“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?…