The NFU has been slammed for supporting government plans to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board.

Speaking at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester on Tuesday (27 September), former DEFRA minister Hilary Benn said the government had made “a huge mistake” in announcing the board’s closure.

And he criticised the NFU for changing its stance backing DEFRA’s “shabby little plan”, having previously supported the AWB last time it was under threat.

“It’s a mistake to abolish it,” he told NFU president Peter Kendall at an NFU fringe event.

“Even Mrs Thatcher didn’t get rid of it when she got rid of the other wages boards.

“I have described it as a shabby little attack on low wage workers. It’s served farmers and farm workers well and I’m yet to hear an argument for getting rid of it.

Mr Benn said the current system provided “a reasonable floor” for low paid workers.

“In my three years as DEFRA minister I can’t remember a single farmer coming to me and asking to get rid if it. I think that tells you something.”

But Mr Kendall he was concerned having the AWB portrayed agriculture “as a backwater that needed protecting”.

“It’s not about pay grades but creating a professional, solid career structure,” he said.

“We want to professionalise the industry and for us the current structure is bureaucratic.

“We have to pay significantly above the minimum wage to get the skills we require and the current system is a cloud hanging over us.”

Ian Waddell, Unite national officer for rural and agricultural workers, said there needed to be a “proper consultation” over the AWB’s abolition.

Attending the meeting with several other Unite member, who all wore “Save the AWB” t-shirts, Mr Waddell said: “Abolishing the board is not in the coalition agreement. We are concerned getting rid of it will sweep all protection away [for farm workers].

“The industry is so divided [over the issue] there should be a proper consultation.

“There’s been a resounding silence on what will replace it, but once we have both sides of the argument we could have a proper plan.

“For the government to announce it with no detail is terrible. It’s such an important issue it deserves proper consultation.”

• What do you think of the AWB’s abolition? Have your say in our forum.