Need for safety first down on the farm

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Two items in the news caught my attention this week but I may be one of the few people who saw the connection between them.

It has been Farm Safety Week again, an opportunity for the so-called leaders of our industry to wring their hands over the appalling toll of agricultural deaths and injuries and to use some shoddy little public relations event to assure the farming community they are doing all they can to make things better.

Then we had the long-awaited review of the way the industry is regulated, with an interim report published by Dame Glenys Stacey, who chairs the Farm Inspection and Regulation Review.

It doesn’t pull any punches, suggesting that farmers and regulators alike ‘are exasperated by the demands of regulation, which are unduly precise and inflexible’ and pointing out that some 150,000 farm inspections are carried out every year by multiple agencies.

And here is the link. Can you see it? Well it’s plain enough to me, because I firmly believe that the vast majority of the accidents on UK farms are down to carelessness resulting from distraction or stress caused by the enormous amount of regulation to which our industry is now subjected.

Thanks to the far-reaching tentacles of the EU British farming is now micro-managed on an impossibly detailed scale.

Farmers now live in fear of losing their sanity so straitjacketed are they in a web of regulations drawn up by Eurocrats for the sole purpose of providing work for themselves and others and who have, by and large, as much experience and knowledge of practical farming as I have of walking on the surface of the moon.

The burden has been steadily accumulating for years, with each regulation being carefully pored over by our own civil servants and assiduously platinum-plated with no thought as to the practicalities of how it will be complied with out in a muddy field.

And who has sat back and let it all happen? Why the very farming leaders who pull out a handkerchief and wipe away a tear every time Farm Safety Week rolls round. I have in my mind an image of Meurig Raymond past NFU president signing the yellow welly which is the farm safety symbol: about the most pointless gesture anyone could make. And, sadly, Minette Batters is following the same, well-worn path.

Neither the NFU nor any of the other farming organisations has ever mounted a proper campaign to stop the proliferation of regulation, to point out to the bureaucrats how unreasonable are the demands they are making on farmers – and, most importantly how the stress caused by a totally unreasonable regulatory burdens is contributing to carelessness and carelessness to death and injury.

I am delighted the regulation review team sees with Brexit a chance to simplify the regulatory framework to adopt a more common sense –based approach, to whittle farm inspections down and have them carried out by a single field force backed up by new technology to ensure compliance.

We are a long way, of course, from seeing this becoming a reality. Because the way things work there will have to be a final report, recommendations to MPs, draft legislation, widespread consultation, interminable parliamentary debates and then a vote before anything is passed into law - and that’s without factoring in the in-built resistance of the civil service which regards the reduction in regulation as a threat to the jobs of its members and thus looks on such a move in the way turkeys view Christmas.

But something absolutely has to be done. Because the current situation has contributed to an appalling toll of death and injury among honest, conscientious, hard-working farmers. We cannot, must not allow that to continue.

David Handley is Chairman of Farmers For Action