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Farming: Support

Volume 831: debated on Wednesday 21 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of whether the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs has published sufficient detail in relation to post-EU funding to enable those working in farming to plan for the future; and what assessment they have made of any adverse consequences for the mental health and wellbeing of such people.

My Lords, I declare my farming and land management interests as set out in the register. I start by paying tribute to the right reverend Prelate for the incredible work that he has done in support of his community in respect of the horrific events occurring in Nottingham on 13 June.

The Government are supporting mental health for farmers through the farming resilience fund, and we are working with charities such as Yellow Wellies to ensure that farmers have the support that they need. We are increasing access to NHS talking therapies across all parts of England, including rural areas. We have published information this year on what is on offer to farmers to support the environment alongside food production, through new grants and ongoing payments.

I thank the Minister for his kind words and thank the whole House for its concern following the tragic events in Nottingham last week.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. I know he will agree with me that farmers need to be valued for the extraordinary work that they do in supplying the nation’s food. Among farmers in Nottinghamshire, as elsewhere, it is clear that they are under increasing strain due to the volatility in fuel prices and other high input costs. They also face considerable stress caused by the continued uncertainty, with three out of the 15 sustainable farming incentives still not yet fully up and running. How is Defra going to respond to the EFRA Committee findings, confirmed by the NFU members’ survey, of serious gaps that exist in the rural mental health provision, which are clearly a factor in such uncertainty?

The right reverend Prelate raises a number of very important points, and Defra is looking closely at all of these. I specifically take his point on the EFRA Rural Mental Health report. The Government will respond in due course to acknowledge the report. We are already taking steps in the right direction to support and improve mental health in rural communities. We are investing £2.3 billion extra a year into the expansion and transformation of mental health services in England, and we are also supporting mental health and well-being as an outcome of our future farming resilience fund.

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister pay tribute to the plight of small family farms, which face particular anguish over rising input costs, to which the right reverend Prelate referred, but also the inability to pass those costs on to consumers? My noble friend was kind enough to refer to charities. Will he work closely with the FCN, the RABI, the Addington Fund and others to ensure that the right support is getting to those farmers at the right time?

I completely agree with my noble friend and pay tribute to the outstanding work being done by charities, such as the Farming Community Network, the YANA project, the DPJ Foundation and the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, for the help and support that they are giving and for raising awareness about farmers’ health and welfare. Farming can seem like a lonely job at times, but to anyone who is struggling I say that you are not alone. Talking is often the first step, but also the hardest. I urge anyone struggling to cope with the pressures they are facing to reach out to one of these organisations.

My Lords, I draw attention to my registered interest. Does the Minister accept that the greatest contributor to mental stress is uncertainty? For farmers, there will always be uncontrollable uncertainty from the weather and climate fluctuations. Will he therefore accept that there is a duty on government to minimise the uncertainties that are within their control, such as the legislative framework, the support mechanisms, trade agreements, bovine TB control and policing of rural areas? Will he undertake to seek a period of stability and transparency in these controllable dimensions to minimise the stress on the farming community?

My Lords, in January we published a full prospectus of what our new farming schemes will pay for and, since then, there has been further detail on support for tenants, uplands and our expanded SFI scheme, which is opening this summer. Obviously, there are a great number of uncontrollable circumstances affecting rising prices for farmers. The noble Lord is correct that we must give clarity and certainty on everything within Defra’s control.

My Lords, farmers are struggling to cope with spikes in energy prices, spiralling input costs, rural crime and changes to agriculture support policy. Over 60% are suffering mental health issues. Throughout this, they continue to produce the food that the country depends on. It is time for the Government to review the current emergency funding mechanisms and establish a dedicated rural mental health funding stream to support farmers through the transition to ELMS. Is the Minister prepared to do that?

We have taken significant action to support the sector at this time, including bringing forward 50% of BPS payments. Our new farming schemes will support farmers to produce food profitably and sustainably, and will include £600 million in grants for equipment to help farmers to become more productive. Farm businesses are also able to access the energy bills discount scheme, which will offer further support with energy bills until March next year.

My Lords, an additional pressure on farming and the farming community is the age of farmers. One traditional pathway for getting younger farmers into farming was through our county farms, but many of those have been sold off by councils around the country. What can the Minister say to encourage younger people to get on the first rung of the ladder into farming in order to bring down the average age of farmers?

My noble friend makes an excellent point. We want to encourage new entrants to develop successful land-based businesses in England. Through the new entrant support scheme we want to nurture entrepreneurs to develop their business ideas, foster innovation and promote growth. The National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs contributed to the detailed co-design of the farming investment fund by engaging with Defra at various stages of the process to both inform and challenge thinking of the policy design of the scheme.

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate mentioned the EFRA Select Committee’s report Rural Mental Health. One recommendation was around Defra working with the Department of Health and Social Care on having high priorities for action on farming and veterinary mental health in particular, to develop a work programme together. Can the Minister say what discussions Defra is having with the Department of Health and Social Care on how to tackle this problem?

Discussions are ongoing in response to the issues that the report rightly raised. In our recent document Unleashing Rural Opportunity, we set out how we are taking action to increase the number of doctors in underserved areas through the targeted enhanced recruitment scheme for GP trainees and to support community pharmacies in more sparsely served areas through the pharmacy access scheme.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that tenant farmers across the UK—in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales—are the lifeblood of agriculture? Unfortunately, many of them cannot reap the benefits of diversification on farms and estates because they do not own the buildings. What can the Minister say about the Government’s policy towards helping tenant farmers?

My noble friend raises a very important issue, which was also highlighted in my noble friend Lady Rock’s review about the importance of tenant farmers. I agree that they are the lifeblood of the sector. The Government have set out our next steps to support tenant farmers from day one of the agricultural transition. We have worked with tenant farmers, we have co-designed our farming schemes, and we have announced a new tenant farming forum which will improve the way we communicate with the sector and help us ensure that our schemes are as accessible as possible to tenants. We will be launching a call for evidence to examine the need for a tenant farming commissioner in England.

My Lords, the Minister referred to SFI, the sustainable farming incentive scheme. A new 2023 scheme has just been announced, which includes 19 new stand-alone actions, and just four actions have been carried over. About 3,300 farmers now enrolled in SFI 2022 will be served notice to end their agreements and invited to join SFI 2023. They will get closure payments for three schemes not carried over. Does the Minister believe there is sufficient advice and support for farmers to navigate this really quite incredible level of complexity?

My Lords, change is difficult but that does not mean that it should not be done. We want to support farmers. It is not a zero-sum game of just food security or increasing biodiversity; farmers are in a key position to do this and we want to support them as much as we can. That is why we have added six new standards to the SFI this summer, including on arable and horticultural land, grassland, hedgerows, integrated pest management and nutrient management. In addition, the SFI agreement payment will pay £20 per hectare for the first 50 hectares entered into the scheme in order to help farmers navigate the new scheme entrance process.