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Farm Security

Volume 479: debated on Thursday 17 July 2008

As the hon. Gentleman will know, criminal activity that targets farmers is clearly a matter for the Home Office and the local police. My Department has, however, been in contact with the Association of Chief Police Officers because we were concerned that criminal activity targeting farmers was on the increase, and we wanted to ensure that there was good liaison between the National Farmers Union and the police. We have been assured that there is.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but given that the figures show a substantial increase in thefts of low-cost red diesel from farmers across the country as well as of household oil of domestic dwellers in rural areas, and given that the cost of farm equipment theft rose by some 16.5 per cent. last year in the UK, what particular detailed discussions is the Department having with the Home Office and the police in order to put a stop to this very considerable cost to rural dwellers?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. As he said, red diesel is being stolen, along with valuable farm equipment and other materials that can be recycled and sold around the world. It is a sad phenomenon that globalisation is demanding more of the world’s resources and that criminal activity is targeted at rural areas. We are in close contact with the Home Office, and, indeed, with ACPO. As I said, we want to make sure that there is good liaison between such organisations as the NFU and the police. We sympathise with farmers and many others who have been the victims of crime—there have even been deaths.

I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I sympathise with those landowners and farmers who have been affected, but surely one of the best ways to ensure that our countryside is secure is to allow appropriate development, particularly where there are redundant buildings, so that we get a living and working countryside and one that is more secure. I hope that DEFRA will talk to the Department for Communities and Local Government about how that will be possible in future.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who gives me an opportunity to advise the House of our minimum target of 10,300 new affordable rural dwellings, for which we have put in considerable resources. DEFRA and the DCLG are working closely together. We want families who are from the countryside to be able to remain in the countryside, and that is why we included the target for communities of fewer than 3,000 dwellings.

There are fewer crimes in the countryside than in our towns, but is it not the case that if a bicycle is stolen from a town centre it is recorded as one crime, while a combine harvester stolen from a field is also recorded as one crime? What can the Minister do with his colleagues in the Home Office to try to emphasise the disproportionate impact of the theft of agricultural equipment?

I am advised that we publish figures by value. The investment that farmers must make in agricultural equipment is considerable, and if a farmer cannot take their stock to slaughter or harvest their crops, the impact is not only on the farmer but on all of us. With less food, the prices will rise. As I said, we are in touch with other Departments, and good liaison between the local police, NFU and farmers is vital. We will do what we can to ensure a reduction in such crime. As a consequence of the phenomenon of globalisation, there is a pull on resources, but we must remain ever vigilant—not just farmers but everyone, whether rural, suburban or urban.

Obviously, the isolation of farms makes them vulnerable to crime in the first place. With high diesel prices and metal prices around the world, they have become more vulnerable to crime. A college in my constituency trains police officers around the country in specialist countryside crime issues, and my hon. Friend’s Department already supports specialist wildlife crime issues. Will he work more closely with the police and farmers on adopting farm watch schemes, as we have neighbourhood watch and shop watch schemes, with his Department as the co-ordinator rather than the Home Office?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making those points. I assure the House that we take the issue extremely seriously, for all the reasons that I have set out. We want to work with the farming and rural communities so that the increase in recent months, and in the last year or so, does not continue. We will do what we can, and I will take back his suggestion of what more we could do. I will write to him with our conclusions.