Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Freer.)
I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to bring this debate to the Chamber today on what is a very difficult subject that clearly needs to be raised publicly so that the causes can be dealt with and the issue erased.
My lovely constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire has recently been rocked by a small number of suicides within our rural community. Small in number they may be, but they have had a massively disturbing effect on the families of the bereaved and on the communities that surround them. The farming community, not just in my constituency but right across the country, is tight knit, hard working and supportive of one other. We all know that farming can be a lonely occupation, that the working area is often remote, and that isolated working is clearly the norm and certainly not the exception.
Regrettably, when looking at the figures of the National Farmers Union, I found that suicide among farmers is one of the highest of any occupation. It is male-dominated, especially for those under the age of 40. Statistics prove this, but, sadly, every statistic is not just a number but a human being and suicide has devastating effects on a family, a community and an industry. Such a loss has an effect not just immediately but for years, if not decades, after.
Last week in this place we acknowledged Mental Health Awareness Week. Well, it is about time. It is about time we talked about mental health and the pressures it brings to bear. For far too long, we, as a country, have been fully aware and prepared to talk publicly about physical health, but until the past few years we have looked on mental health as one of those taboo subjects.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He is making an excellent point about mental health. What can we do? Let me explain why I ask that question. I am very worried about a farmer in my constituency, which is as rural as my hon. Friend’s, whose cattle have been infected with TB by badgers, making him feel very unsure about where his future lies. What can we do to help in that sort of situation?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. My view is that his farmer is certainly not alone. If my hon. Friend sticks with me through my speech, I am sure that he will hear many remedies and suggestions, which I hope the Minister will pick up on.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this timely Adjournment debate. I do not know whether he watches the farming programme on the BBC on Sunday night. On one or two occasions, it has highlighted some of the points that he made in his earlier remarks about farmers being isolated and under stress, particularly when animal disease is about. Very often, farmers find they have no one to consult or talk to because they are totally isolated. Will he tell us what his perception is later in his speech? Does he think that those farmers can access the services they need? Very often, they are very remote from a hospital.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising such a good point. Clearly, this issue is shared right across the country, including in his constituency and in mine. I will bring forward many points in my speech, which I hope the Minister will pick up on. This matter is the subject of television programmes and it is often talked about outside this place, but this House needs to be talking about it as well and Ministers and MPs need to be doing something about it.
May I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter before the House? I spoke to him before this debate and reminded him of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions the week before last when I asked the Minister about suicides in the farming community. I represent Strangford, which is a rural constituency with large towns in the middle. I am aware of the suicides among the farming community and the pressures—financial pressures and family pressures—that bring on anxiety and depression. At DEFRA questions, I suggested to the Minister that there is the opportunity to have parish halls or community halls in rural communities available to address these issues as a one-stop shop where people can go to talk to someone about their anxiety and issues that concern them. There could be somewhere like this available in nearly every constituency. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that that might be a way forward?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very good point. That is certainly one of the remedies that we need to be looking at. I was here for DEFRA questions when he asked his question, and I was delighted that the Minister at the Dispatch Box gave a very positive reply. I can see that the whole of DEFRA is very keen to do something about this endemic problem.
For so long, as I said, mental health was a taboo subject, never to be mentioned and preferably whispered about or, better still, even to be swept under the carpet. Thank goodness we are all now talking about it. There are television programmes on it. We can get to the problem and get the remedies in place to ensure that not just the farming community but other communities around the country do not have to go through such tragic events.
We are very lucky that we have many organisations that one can turn to when requiring help. I recently had the good fortune to visit the local branch of the Samaritans, based in Llandrindod Wells. I met the manager, Mrs Alison Davies, who introduced me to an outstanding team of volunteers who work both on the telephones and in their associated charity shop. They do a superb job with call cover as an avenue for discussion. They provide someone to talk to, 24 hours a day and covering all communities, whether rural or urban, near or far.
I regularly attend events organised by Mrs Elaine Stephens and her team, who run the Brecon and Radnorshire branch of RABI—the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution. This organisation raises much-needed funds for farmers to call on when they have fallen on hard times, and helps to alleviate financial pressures, where needed, easing the stress and worry caused to those in the farming community. There is also the Farming Community Network, which does so much in Wales and across the United Kingdom, together with the Christian Centre for Rural Wales, based on the Royal Welsh Showground.
I am very proud to mention the outstanding work that the young farmers clubs do. They carry out a tremendous amount of work for their communities.
I really do congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this debate to the House—it is of crucial importance. This does not apply just to rural seats such as his but also to mine, an urban seat surrounded by countryside—urbe in rus. He mentioned the young farmers clubs. Does he agree that we need to double down in focusing on the mental health of young people, in particular, because so often we miss these problems, particularly now, in this 24-hour culture with all the social media, where they are particularly vulnerable?
My hon. Friend raises an extremely good point. The young farmers clubs’ age group goes up to 26. As I said, the majority of suicides in the farming community are among those under 40. There is just a small gap between the very young and the boundaries up to 40 years of age. The young farmers clubs play a vital role. We have to be careful for and look after all ages.
After these tragic circumstances, young farmers club members from the Radnor, Brecknock and Montgomeryshire branches have taken it on their own backs to do the three highest peaks challenge in their counties for Mind and the DPJ Foundation. Mind, as everybody in the Chamber knows, is an excellent organisation that carries out outstanding work across the country.
The DPJ Foundation is a charity that has come to my attention only since my area has been rocked by recent events. It was set up in 2016 by Emma Picton-Jones from west Wales, whose husband Daniel, who was under 40, tragically took his own life and left Emma a young widow and mother of two small children. The foundation aims to support people from rural communities with poor mental health, especially men in the agriculture sector. It does an amazing job of providing swift agriculture-focused support, and the service is entirely funded by fundraising. I am sure the whole House will join me in congratulating Emma on the amazing courage she has shown with her foundation and the youth in our community for taking such initiative through their young farmers clubs.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. This issue concerns us in North Devon, as a largely rural and farming community. Sadly, across Devon and the south-west, the number of suicides is higher than the national average. That is partly being tackled by the excellent work he describes. Does he agree that a lot of good work can also be done in the local community, by talking, listening and teaching people to recognise the signs of those who are crying out for help—particularly men, who are so bad at expressing it?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. His constituency is very similar to mine. The point I will hang my hat on is his final one. Men will not speak out about the fact that they have mental health issues and admit it to themselves or their families. The community around them are vital, with support from Government and charities.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me a second time. He has referred to young farmers clubs in his area. The Young Farmers Clubs of Ulster—our equivalent in Northern Ireland—are very active in providing social occasions and leisure activities, which are an outlet for the clear anxiety among farmers. They are very caring clubs and do great work. Young farmers clubs are very much the same in other parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his endorsement. Young farmers clubs are a beacon in our countryside and do so much good; I am sure the Minister will agree. Sadly, we have seen funding cut for young farmers from local authorities in our area—but, my goodness me, £1 spent on young farmers clubs is returned to the community tenfold, twentyfold or one hundredfold. I cannot praise young farmers clubs enough.
I mentioned the terrible circumstances of my asking for this debate. I have also mentioned some of the outstanding organisations and charities that do so much to help address these issues, but now I need to turn to the reasons that drive people to their lowest point and, ultimately, to take their own lives. The one fact that has clearly shone through in my knowledge and research is that there is no one issue or set of circumstances, and therefore there is no one answer. We have to tackle the causes from many different angles. Some of the causes, pressures and worries are small, but when layered and compounded, they become a huge problem for the individual.
I am sure many were surprised when I asked that a DEFRA Minister respond to the debate, rather than a Minister from the Department of Health and Social Care. The reason for that is clear: we all know about the remedies and wonderful help available, but if we can take away the burden before it becomes too big, we will alleviate the need for support at that late stage—or, in some cases, when it is all too late.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is responding to the debate. He is not only a very capable Minister who has worked in several Departments during his distinguished carrier, but he is also a farmer. He lives within the farming community and was born into it. He understands at first hand the pressures on farmers, the isolation of the occupation and therefore the worries that, for some, can turn into an unbearable burden.
I am exceedingly grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. As a Welsh MP, he will be aware of my constituency having many farmers right across it, as well as heavily deindustrialised areas, so farming is very much in line with the wider sector. We still have sheep sales every August, which bring all the community together and become a wider discussion about what is happening in the farming community. Something that comes across consistently and clearly is that people do not really understand the sector. When someone attends the local hospital in my constituency and says, “I’m having problems with x, y and z,” the person they see says, “Well, why are you having a problem? You’re a farmer. You’ve got plenty of money. You’ve got no problems. There are no particular challenges.”
Whenever I talk to younger farmers or owners who have been in the industry for 40 or 50 years, it comes across that people often do not understand the pressures facing the farming industry, the farmers working in it and their wives and children. They do not understand the expectation to be up at dawn and go to bed when the sun goes down, with a constant merry-go-round of pressure. They are running businesses, but most people do not think of farms as businesses, and they have all those same pressures. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a need to improve understanding about the very active and live pressures facing the industry?
I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is great to see somebody on the Labour Benches having such an understanding of his rural community, so I thank him for that.
I have been touched by the many messages of thanks I received when news of this Adjournment debate was announced. It certainly shows that the people in our communities and our constituencies want this subject tackled. I was extremely touched to receive several letters and emails from farmers in my own constituency, who have been brave enough—yes, I say brave enough—to write to me to tell me of their concerns and experiences, and how some of them have come very close to the edge because of their worries.
Of course, I am not going to divulge who has contacted me, but I have taken a few extracts from five letters so that the House can hear of the worry directly from the farmer. The first is:
“I started farming in 1979 and built the farm up to today where I am running 450 acres, 1200 breeding sheep and 70 cattle. We should have a comfortable lifestyle—but we do not! As long as there is food on the table and we can pay the bills, I am happy, but this is seldom the case”.
The second is:
“I am dismayed at the way farmers are being put under more and more pressure by the increasing demands for futile records which accomplish no logical sense, either in the form of animal welfare, animal distress or traceability. The ever-increasing pressure of inspections and financial penalties from an industry that cannot take more...financial burdens”.
From a 20-year-old:
“Paperwork has got out of control not only do I struggle to make ends meet but I am now taking on a third job—Where do we go when it all gets too much? Nowhere because we work 365 days a year”.
Another extract says:
“Some may not know they have issues and don’t recognise the signs (as I did) and for some—
for too many—
“it’s been too late.”
“I used to spend one day a week walking—I found this very therapeutic. But I am unable to do this now owing to the pressure of work and all the deadlines of form filling and keeping record books up to date. At times during the last six months I have not wanted to live—The progression from this is to commit suicide.”
Those are powerful messages, as I am sure the whole House will agree, and those people are only a tiny fraction of those concerned in the industry.
Minister, I am afraid it is time to turn to your Department and to the agencies you have under your control. I would like to be clear that failures here are mirrored in devolved Governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This is not a witch hunt, but we would like to see the waving of a magic wand over some of your agencies and the bonfire of some of the layers of rules and regulations—
Order. I am sure the hon. Gentleman means “his”—the Minister’s agencies and the Minister’s Department—rather than “your”, which would refer to the Chair. I am sure the hon. Gentleman means that, and I am just guiding him in the right direction.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I have been told off in the most polite manner. I accept that fully of course and apologise.
Certainly those outside would like the Minister to have a bonfire of some of the layers of rules and regulations. That would be a massive relief for so many people.
There are external factors as well. I am not going to spend time talking about the weather, which is always a great concern to farmers in both the uplands and the lowlands. It is of course only God almighty that can make a difference there. Saying that, however, when extremes such as drought or heavy snow happen, Government support is a must and the guarantee of support in such extremes would lift a burden. I am not going to dwell on the fact that farmers have access to the means of committing suicide—guns, poisons and so on—because I do not want farmers to think that these means will be subject to further regulation or removal altogether, which would be an impossibility in agriculture, adding more stress to them. Such items are the tools of the trade in this occupation and they are necessities on their farms.
As I have mentioned, many of the problems that put pressure on our farmers are small but, when compounded with others and dwelt on over many long and lonely hours, they become huge. We are all aware of the volatile markets and the problems that low prices at livestock markets can cause, including difficulties with cash flow and profitability. The same can be said for arable prices and the difference that a good or bad harvest can make.
Cash flow is always a worry. There was a time when the local farmer who was awaiting a subsidy cheque or payment from the auctioneer could go into the local bank branch and ask for an immediate overdraft to see them through the difficult weeks or months until the payment arrived. Today, there are very few local bank branches. A decision on a bank extension can now take many weeks, and the decision is taken many miles away—sometimes hundreds of miles away—whereas the local bank manager used to know the farm, the farmer, their parents and their grandparents.
We have already heard that TB tests are a worry for farmers. Apart from not knowing whether they will be closed down if a reactor is found, there are also the financial and cash-flow pressures, together with seeing the cattle themselves being stressed by having to go through the tests. Yet we seem to be far away from eradicating the disease for good, and with little light at the end of the tunnel.
A TB test is just one of the inspections that farmers have to contend with. There are now many inspections from different agencies, and the rules and regulations that must be complied with appear immense: the checking of the medicine book, the ear tag records, the movement licences, the Health and Safety Executive requirements—the list goes on and on. Rules and regulations and reasons for checks appear to be added daily, while the original rules and regulations never appear to be removed. Those inspections come with a heavy burden and, while farmers want to be farmers, they seem to be spending all their time filling in forms and completing administration. Believe me, Madam Deputy Speaker, anyone can make mistakes in their administration—even MPs, as I know all too well.
If a farmer makes a mistake, there will be a fine, a retention or a financial burden of some kind. If an agency makes a mistake or a payment is delayed, no interest or compensation is paid for its mistake—often, there is not even a deadline for them to report back to the farmer. That could be deemed to be very one-sided indeed. We see endless and sometimes pointless regulation, introduced with little warning and no clear plan for how it will work or the impact it will have on the industry. A prime example is the removal of general licences in England in the last few weeks.
A point that has regularly been raised with me is the constant bashing that farmers have taken in the media and the onslaught they receive on social media, which take their worries to a whole new level. One day, eating meat is healthy for us; the next day, it will kill us. One week, livestock farming is the cause of climate change; the next week, it is the best way of saving the natural environment. There are so many mixed messages for a farmer to dwell on during those many hours alone doing their job.
I have mentioned the constant form filling, which in recent years has moved online. That move online has been great, as long as one has broadband. Clearly, in areas such as mine and those of other Members, we have not seen joined-up thinking; the direction of travel has moved, but the preparations have not been made in the original broadband performance. That just adds extra stress for a farmer—another headache and another cause for concern.
I am sure that, having heard the points already raised, the Minister will not be surprised to know that, according to the British Association for Counselling and Psycho- therapy, recent research by the Farm Safety Foundation found that 81% of farmers under 40 believe that mental health is the biggest hidden problem facing farmers today, and 92% believe that promoting good mental health is crucial if lives are to be saved and farmers kept safe.
I have already said that I know the Minister will totally understand the content of the debate and my speech. The concerns will be familiar to him and so will the issues that need to be addressed. If by raising this issue in this House in the Palace of Westminster our farmers’ calls are listened to and actions are taken, and if we manage to stop one farmer from taking their own life, our time here will have been well spent.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) on nominating this topic for debate. It is important that, at a time when politics is divided and polarised, the House should spend some time discussing an issue on which there is an obvious consensus across the parties in the way we have seen demonstrated this afternoon.
I speak as a farmer’s son. I live in and represent a rural and sparsely populated series of communities. My wife is a veterinary surgeon and practises in a very mixed veterinary practice in Orkney. My friends and neighbours in Orkney and Shetland include many farmers. I see for myself the many pressures that can lead them to this quite dreadful state of affairs, so it is good that parliamentarians speak about these things.
I was elected to this House for the first time in 2001, in the aftermath of the foot and disease outbreak. The mental anguish—I use the term advisedly—of many of those who had their flocks and herds slaughtered was something we saw right across the country. Fortunately, it never reached as far as Orkney and Shetland, but I was very aware, as I went around different communities in May 2001, that I had to be so careful. Every time I got on a plane or came off a ferry, my shoes and the rest were disinfected. I just did not go to places where it was possible that I might cause some sort of contagion, and that was in an area that, thankfully, was free from it. I know the stress suffered by friends of ours whose dairy farm just outside Lockerbie in Ecclefechan was in the middle of a hotspot. Someone who is not a farmer and does not have that background does not understand the emotional investment farmers have in livestock in particular.
We have to recognise that suicide is the last and tragic link in a chain that starts with poor mental health not being treated because there are not adequate services for the people who rely on them. That is very often the case, because too many of the mental health services we rely on in country areas are designed by people in towns and cities who do not have the breadth of understanding of what is needed. On this, as on so many other issues, everything I see makes me think that if a decision can be taken in the local community, that should absolutely be done.
I also know from my own experience as a constituency Member of Parliament that when one is a part of a small community and someone takes their own life, the impact on the community is quite disproportionate to anything one might understand in a city. From the time we spend in London, we all hear that this or that train is delayed because somebody has taken their life by throwing themselves on to the line. In London, that just seems like something else that has happened, but when one is in a small community, although the tragedy for the family is very real, it is a tragedy not just for that family but the whole community.
As the hon. Gentleman comes from Brecon and Radnorshire, he will know of the good work done on this issue by the Welsh Assembly Member Kirsty Williams —as I said, it is very important that parliamentarians should speak about this issue. One of the most effective parliamentary interventions I have ever seen was when, in the early days of the Welsh Assembly, she spoke about the impact the suicide of farmers had had on the small community of Beulah.
For the Minister’s benefit, it is worth considering how farmers find themselves in this acute situation. The financial pressures of farming are there for all to see. There may be a handful of people who get rich on farming, but there have never been any in my family and I do not think I have known many among those I represent or with whom I grew up. For the first time ever a couple of years ago, I was allowed to see the books of my family farm on Islay. I have long suspected that if my parents had just sold the land and put the money in the post office, they would probably have got a better return on it, but people farm because they have a commitment to agriculture and because, for them, it is a way of life. It is as much a vocation as an occupation.
The financial pressures are severe. The bureaucracy has grown like Topsy over the years. The penalties that are visited on farmers who are not able to fill in the right form at the right time or with the right information are wholly disproportionate to the administrative nature of those forms, but that never seems to change.
At the heart of it, I think that the biggest root cause is geographic isolation. That is because agriculture as an industry has changed enormously. Most farms these days are one-man businesses. In a previous generation, there would have been a father, perhaps a son or two, farm workers and neighbours within easy reach, whereas now farms have been sold and amalgamated, so that geographically, people have become that much more isolated. Of course, that has a knock-on effect, because the network of neighbours around a farmer, which a generation ago would almost exclusively have been other farmers, will now include a much wider social mix. There will be people who have bought and moved into farmhouses on amalgamated farms. They will doubtless be good members of their community, but they do not share the same problems and pressures, so the isolation grows in that way.
Some of the changes that have contributed to the isolation are in themselves good. The fact that it is no longer socially acceptable to drink and drive has to be seen as a good thing, but it has meant the closure of an awful lot of pubs in rural areas. That was one place where there was a bit of social interaction, which would have gone some way to mitigating the isolation.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire spoke about the important role of young farmers clubs. I very much concur with that, but I think the average age of a farmer in Britain is now 59. Even in most young farmers clubs, that would stretch the definition of a young farmer. The growth in country areas of the Men’s Sheds movement—I have an excellent example of this in Orkney—is a good way in which men can get together and share some of their experiences in a safe environment, and should very much be encouraged. Without generalising, it has to be said that farmers are not good at talking about their mental health, so we should be particularly appreciative of those who are prepared to do it.
I place on record my admiration for Gary Mitchell, who, until earlier this year, was vice-president of the National Farmers Union of Scotland. He stood down at the AGM in February, but at the time, he spoke about the way in which he had struggled with mental health problems as a consequence of taking on too much—it was all getting too much. In February, he wrote—it is worth reflecting on these words:
“Last summer was a very difficult time; trying to balance representing the union and keeping things afloat on my own dairy farm, my own mental health took a real downturn. My farm at home was in crisis and my work with the NFUS became an escape from everything else that was going wrong at home. I couldn’t face up to the problems and glossed over it all.”
Gary began to fill his head with doubts about whether he was good enough for the union and lost confidence in his ability to run the home farm. Eventually, he decided it was time to resign from the union, and he wrote further:
“After it was announced I was leaving, I remember farmers picking up the phone to give me their support. Farming can be a lonely business, so it is so important to have others there at these times”.
The kind of leadership he displayed in speaking like that, as somebody who had been an enormously effective representative of the farming community, helps to break down barriers and stigma that in other communities and parts of the country would already be considered quaint.
I would like to make one final point. Not everybody in the farming community is a farmer. As I said earlier, my wife is a practising veterinary surgeon. Vets have a suicide rate four times the national average, and for much the same reasons as farmers. They have the long hours, the isolation and the sheer physical exhaustion, especially in the springtime, when, as well as their routine 40 hours a week, they will be out, sometimes right through the night, doing calvings and lambings, before having to start again at 9 o’clock the next morning. They also have the extra burden of compassion fatigue. It is hellish for the farmer who has TB in his herd and has to see widespread exterminations, but for the vet who has to pass the actual death sentence, it is even worse.
There are 24,000 practising veterinary surgeons in Britain, and the Vetlife helpline last year alone recorded 2,500 calls. That body of 24,000 practising veterinary surgeons generated 2,500 calls—obviously that is not to say 2,500 veterinary surgeons, but it is still quite a sobering statistic. As professionals in a rural community, they also have obligations of confidentiality, and their professional duty is towards their clients and the animals in their care. As I say, not everyone in the farming community is a farmer, and we should extend our consideration to those within our farming communities who suffer similar stresses.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this topic to the Floor of the House—I am delighted he has done so. I do not expect the Minister to wave a magic wand at the Dispatch Box, though I hold him in high regard. It is good that we are hearing from the Farming Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, because the answer will be found across a whole panoply of Government services, and I hope that as the voice of rural communities in government, he will understand that he has a role to play in holding the ring while everybody else does their bit.
Would that I had a magic wand! I can think of a number of applications I could use it for at this present very difficult time.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) for securing this important debate. Coming just after Mental Health Awareness Week, it gives us a chance to consider this important issue affecting key communities across the country. Tragically, this is an issue that affected one member of my own wider family some years ago, and I extend my condolences to the three families from his constituency who he referred to in his opening remarks.
Irrespective of where farmers farm and what they produce, the farming community contributes a huge amount to this country, providing the best food, the highest standards of animal welfare, beautiful landscapes and healthy land and water. However, hard work, long hours, challenging conditions and volatile markets mean that there are often very real human costs to living in a farming community. Those communities are often remote—none more so than those in my hon. Friend’s constituency in mid-Wales, where farmers often place self-reliance over seeking support. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) talked about the provision of services. Sadly, in many cases, farmers are reluctant to access those services, because of some sort of pride in them that means they do not want to seek help.
It is widely acknowledged that there is an increased risk of suicide among people working across a range of agricultural occupations, compared with the general population, and data from the Office for National Statistics demonstrates that. There are many factors influencing wellbeing in the farming community, but as a Minister and a farmer, I am committed to ensuring that, as we prepare for new agricultural policies in the future, we do what we can to reduce negative impacts and, where possible, improve health and wellbeing across the sector.
My officials were in Builth Wells, in my hon. Friend’s constituency, for a Farming Community Network event last November, and they heard first hand from volunteers about the pressures in farming. I note that the DPJ Foundation, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend, and which started in Pembrokeshire in tragic circumstances and aims to help people in agriculture who are struggling with mental health issues, started operating in Powys at the start of the year.
My hon. Friend mentioned the role of young farmers clubs. As a former chairman of the Amotherby young farmers club, I know what a great social network the clubs provide in the community. That was particularly true in my day, when there were no other social networks to rely on. I recall that we never got a penny from the council, although we raised thousands for local and national charities.
It is important that farmers are aware of the people and particularly the farming charities they can turn to if they are going through difficult times. The Farming Community Network, the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution and the Addington Fund all do a brilliant job in supporting farmers and their families. The National Farmers Union also has a regional network of advisers who can provide support. The Rural Payments Agency works closely with farming help organisations to support the farming community in England. That includes having hardship arrangements in place for those farmers facing financial difficulties.
DEFRA works closely with the Department of Health and Social Care on this important issue. In 2016, NHS England published “The Five Year Forward View for Mental Health”, and in January, NHS England published the NHS long-term plan, which sets out a comprehensive expansion of mental health services, with funding for mental health growing by at least £2.3 billion a year by 2023-24.
The national suicide prevention strategy for England has ensured that every local authority has a suicide prevention plan in place to implement tailored approaches to reducing suicides, based on the needs and demographics of local communities. In October 2018, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced our first Minister for suicide prevention. The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), who holds that responsibility, recently met the Farming Community Network to understand better what can be done to help. In January 2019, the Department of Health and Social Care published the first cross-Government suicide prevention work plan. DEFRA’s specific interest here is to understand the trends in rural communities and how best to undertake targeted action.
As we have heard, loneliness is a key contributor to poor mental health in rural communities. That is why the Government have committed £11 million to the building connections fund to help bring communities together. DEFRA also gives an annual grant of nearly £2 million to the Action with Communities in Rural England network to help keep rural communities vibrant, active and connected.
I would like to reflect briefly on DEFRA’s future responsibilities, which we take very seriously. The agricultural industry is about to go through the most significant change in over 40 years following our imminent —I hope—departure from the European Union and the common agricultural policy. Some stability is therefore important, and we have pledged that funding will remain unchanged until the end of this Parliament. We plan to phase out CAP payments gradually over a seven-year period from 2021 to 2027, which I hope gives sufficient assurance to everyone currently relying on those payments that change will not happen overnight.
Over the next 18 months, DEFRA will introduce new policies that will start to transform the domestic agricultural sector. DEFRA is committed to developing policies that support wellbeing, and it plans to work with partners to foster personal and business resilience as changes begin to happen. For instance, we are designing policies with those who will be affected by them wherever we can. We are also mindful of the capacity to adapt to change that farmers will have. DEFRA is currently feasibility-testing proposals for future policies, taking into account farmers’ experiences. In designing the new agricultural policy, we are clearly focused on outcomes and all our key messages about policy changes will be accessible for those who most need to understand them and take action.
Those are just some of the ways that DEFRA is incorporating wellbeing into future agricultural policy, but we also recognise that we have to address long-standing pressures affecting livestock farmers. Bovine TB has been cited by the Farming Community Network as a factor in one in three of the 2,500 cases it deals with every year. It is a disease that we are determined to beat, even if that means taking tough and sometimes unpopular decisions. That is why our eradication programme has to balance the necessity of tough control measures with the need to safeguard the sustainability of affected farming businesses through information, advice, support and compensation.
The Government take our responsibility seriously to listen and understand what pressures farmers are under and what they need to ensure they can take care of their own physical and mental health and wellbeing. We are currently evaluating where direct support may be helpful to farmers to manage change. I personally welcome new initiatives such as Grow Yorkshire, where local partners have come together specifically to help the farming sector to prepare for change. Where Government can add value to positive initiatives that will support farmers to navigate the changes ahead, we will consider how best we can do just that, without imposing an inappropriate burden on the taxpayer.
I would like to reflect on a different aspect of mental health and wellbeing. We should not forget that there is an important opportunity for the farming and countryside stewardship sector to provide access to mental health support for the wider community. There are clear benefits in spending time in the natural environment: it can improve mental health and feelings of wellbeing; it can reduce stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression; and it can help boost immune systems as encouraging physical activity may reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
For the majority of people, the countryside can improve wellbeing, and nature plays a major role in facilitating good mental health. I am delighted that the Duchess of Cambridge is promoting this idea with a wonderful “back to nature” garden at the Chelsea flower show this week, which I had the privilege to see on Monday. However, it is important to remember that, although the countryside provides an essential gateway for other parts of society to benefit from our natural environment, those working in farming may not always share this improved wellbeing—particularly if the wind is driving the snow in from the west on a difficult lambing day. We are currently exploring projects that will connect people with nature for better mental health. These projects will help to implement our commitments in the 25-year environment plan.
Specific mention was made of the pressures being put on farmers by delayed payments and problems with some of the support systems in place. In Wales, the Welsh Government are responsible for the payment of the basic payment scheme. By 30 April, the Welsh Government had processed more than 98% of 2018 BPS claims, and in England by 30 April, the Rural Payments Agency had paid more than 99.5% of 2018 BPS claims, a significant improvement on previous years. Some 93.4% of 2018 BPS claims were made during December 2018, the best performance in the first month of the payment window since the scheme started in 2015, and I pay tribute to all who work in the RPA for their tremendous commitment and hard work, particularly as they did not necessarily get much good press in previous years.
In April, the RPA made bridging payments to those farmers in England who did not receive their full 2018 BPS payment by 31 March. A bridging payment is an interest-free loan to customers ahead of their full payment, providing them with 75% of the current estimated value of their claim. Once the full payment has been processed and made, the amount already issued through a bridging payment will be held back. The RPA works closely with farming help organisations to support the farming community in England. This includes having hardship arrangements in place for those farmers facing financial difficulties.
I wish the story was as good in terms of countryside stewardship and environmental stewardship payments, but we are absolutely determined to improve the situation. Our priority is getting money into people’s bank accounts as quickly as possible. The Secretary of State has reiterated that we need to urgently address the problems with farm payment schemes. The RPA is driving up performance on environmental stewardship and countryside stewardship after delivering significant improvements on the BPS this year. We are working hard to simplify and improve the existing scheme so that farmers and land managers will want to continue to sign up to agreements. On environmental stewardship, we are prioritising paying historic advance and final payments for previous scheme years, and we are on track to complete 95% of ES 2017 final payments by the end of July.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the issue of village halls, as he did at the last DEFRA questions. DEFRA fully recognises the value of these assets for a variety of activities, and we provide funding and support through ACRE. Many village halls are regularly used by young farmers organisations. Indeed, my own young farmers club used to meet in one of the village halls, and they are a critical source of emotional support and friendship. The Men’s Sheds Association provides a similar service for a slightly older category of countryside people, and I was privileged to visit the Men’s Shed just outside Whitby in my constituency.
We have heard a number of comments about charities doing good work, and I can absolutely assure the House that DEFRA is keen to support farmers in coping with change. We work closely with charities such as the Farming Community Network and the Farm Safety Foundation to raise awareness and support programmes that help farmers to take care of their mental and physical health. We welcome awareness campaigns such as Mind Your Head and the YellowWellies.org campaign.
At lunchtime today, I met some hill farmers from Lancashire, and they made the point that we have also heard in the debate about reducing the bureaucracy that farmers have to go through to access support. A number of suggestions were made, and I hope that we will be able to consider them. They included having a rolling application schedule for some of the countryside stewardship schemes, so that there are no longer deadlines in place, and possibly helping cash flow by having monthly rather than annual payments. I know the frustrations that many farmers feel when the rent is due but the payment has not come through. There have even been cases when farmers who have not received their cheques are at the sale ring trying to buy store cattle for the summer grazing season, and their neighbours who have received their cheques can bid for the cattle but they cannot. By the time they get their cheques, the market has sometimes moved on.
Outside the European Union, we will be able to design and implement our own new user-friendly schemes. I was touched by the testimony in the constituents’ letters quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, and one comment that struck me was that the paperwork was now out of control. We need to bring it back under control, and I believe that, without the European Commission calling the tune, we will be in a better position to design our own schemes.
In conclusion, my Department takes farmers’ and agricultural workers’ wellbeing very seriously. I am aware that rates of suicide are higher across the agricultural sector than in the general population. People working in the agricultural industries often have a solitary lifestyle. It is hard work, and their businesses are subject to unpredictable factors such as the weather. Indeed, it is usually either too wet or too dry. As we design our future agricultural policy, we are looking at the impact of new policies on wellbeing, and we are also working with partners to foster personal and business resilience. Together with other parts of the Government such as the Department of Health and Social Care, I am committed to finding and implementing the best solutions to reverse this worrying trend and provide help where and when it is most needed to save lives.
Question put and agreed to.