Monday, 13 August 2012

Agricultural wages board pays out a little as employers seek to drive down farm labourers wages

Following what NFU lead negotiator Bib Fiddaman described as “particularly tough negotiations”, Unite has managed to get the England and Wales Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) to award a 2.8% pay rise for grades two and above and a 1.8% increase for grade one workers. The new rates start on October 1st.

Having submitted a claim for 5% no-one is celebrating. Meanwhile Unite are continuing the fight to retain the AWB, which remains the agricultural worker’s number one weapon in defence of their pay and conditions.

The union’s claim was based on a well-researched paper highlighting commodity prices
showing the ‘Total Income for Farming’ (TIFF) leaped by £1.126 bn or 25% in real terms in 2011. And with over 62% of the overall £5.5bn total coming from tax-payers’ money then not only is their an economic case for a decent rise but a moral one. All of which has implications for the long-term future of an industry that is failing to attract youngsters and relies heavily on an ageing workforce. 

“The outcome is disappointing, our representatives were outvoted by the NFU and
the independent members on the board. Farm workers are already struggling to make ends meet, often having to choose between paying for fuel or food and this is going to make the next year a real struggle. We were hoping for a larger increase,” said Cath Speight, Unite’s national officer for agriculture.

The possibility of there being no AWB in 2013 threatens however to make the increase the last some of the 150,000 workers covered under its agreement obtain for a while. That’s clearly the hope of the Horticultural Trades Association, which has written to Defra concerned it may “have to face these unnecessary cost increases next year.” In fields across England and Wales farm workers will be faced with asking their employers for a rise and there will be no legal back-up to get one.

As a result Unite has reinvigorated its campaign to retain the AWB, which with the Welsh Assembly opposed has no official ending date. Parliamentary procedures also require public consultation before a final vote in the House of Commons and Lords. With the Liberal Democrats having not included its abolition in their manifesto, Unite  
Is working with their agricultural spokesperson Andrew George to organise a meeting with the party’s MPs and Peers.

“This is not over, we are far from finished,” said Cath Speight “and I’d urge everyone to get involved as this is about paying farm workers decent wages so that they can produce the food we need to feed ourselves.”

New rates

Grade 1 – Initial Grade- £6.21 per hour (2p above National Minimum Wage)
·         Grade 2 - Standard worker - £6.96 per hour
·         Grade 3 - Lead worker - £7.26 per hour
·         Grade 4 - Craft Grade - £8.21 per hour
·         Grade 5 - Supervisory Grade - £8.70 per hour
·         Grade 6 - Farm Management Grade - £9.40 per hour

Whisky galore

Traditional means of producing Scottish whisky remain alive and well on the Scottish west coast island of Mull at the Tobermory Distillery. This opened in 1798 and is best known for its Ledaig and Tobermory Single Malt whiskies made exclusively on-site from malted barley. 

The distillery is only yards from the harbour of arguably Britain’s most picturesque village of Tobermory, made famous with younger television viewers through the BBC Children’s Programme Balamory.

With the local tourist industry struggling, then in a village of less than 800 people the distillery, with eight full and two part-time staff, all local people, is like other distilleries in Scottish rural locations, an important employer. Scottish whisky is currently enjoying strong sales in newly emerging markets in Asia, South America and Africa. Diageo, producers of Bells and Johnnie Walker has just announced an investment of £1bn, which will create up to 1,000 new jobs.

A 24-hour five-day a week four stage production process, consisting of malting, mashing, fermentation and distillation, is needed to manufacture 750,000 litres of spirit annually.  Much of the machinery is old and well used. This though wasn’t why production had stopped when I visited. Two years ago a six-month halt saw workers competing to sweep an already spotless courtyard.

“We have a private water supply up the hill and when it dries up we just have to wait. We can’t take water from the tap as that’s full of chemicals and we need pure water,” explained chargehand Tom Watt, whose brewing skills, like all employees, have been learnt from the previous generation of workers.

Water, barley, sourced locally wherever possible, and yeast are the three ingredients in whisky. The individual flavours are the result of the drying process after barley has been converted into a simple sugar, the use of heavily peated fires resulting in the Ledaig whisky tasting very different from the natural drying Tobermory whisky.

Both though are distilled using a unique technique. Due to a lack of space the ‘swan-neck’ well-used flavour-adding copper pot stills used at other distilleries have been replaced by a double-turn. This helps add an additional twist to the flavour at the end of a production process lasting between 80-90 hours. At the conclusion of which says Watt “the art of collecting the stills can also play an important part in determining the flavour and quality of the spirit before it goes for maturing.”

This fifth stage of production takes much longer and whilst the 10 year-old Ledaig is left to mature in former Spanish sherry casks the same age Tobermory spends its life in former bourbon casks from the US. In another flavour twist the 15 year-old Tobermory though spends time in both.

Watt says this makes “the production of Scotch Whisky an art, one acquired over hundreds of years and which we are very proud of.” We’ll drink to that! 

Sheffield council housing returns to council

In the largest return to date, Sheffield City Council has agreed to retake control of its former housing stock a year earlier than originally planned. The move has delighted housing campaigners seeking to reverse the long-term decline in council housing, which was once the cornerstone of Britain’s housing market.

In February eight out of nine tenants with Sheffield Homes, an arms length management organisation (ALMO) established in 2004 to manage housing on behalf of Sheffield City Council, voted to become council tenants once again. At the time the council’s contract with the ALMO was set to end in March 2014, but now it has been agreed to integrate services by March 2013 and end the relationship.


The 42,000 homes transfer is the largest so far in an emerging trend where Councils retake control of their former housing stock.

Rotherham Council retook control from an ALMO on 1 July and in Leicestershire, Charnwood Borough Council is set to dissolve Charnwood Neighbourhood Housing and again manage its 5,700 homes. Consultation with tenants had shown three quarters favouring a return.

Sheffield tenant Shirley Frost is a member of the national Defend Council Housing (DCH) campaigning coalition of tenants’ associations, trade unions, councillor’s and MPs.

She said: “It’s great news that the ALMO is ending earlier. It was undemocratic and distanced tenants from the decision makers. ALMO’s are one step towards privatising housing and are part of a strategy designed to sell off council services and facilities.

Tenants are coming back round to wanting Council Housing and there are plenty who would welcome the chance to have similar housing if it was made more widely available.”

DCH instead wants direct public investment in ‘a new generation of first-class housing, with lower rents, secure tenancies and a landlord tenants can hold to account.’ In line with this 44 MPs, of which just one is a coalition government member, have signed an early day motion on ‘Housing Emergency – Time for an Alternative.’ Britain has 2.5 million council homes and the MPs are concerned that five million people are on waiting lists for social housing.

Yet with radical changes announced by the Government on council housing finance there seems little likelihood of a return to the days when 168,000 council houses were built in 1950.

The decline set in when a generation later under Margaret Thatcher the ‘right to buy’ saw more than two million tenants take advantage of significant discounts to purchase their homes. 

Labour maintained the policy and introduced large-scale ‘stock transfers’ to ALMO’s and housing associations, which could then access refurbishment finance. Sheffield Homes obtained £700 million under such an arrangement. 

Seeking to revive ‘the right to buy” the Government is now offering council tenants a discount of up to 60%. Councils face selling a £100,000 home for £40,000 and meanwhile any new homes built from the receipts will see new tenants required to pay 80% of local market rents. 

Meantime councils are facing restrictions on the amount they can borrow and under the Localism Act 2011 have to make council housing self-financing. There is also a £257 million bill for necessary maintenance - which putting off till later may see it rise-  to ensure all properties reach the  ‘decent homes’ standard. Rents will be going up 7.8% next year and future rises are guaranteed under the Government’s harmonisation policy in which council rents will converge with the housing association sector by 2015-16. 

As to whether the Council would be considering future council housing construction the spokesperson couldn’t say but referred to “our work with Sheffield Housing Company to build 2,300 new homes for sale, shared homes and rent over the next fifteen years.” Phase one is just about to start, but of the 305 new homes being built on land the council has put into the project just 25 will be for affordable rent. 

“We can deliver a first class housing service by making it easier for tenants to get the housing and other council services they need, spending a bigger proportion of money on front line services and homes and giving tenants and leaseholders a bigger say” said the spokesperson.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Deal or no deal? London branch sec gives his opinion.

Local Government pension deal
Why I am Voting to reject it 

As we speak over a million workers are to be balloted on whether to accept the local Government pension deal or not. 

This is a deal that will effect all those who are currently in receipt of the pension, those whose pension is deferred and those of us still paying into the scheme which amounts to some 4.6million workers.    

The Pension scheme is NOT in trouble

The local government pension scheme is not in financial difficulty it currently has assets of £150billion. It currently takes in £4billion a year more than it pays out. 

Four years ago £1billion was stolen off us as many were forced to pay more and to get less supposedly “in order to protect the scheme for a generation”. 

In light of the above there is NO reason for a single worker to work longer pay more or get less. If this deal is not as good as or better than our existing scheme then we should reject it. 

Now just four years on and the employers are already coming back for more. 

Governments Real Agenda 
The real drive for the change is the government stated attempt to save £900m. Nowhere in the new scheme does it state that the government has not saved that money (presumably that’s why they are happy with it). If £900 million has been taken out of the scheme it can only come from one place that’s our pockets or the employers. The employers will not have to pay more so it must be coming from us one way or another.     
When we started the pension fight, it was to stop us having to work longer, pay more and or get less. These should be the key tests on accepting or rejecting the deal.  

Will I have to work longer?  

* effectively for those under the age of 55 your new normal retirement age will now rise in line with the new state pension age which is due to increase to 67 then 68 and possibly on to 70.

This means that most of us will have to work 1, 2, 3, and even 5 years longer than now.  If you have to work longer you will of course be paying your pension contributions for longer.  Many will rightly shiver at the idea of having to work on and on. You have to wonder if the employers/government agenda is for us to work till we drop dead, that way they won’t have to pay out any pension at all!  

For many they wont simply be able to work on (currently the average age of retirement in the LGPS is 62). If you retire before your Normal age of retirement and are allowed too, then you will lose approx 5% of your pension for each year you go “early”. (Leave 5 years early you lose at least 25%) in effect for many this is making us work longer or get less.  

To accept this deal would be to concede on two of our key demands. 

What will I get in pension when I retire?  

For workers already retired and those of us to follow we will now get less than before (15% according to the TUC). 

This is because our pensions will only be up rated in Line with the lower Consumer price index inflation rate rather than the Retail Price Index rate. 

The TUC has estimated that this measure alone has stolen £15 billion off the current pensioners and those yet to retire.   


What is the new scheme?

* The final salary scheme is to be replaced with a career average scheme. 

Your current pension is based on your final salary when you retire and you earn 1/60th of your salary in pension each year (accrual rate). (1/60th of final salary x length of service = pension). In 2006 we fought to keep this scheme and opposed the career average scheme. 

The unions are now claiming that the Career average scheme is better, because it has a better Accrual rate of 1/49th and will be up rated by the CPI inflation rate. 

Given that most workers end up earning more in their last years of working than when they first started, they will be rightly suspicious that taking their average salary over their whole career can be better than using their final salary. 

Even on the information we have been given once you have worked for 20 years or more then you will be worse off with a Career average scheme. 

*no increase in contribution rates workers earning less than £43k 

This is good for those of us earning less than £43k. We know in other schemes workers are being asked to pay more. However we’ve being paying more for the last four years and had no pay rise for three of those years. 

In light of the other attacks on our pension is this more of a case of being told “don’t worry we wont rob out of your front pocket, but we will take it from your back pocket instead”, either way its still robbery! 

*Part time staff will now pay based on there actual earnings not the full time equivalent. 

This is an improvement as it was always unfair for part time staff to have to pay a contribution rate based on the full time equivalent earnings.   

*Staff transferring to the private sector can remain in the pension scheme as a right from April 2014

This is an improvement as at the moment private companies are only required to come up with a “broadly comparable scheme”. It’s not clear who will pay for this the councils or the profit making companies? 

* There will now be a 50/50 option now 

Effectively you can pay half the monthly contribution rate and get half the benefits for a period of time! This is supposed to be a help to workers struggling to be able to make some short term monthly savings as long as they accept giving up half the pension for the years they opt out, in other words, save now pay later! 

The reason why we are struggling is because we’ve had no pay rise for three years, if the employers are concerned for our monthly pay packets why not just give us a rise!!    

* Future costs of the scheme yet to be resolved 

There is to be in place an automatic mechanism of who pays if the costs of the scheme go up in the future. However how much and who pays what is to be left until after this scheme is accepted. This is a recipe for “vote now, pay more later”!  

In the health service they ended up with a deal where the employers were protected from increases and all the increased costs now fall on the shoulders of the workers.  

In my opinion as staff side secretary and a union member there is no need for us work longer get less or pay more. 

The local government scheme is perfectly healthy and this is just another attempt by the government to steal money from the pockets of public sector workers and must be resisted. 

Some may think it’s not as bad as they were threatening, however that’s like being asked to be grateful to a burglar who threatened to take your wallet, telly and computer and now says he will only take your wallet! 

We should make our position clear - not a penny more off our pensions and not a day longer to be worked. 

If some union leaders think this is what a good deal can be achieved through negotiation, imagine what could be won if we fight alongside all the others still fighting to protect their pensions. 

I for one will be voting NO to this deal. 

Danny Hoggan
Unite Greenwich 2050 
Branch Secretary 

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Refit for purpose: green deal or no deal?

From Big Issue in the North magazine 

The results of a York refurbishment project have cast doubts on the government’s flagship energy and carbon saving programme for housing.

Due to start this winter, the Green Deal will allow for the installation of new energy saving measures without any up-front spending by home owners and tenants. The incentive to do this relies on people being able to meet the costs through savings on future energy bills. The fear is that costs will exceed savings and installation in the fourteen million homes that need to be retrofitted will stall. Consequently, Britain will struggle to meet its target to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

The majority of Britain’s 26.7 million homes were built in the 1930s. To test how the Green Deal might work in practice the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) conducted a refurbishment experiment at one of its two-storey, semi-detached homes in York from that period.

JRF undertook two refits at 67 Temple Avenue. First they spent £18,250 on, amongst other things, rewiring and plastering, loft insulation and a new heating and hot water system. Residents would have remained at home during the works. In the second, JRF increased the total spending to £56,000 by adding in a solar hot water system, high-performance doors and windows, underfloor and external wall insulation.  Under this radical refit, residents would have required temporary alternative accommodation.

The Government’s Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) is complicated, but estimates energy efficiency and cost savings from proposed refits. To assess how 67 Temple Avenue performed, Leeds Met University Centre for the Built Environment evaluated the energy efficiency rating of the refits using a forensic visual and thermographic survey.

Under the standard refit, CO2 emissions fell from 5,751kg a year to 3,121, and then fell to just 1,269 when all the works had been completed. This was 27% and 29% less than SAP predictions.

One of the biggest problems was that cavity wall insulation levels were found to be uneven. This was despite JRF employing a registered experienced installer and a committed and knowledgeable team during the whole project. The development charity is concerned that current skills levels in the building trade may result in predicted improvement levels across the country being even less than they achieved in York.

In terms of reduced costs in heating, hot water and lighting these fell from £803 a year to £423 and then down again to £163, a drop of £380 and £640 respectively. In the vast majority of Green Deal cases a loan to home owners and tenants from an energy supplier will be used to pay for improvements. Although the amount has yet to be announced, there will be an interest charge. Even without one the combined savings at Temple Avenue would take 48 and 87.5 years to meet the costs of the two refits.

Owen Daggett, Sustainability Manager for Joseph Rowntree believes “the findings from this report need to be understood in terms of risk to the consumer.”

JRF are now sending the report to a cross sector of policy makers and practitioners including the Federation of Master Builders. (FMB)

The FMB has cautiously welcomed the Green Deal and a spokesperson said it was “working to raise members awareness in order to deliver the skills and knowledge needed for successful energy saving refurbishments.”

However, FMB believes making Britain’s homes more energy efficient would be better achieved by making it cheaper for householders to upgrade their homes by introducing a cut in VAT on home repair and maintenance work.

It also backs a campaign called Energy Bill Revolution, whose supporters are calling for the £40 billion that the government hopes to raise form carbon taxes to be spent on energy efficiency programmes. They say this would upgrade more than 600,000 homes annually and rescue households from fuel poverty, whilst also slashing carbon emissions.

A spokesperson for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, which will oversee the Green Deal, said they were confident of its success “as our modelling shows many properties will have the costs of improvements compensated by savings in energy costs and for the poorest households subsidies will be available.”