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So what do we need? First, as is clear from the Essex study, we need more research on the value and scale of care farming in the UK. Secondly, we need explicit recognition of care farming options in agricultural policy, including access to relevant funding for classrooms and adaptations, for example. I know from my dealings with Highfields that it was immensely challenging to raise resources to provide for education and social meeting areas at the farm and, critically, for adapting the sheds into an appropriate model for a modern egg farm. I would encourage my right hon. Friend the Minister to read that section of the Essex university report about Highfields farm and the immense strain that was placed on the owners when buildings from a certain period were condemned and they thought that what they had invested their lives in would be taken away. They got
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through that, but not through the aid of any Government agency; they got through it by their individual efforts at fundraising and support.

We need a clearer identification of this as an area of diversification where support can be provided. Elsewhere in South Derbyshire additional funding has been provided for turning a collection of barns into small business units for industrial purposes, for example. That is very welcome; I am delighted to see resources used in that way, but I believe that it is equally appropriate to support initiatives that will provide an educational or care focus in a rural environment.

The third aspect of what I wish for is collaboration between the Government Departments focused on youth policy to define how care farming can be facilitated as a youth resource. I managed to get a Home Office Minister to visit Highfields farm some time ago and my right hon. Friend’s predecessor visited the farm fairly recently. If she had had a chance to have a word with my noble Friend Lord Rooker, she would have had some insight into what he thought of the place.

I have spotted that such facilities fall into the classic difficulty in British policy terms of sliding between various silos. It is a farm, so it is the responsibility in some sense of my right hon. Friend who is answering this debate, but the services provided on the farm are educational, which means that they are the responsibility of another Government Department. In respect of caring for young people who have been offenders, it is the responsibility of yet a third Department. One could easily find arguments for saying that other agencies that are the responsibility of other Government Departments might also be engaged in care farms.

What is required is a focus on those who are beneficiaries of care farms rather than on the individual streams of Government thinking that might touch on various parts of the farm. The critical group of beneficiaries are young people who are disadvantaged in various ways and who have faced adversity; some of that may have been self-imposed but, in other cases, it may have been imposed upon them. If we can focus on that group and put in place the mechanisms necessary to support them through the valuable experience they will get from a care-farming provision, that is my goal. Such collaboration is necessary.

Fourthly, there is a need for assistance with regulatory burdens. I mentioned the difficulties Highfields had experienced in raising funds to deal with the sheds that were condemned in the early part of this decade. When I saw Roger on Friday, he told me that he had needed assistance to fill in some forms to apply for assistance on one of the educational activities that he was involved in. The difficulty is that the focus of many of these enterprises is not bureaucracy or compliance with Government expectations. Instead, we are often dealing with small enterprises whose people are motivated by very different things. It is helpful to have people who are willing to assist with getting through some of the hurdles of compliance that Governments, perfectly understandably, place in their way. A recognition of the wider therapeutic benefits of care farming in dealing with a range of conditions would also be welcome.

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I feel strongly about the need for a rational approach to the risk involved in operating on a farm. Farms can be dangerous places—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn .—[Mr. Watts.]

Mr. Todd: I had not realised that it was now 10 pm, Mr. Speaker.

As I was saying, farms can be dangerous places. We all accept that. There are still too many accidents on farms. However, I think that depriving young people of the experience of practical work in a rural environment is an overreaction. It would be helpful if some of the agencies involved were helped to understand the opportunities that are available, as well as the limited risks that exist in a properly supervised environment.

Some useful work has been done by the Mercia constabulary and probation service, showing some of the cost savings that care farms can make by reducing reoffending. As I said at the outset, none of the young offenders placed at Highfields farm have reoffended. Although I accept that that cannot be the outcome in 100 per cent. of cases, surely it will be marvellous if the same dramatic reduction in criminal activity among a group of young people can be replicated. We need to do further research and carry out tests. I suspect that some young people respond better than others to such opportunities, but research on how the model works for a mixed group of young people will require additional support.

Probation and youth offender services need to be encouraged to consider care farming contractors. We have recently been rethinking the legislative arrangements for contracting to facilitate the use of private and voluntary sector contractors in lieu of direct provision by the state, and care farms provide exactly that model. At the time of the passage of that legislation, I raised the possible implications for smaller suppliers such as Highfields. Regrettably, that farm seems recently to have vanished from the horizon of the relevant probation and youth offender services, which appear not to have been able to find the capacity to continue contracts that have proved fairly successful in the past. That may be related to other factors, but it worried me that the changing framework for contracting for those who provide such services might militate against the smaller specialist provider, and that is what appears to have happened.

Finally, we need to devise funding models that are suitable for a diverse range of providers who currently struggle individually to locate both clients and capital resources for periodic improvements, but that can be combined with the commercial activity involved in running a farm. Again, Highfields is a good example. I have suggested to Roger on a number of occasions that it should be run as a charity, but he says that the difficulty is that it is a commercial egg farm. “It sells eggs,” he says. “We want to maintain it as a business.” The difficulty lies in the lack of access to funding streams as a consequence of that strong element of commercial activity. I would defend it, however. The practical working environment of a business—as opposed to an entirely supported entity such as a charity whose only purpose is to care for young people in the countryside—is valuable
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in itself. It gets across the message that this is working to produce something that will be sold and that people will earn a living from. That is a valuable part of the experience these young people will have. Assistance in understanding the complexity of running a care farm that has continuing economic activity within it, which must be commercial, is an important requirement.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will reflect on what I have said and the opportunities that exist not only for farmers looking for alternative sources of income and alternative activities in the countryside—although care farming does offer an approach to farm diversification—but, crucially, for young people. When there is a need to care for a young person better, give them a better future and correct some of the things that have gone wrong in their lives, the setting of an agricultural environment achieves better outcomes. That has been established by academic research, and it now needs to be entrenched and given greater resource and support by Government agencies. I look forward to hearing my right hon. Friend’s response.

10.6 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jane Kennedy): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) on securing this debate. I have opened an Adjournment debate speech with that phrase many times over my past 11 years as a Minister, but I genuinely mean it on this occasion. My hon. Friend may not know that I started my professional career as a child care worker, working with young people in an assessment centre. Although all the young people I worked with have now grown up, I can imagine that many of them would have benefited from the kinds of work that care farms do. He is right to say that our mutual friend Lord Rooker visited the care farm; it is called Highfields Happy Hens. It is obviously an inspirational place, and I know that Lord Rooker found it an enjoyable place to visit as well.

There are many benefits to care farming, and the benefits to the individuals referred to them are apparent. They include improvements in general health, welfare, self-esteem and behaviour, as well as the benefits of structured routine, helping people with a huge variety of problems and issues to function effectively in their daily lives and to contribute to society. I can believe it when some of the individuals who have benefited from care farming have said that the experience has literally changed their lives.

I know that these benefits have also been proved by academic research. This is a classic example of something that has been said informally for many years—in this case about the benefits of country living and activities—being proved to be true. In this instance, it has been proved in a unique, positive and direct way. The therapeutic effects of caring for animals and direct contact with growing activities have been recognised for a long time, although care farming is a novel and exciting method of putting these theories into practice.

One of DEFRA’s key goals is to support farmers in building a profitable, innovative and competitive industry that meets consumers’ needs. Our social goals include working to support farming’s wider contribution to the long-term sustainability of rural economies and communities and to public health. Care farming takes
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the notion of meeting consumer needs to a new level. Care farming contributes to both of these important goals I have outlined. It has the capacity to contribute to the health of the farming industry as well as to the health of the individual.

Part of developing a thriving, competitive farming sector is being imaginative in the use of resources that the farm and the landscape have to offer. I am talking in particular about the benefits of diversification. Diversification can increase farmers’ incomes, and expand the farm business base to be more viable and sustainable, and 50 per cent. of farms in England already have diversified activity. Diversification is not the answer for everyone, and a farm business’s capacity for diversification depends on a range of issues, not least the location of the farm and the skills of the farmer. Likewise, care farming is not going to be an option for every farm, but it is the kind of creative solution to add to the repertoire of alternatives that farmers can consider to maximise their business opportunities and support the overall viability of the farming business.

Farm diversification can also benefit the wider rural economy, contributing to other businesses and providing local jobs. The study by Essex university to which my hon. Friend referred found that care farms in the UK employed a total of 657 full-time and part-time staff, as well as providing many additional volunteering opportunities. Many of those jobs are likely to be local, supporting the rural economy, and volunteering opportunities offer people the chance to increase their skills and participate more fully in the community.

There are also many benefits to farms and the rural community beyond the economic ones. A key problem for farmers is isolation. Farmers are often sole traders, only occasionally hiring in labour, and with families working off-farm they can find themselves working alone, in difficult conditions, for extended periods, without the support of colleagues and family that people in other jobs and businesses take for granted. Because of that, farmers often find themselves suffering from loneliness and depression, and isolated from their local communities. Having other people working alongside them on the farm, be they other members of support staff or the care farming beneficiaries, can help enormously to alleviate such problems. Farmers involved in care farming schemes must feel an added sense of personal satisfaction and achievement when beneficiaries blossom in their care and eventually develop the skills and confidence to move on and to build a new life for themselves, encouraged by their on-farm experiences.

It is clearly not only the intended beneficiaries of care farming who can reap the rewards of participation in this initiative. Care farming even helps to contribute to the wider awareness of the role of farming and its contribution to the countryside. A key issue identified by the Curry report in 2002 was that consumers as a whole had become “disconnected” from their food and where it came from, and had little appreciation of the role of farming. Since then, the Department and the industry have been encouraging farmers to try to reconnect themselves with the market and their consumers. That can take many forms, such as direct selling through farm shops and farmers’ markets.

In addition, DEFRA, through its environmental stewardship schemes, along with other organisations such as Linking Environment and Farming—LEAF—has
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been encouraging farmers to open up their farms to the public, to encourage a greater understanding of farming. Another example of that, other than care farms, is open farm Sunday, which has been running for three years. Last year, more than 400 farmers opened their doors to more than 150,000 members of the public, educating them about farming and food. My hon. Friend might think that I have wandered a little from the issue of care farming, but there was a point to my previous comment, because like those initiatives, care farming educates its participants about the purpose and value of farming, by involving them directly in the work activities of farms so that they can appreciate the importance of the role, and, in addition, gain pride and self-esteem from their participation. It also restores pride in the farmers providing the service. It increases, yet again, the value we are obtaining from our farms and the land, and it opens up the eyes of the community to the kind of valuable contribution that farming, as an industry, can make to wider society.

It is good to see the concept of care farming spreading in England, although we have a long way to go in its implementation to catch up with some of our European neighbours. Debates such as this will usefully serve to raise awareness of the existence of care farming and the benefits it brings. However, it will be down to individual deliverers of health and social care, education and ex-offender rehabilitation, whether they wish to spend their funding in this way and incorporate such an initiative in their portfolios of health and welfare support activities. It is also very much an individual business and personal decision for farmers whether this kind of activity can contribute to the viability of their farm, and whether they have the skills and commitment to contribute to making their farms a key part of rehabilitation and support for disadvantaged people. However, I am sure that with increased awareness of both the activities in practice and the research into the impacts of care farming that have been described this evening, this initiative will move from being a fairly niche activity to take its place beside other recognised caring activities as a valuable resource for social and health care practitioners to draw upon.

Mr. Todd: Would it therefore be reasonable for bids for funding for diversification—to create the appropriate environment, such as classrooms or adaptations to meet the needs of particular client groups—to be made to agencies supported by the Minister’s Department?

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Jane Kennedy: I shall come to that point in a moment. What my hon. Friend has described tonight could be taken as a simple manifesto for the development of care farms. He has made some reasonable requests, including collaboration between Departments and recognition of the therapeutic benefits. Those measures do not cost money, but the will to carry them forward is necessary. He mentions assistance with regulatory burdens, and I listened to his description of the impact on the farm that we have been discussing this evening. I also take seriously his comments about a rational approach to risk in the care of young people, and he makes a good point.

I have a suggestion for my hon. Friend on the issue of funding which he may wish to take up. We cannot escape the fact that care farms need to be run as sustainable businesses, with their customers—whether local authorities or primary care trusts—purchasing the services as an integrated part of their provision for people with disabilities or other mental or social needs. I believe that set-up funding may be available from DEFRA through the rural development programme for England, but for their long-term sustainability care farms should be funded through the mainstream budgets for people with disabilities or other mental or social needs. It would be easy for me, as Minister of State with responsibility for farming, to stand here and commit other people’s budgets, so I will not do that, but if the care farm practitioner steering group wishes to come to discuss some of its ideas with me, I would be happy to meet it. I know that its members recognise that care farms need to be run as viable businesses, but there may be things that we can do across government, engaging colleagues in the Home Office and the Department of Health in a way that might help to achieve those obvious benefits without a great deal of investment.

Mr. Todd: Such an approach might even save money, because the evidence is that the care offered is extraordinarily cost-effective. This is not a plea for money, nor is it a plea to business for a load of subsidies. What is required is a more coherent response from government.

Jane Kennedy: My hon. Friend is right. I undertake to meet the care farm practitioner steering group, if it wishes to take up that invitation. We can then discuss what more we could do across Government to encourage what is an important and valuable initiative.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Ten o’clock.

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