mr Elliott and other Members raised. I recognise their concerns, most of which are not new to me. Before I deal with Members’ points, I will set out some of the background to the Agricultural Wages Board, the cases for and against the board’s abolition, and the rationale for my recent decision not to abolish the board.”

And the reasons for the reversal of party policy since January, after consulting with ATGWU (Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union)?

I was not given bad advice. When I became Minister, I considered the issue of the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, and I soon realised that I had heard only one side of the argument. [added emphasis]

It’s probably worth pointing out that Michelle Gildernew is referring there to her statement of her party’s position, in January, on the AWB.

It’s not as quick a reversal of position as Hain’s was, but it’s still a reversal.

As for the motion, it was passed on a recorded vote

Question put.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 37; Noes 28.

AYES

Mr Beggs, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Hamilton, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Lord Morrow, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Savage, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Wells.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Bresland and Mr Elliott.

NOES

Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mrs M Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Doherty, Mr Durkan, Ms Gildernew, Mrs Hanna, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maginness, Mr P Maskey, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McHugh, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane.

Tellers for the Noes: Ms Anderson and Mr McCartney.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to bring forward the required legislation to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board.

But will the Minister now bring forward that legislation and abolish the AWB as the Assembly has resolved?… And, if not, then what’s the Assembly for?…

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  • The Raven

    This is a little off-topic…but I’ve only just managed to get a look at the earlier debate, under the Transitional Assembly. I’d like to ask this question:

    Will Giggles Gildernew, fresh from the outstanding range and selection of prime-cut f**k-ups she has made in with regard to the new Rural Development Programme, now finally take her Department to task and start to ensure that the major hindrance to the sustainability of agriculture in this region ISN’T the Department of Agriculture & Rural Development?

    There are many aspects of that debate that I’d like to cut-and-paste in here, for those who don’t have time to read it, but the following is the best example of the lot:

    “There are 19 statutory management requirements to be adhered to for CAP inspections…under the current system, eight different inspectors from DOE and DARD can visit one farmer over a matter of days. DARD appears to have a policy to look for faults during cross-compliance inspections. In 2005, £2·3 million was taken away from farmers as a result of errors and breaches. The comparable figure in the Republic of Ireland was £229,000.”

    And you wonder why I question the value of most of the FOI requests made in this region…?

    Apologies again for being O.T.

  • Pete Baker

    At least it’s broadly on topic, Raven.

  • outstanding in my field

    Michelle Gildernew is absoultely right not abolish this board and should ignore this Assembly vote.

    The AWB is an essential instrument to protect vulnerable workers rights especially seasonal and migrant workers. It not only regulates wage levels but accommodation costs for workers and is vital to ensure migrant workers in particular are not exploited. This motion and proposal is being put forward under the guise of reducing red tape by a small number of rich farmers who can afford to pay decent wages but do not wish to.

    Fair play to Giggles stick to your guns lass.

  • Pete Baker

    Which guns would those be, oimf?

    Before hearing the other side of the argument, Michelle Gildernew was sticking to her own party’s line and wanted to abolish the Board.

    But, having “soon realised that [she] had heard only one side of the argument”, she changed her position.

    Makes you wonder what policy discussion are like within certain parties.. and what other policies are constructed based on only one side of the argument..

  • Outstanding in my field

    The UFU had lobbied all parties heavily on their five point plan and presented a fairly one-sided rational for the abolition of this body which I assume she and Sinn Fein accepted at the time.

    But, as Minister, quite properly she seems to have consulted more widely before taking a decision and has taken the right one in my opinion.

    If you want to go down the road of pointing where various parties have changed their position you could be in for a long night.

  • Pete Baker

    oimf

    You seem to have missed the import of the Minister’s actual statement to the Assembly – on having previously decided on this issue based on hearing only one side of the argument.

    I doubt others will.

  • Outstanding in my field

    Can you reference the previous decision since taking up ministerial office?

    Who is straying off the point now. Is this a good decision or a bad one. By the way I am surprised at Anna Lo voting for the motion when the NI Committee for Ethnic Minorities have expressed support for the Boards retention to protect migrant workers.

  • Pete Baker

    “Can you reference the previous decision since taking up ministerial office?”

    Ah, a pedant. Well done.

    But read what I said again – “having previously decided on this issue based on hearing only one side of the argument” refers to Michelle Gildernew’s acknowledgement of her publicly stated support for the abolition of the AWB in January.

  • Outstanding in my field

    Dancing on the head of pin seems to be a hobby of yours, its clear that she is stating she changed her position since becoming minister and properly consulting before taking a decision, big deal. The right decision is made, that is point.

  • Pete Baker

    “its clear that she is stating she changed her position since becoming minister and properly consulting before taking a decision”

    Which is what I had actually said.

    And that new decision was a reversal of her previously stated position in January – her party’s position on this matter – before she “realised that [she] had heard only one side of the argument.”

  • Outstanding in my field

    Sweet Jesus! yes, get over it – “Minister changes position after recieving the facts” Good I say, this was the right move and she is big enough to do the right thing.

  • Pete Baker

    I’m not going to labour the point, oimf, but there were no new facts available after Michelle became a Minister that were not available in January.

    Except that she hadn’t, for some reason, heard the other side of the argument.

  • Outstanding in my field

    I expect becoming a minister and making real decisions, means looking in more detail at any given issue so that you do so from a fully informed position, this makes sense to me. You seem a bit obsessed on this because she is a Sinn Fein minister. Speaks more about you than the issue at hand.

  • Pete Baker

    “Speaks more about you than the issue at hand.”

    Yeah, oimf, that’s what the UDA supporters have been saying about me as well.

    But perhaps you’d like to indicate what new information was available to the Minister – that wasn’t available to the party previously?

    Beyond the briefing by the ATGWU, that is – which would also have been available to the party in advance of the MLA and MP becoming a Minister.

  • veritas

    Nice to see an admission that sinn fein made a policy decision and then promptly dropped it after the election.this raises a question about how you can have a policy on anything if you only have 50% of the facts and another about integrity-supporting something when you don’t have power because you think it is popular in the run up to an election,and,beating a hasty retreat when the election is over and you do have the power to change it.

  • Outstanding in my field

    I accept there has been a change here, but I think you will find that all the parties that have now moved from oppositional politics to Government will find themselves in similar situations on some issues, but will they be big enough when the time comes to do right thing if the facts are staring them in the face or will they still play to the gallery, or in this case a small number of well off farmers.

  • Pete Baker

    One more time, oimf, just for you.

    Your argument depends on the belief that there is some kind of information available to the Minister about the Agricultural Wages Board that was not freely available to her as an member of the Assembly, or indeed as a private individual.

    What sort of privileged information do you imagine that to be?

    Look through that debate again.

    There is no relevant information on the Agricultural Wages Board available to the Minister now that was not available then.

    The only difference, as she acknowledged, is that she had not heard the other side of the argument when she was espousing her party policy in January.

  • Rory

    “But will the Minister now bring forward that legislation and abolish the AWB as the Assembly has resolved?… And, if not, then what’s the Assembly for?…”

    I hope she doesn’t. Nor do I think she should. A majority voting in the Assembly in support of the Ulster Farmers’ Union is certainly not the only voice that needs to be considered.

    Rather we need to take account of the opinions of all the “stakeholders” (God! I loathe that term) whose livliehoods are likely to be affected by this abolition which means of course those of the agricultural labourers as well as the farmers.

    Why not a referendum of these “stakeholders” if we wish the democracy of majority rule to have ascendancy? It wouldn’t have anything to do with the much greater number of labourers than farmers by any chance? Or the powerful farmers’ lobby that has had a constant and influential access on unionist politicians ?

  • Mick Fealty

    Rory,

    It’s perfectly understandable for people to want the minister to overrule what they think is a wrong decision by the Assembly. That’s not the big issue. It is, rather, that in those circumstances, the Assembly is not, as is implied in the title of every MLA, a ‘Legislative Assembly’. It would be at most a very expensive Civic Forum. Or just a loud and histrionic Electoral College.

    I may be wrong here, but if this is the case, how exactly is the Executive to be held to account for its decisions? The courts I guess, but it makes for a very strange set up to have the judiciary (and NGOs who have deep enough pockets to launch the odd judicial review) as the only break on the government.

    The only conclusion you can come to is that it ain’t fit for purpose.

  • Rory

    I am not all unsympathetic to your thinking on the extreme limitations of the Assembly, Mick, and your description of it as perhaps little more than a Civic Forum is probably not too far from the old actualite.

    But whether or not it remains “fit for purpose” is I think a different matter if we consider that’s it real (and perhaps only useful) purpose was to allow armed conflict to cease and to provide a period of peace and stability whereby cooler minds could be brought to bear on the issue of future governance. In that regard – so far, so good.

  • Mick Fealty

    That was d’Hondt’s purpose, to make sure all were inside the power-sharing tent. Emasculation of (what is otherwise a not-terribly-independent) legislative body is surely beyond those means. A Civic Forum might at least have the virtue of containing more than a smattering of independent minds.

    We will have to see how the Minister handles this one from here.