The Prince of Wales is facing questions about his commitment to fighting rural poverty after a manager at his Duchy of Cornwall business empire backed reforms to reduce agricultural wages.
Trade union leaders have written to the prince calling on him to clarify his position on the Agricultural Wages Board, which is set to be abolished later this year in a move which opponents say will cost farm labourers more than £235m in lost income and entitlements over the next decade.
The views of the heir to the throne, whose own penchant for writing to ministers has previously seen him accused of meddling in government affairs, are being sought after the manager of Duchy of Cornwall Nursery called the AWB “archaic” and its overtime rates “ridiculous”.
The Duchy, a private estate whose profits fund the living expenses of the heir to the throne and his dependents, including the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry, last year distributed a surplus of £18.3m to Prince Charles. It paid £3.6m in wages and staff costs to its 130 employees.
Angie Coombs, the general manager of the nursery, which employs 30 people and recently received a £1.3m facelift, responded to a consultation exercise by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs by describing the AWB as “archaic and longer fit for purpose”.
Complaining that employee protection had improved considerably since the board was set up after the Second World War, Mrs Coombs wrote: “Why should agricultural workers be treated any differently and in some cases, [receive] superior benefits?” She added: “It’s a huge issue when agricultural (or in my case horticultural) businesses are required to operate under these regimes, which are costly. The overtime rates are ridiculous and, when running a seven-day-week business, make it impossible to budget sensibly.”
Under the current pay rates set by the AWB, the 140,000 farm workers in England and Wales receive an hourly rate ranging from £6.21 for the lowest grade to £8.70 for managers. Overtime rates range from £9.32 to £13.05. The national minimum wage currently stands at £6.19 per hour.
The Duchy, which directly employs 10 “estate workers” and 30 nursery staff, would be likely to see a significant fall in its wage bill if the plans go ahead to end the AWB.
Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, said: “It’s deeply alarming that any part of the Duchy of Cornwall would play any part in driving down the pay of already low-paid agricultural workers.
“Prince Charles is a supporter of the countryside so we would expect him to share our concerns about the Government’s attempt to allow big business a free hand over our rural future.”
In a statement, the Duchy said: “The response submitted by the Duchy Nursery represented its view as a commercial business in the field of horticulture, not the Duchy as a whole or The Prince of Wales.”