[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Weir, for this important debate.
My constituency has a number of important industries, including paper making, brick making and pharmaceuticals, but it is also semi-rural, with an important farming industry. I want to highlight some of the worries about rural crime that people in my constituency have—in particular, my farming community and those who live in remote areas. First, however, I pay tribute to Kent police in general and my local officers in particular, who, within the constraints of continual pressure on their budgets, do what they can to protect those of us living in rural communities.
Do not get me wrong; I understand the need for the Government to bring down the deficit and know that the police force must do its bit to help. However, I want to see a rebalancing of how the Government grant is allocated, to ensure that rural areas and semi-rural areas such as my own receive a fairer share of the cake. That is the nub of our problem. We worry that, given the increasing pressure on police budgets, rural areas will continue to take second place in the allocation of resources.
The truth is that people in rural areas often feel that they are last in line for services: they sometimes have to put up with inferior roads; they often have no local school; they almost always have a poor internet connection; and they rarely have a police station. In short, they feel isolated, and that isolation increases their fear of crime.
A recent National Farmers Union survey showed that a quarter of rural crimes go unreported. Farmers take the view that reporting a crime is a waste of their time, in particular if that crime is considered by some other people as little more than a minor misdemeanour. The survey also showed that 50% of farmers said that the police failed to devote sufficient resources to tackling rural crime, while a further third felt that insufficient action was taken when crimes were reported. Some 38% of farmers have been victims of crime, including theft, arson, criminal damage, poaching and illegal fly-grazing. If 38% of people living in a city were victims of crime, it would be considered a crime blackspot. Why is such a high level of crime among farmers deemed acceptable in some quarters?
In Kent, it has been recognised that rural crime is a problem. Our police and crime commissioner, Ann Barnes, has pledged to improve rural policing with the use of mobile police stations. We welcome any initiative that highlights the problem of rural crime, but many are sceptical about the worth of mobile police stations and would prefer the money to be spent on boosting the number of police officers dedicated to tackling rural crime.
In Kent, we have only six rural partnership police officers to cover the whole county. Two of those officers cover not only my constituency, but an area that stretches from Thanet in the east of Kent to Dartford in its extreme north-west. Special police constables have been used to support the rural partnership officers, but my understanding is that those specials rarely have access to a police vehicle, so they have no means of patrolling the area in which they are supposed to be helping. Perhaps it would be better to spend the money used for mobile police stations on more rural community officers and the vehicles that they need to get around Kent more quickly.
Rural crime cost the UK an estimated £42.3 million in 2012. Organised gangs are increasingly targeting high-value tractors and other farm vehicles, stealing them to order and shipping them overseas. One of the frustrations felt by farmers is that there appears to be no recognition from the Government or senior police officers that rural crime is often closely linked to serious criminal activity, much of it across international borders.
In isolation, rural crimes appear to be one-off, unrelated events; in fact, they are often interrelated and funded by the activities of criminal gangs and terrorist organisations. For example, despite the best efforts of farmers to store their supplies of ammonium nitrate-based fertilisers in secure facilities, large amounts have been stolen. As hon. Members are probably aware, ammonium nitrate fertilisers are used to make home-made explosives and have been a component of some of the most devastating terrorist bomb blasts in the world.
Criminal gangs will steal anything that they can lay their hands on—from combine harvesters to quad bikes, from animal medicines to agricultural chemicals. One farmer in my constituency, who happens to be a good friend of mine, had a gate stolen from his field. Shortly afterwards, he installed a brand-new gate, which cost him several hundred pounds. The very next day, the second gate was stolen. That is rural crime. My farmer friend was pretty sure he knew who was responsible for stealing his gates, but he did not bother to contact the police, because he has no faith that they—or, more pertinently, the Crown Prosecution Service—would do anything. That, too, is a frustration for farmers.
Last year in my constituency, the police raided a farm that was believed to be owned by criminals—not farmers, I hasten to add. The police found 35 chassis removed from stolen Land Rovers, a stolen tractor unit and a 40-foot stolen trailer containing £50,000-worth of contraband alcohol smuggled in from the continent. They also recovered several thousand pounds in cash, diggers, fork-lifts trucks, quad bikes, car parts and drugs. All the goods were seized, but there were no convictions because the CPS felt it would be too difficult to prove that the occupiers of the farm were handling stolen goods.
Earlier this year, another serious incident in my constituency involved two women driving a Range Rover into another car, which they claimed had cut them up in traffic. The two women used their mobile phones to call their boyfriends, who arrived on the scene and beat up the driver of the car, hospitalising him. The police went to the Traveller site where the attackers lived and arrested two of the three suspects. At the same time, they discovered 200 fighting cocks, nine stolen dogs, a cock-fighting training wheel, drugs, several stolen cars and £50,000 in cash. The third suspect was traced to another Traveller site and was also arrested; at the same time, another £25,000 in cash was recovered.
Where do such large amounts of money come from? They are the proceeds of rural crime, including illegal betting on cock fighting and hare coursing, both of which activities see huge amounts of cash change hands. Hare coursing in particular is becoming an increasing problem. At this point, I will read from a letter that I received from the wife of a farmer in my constituency. It prompted me to apply for the debate. I have amended the letter slightly to protect the identity of the people concerned:
The Isle of Sheppey has a population of over 36,000. During the summer this number is more than doubled. We have read in the local newspaper about yet another reorganisation, but the fact remains that police presence on the Island is inadequate.
On Saturday 2nd November 2013 we had cause to phone 999 as there were four men with dogs coursing hares on our farm. Only one patrol was available. No criticism is intended or implied of the individual officer, but he had no realistic chance of apprehending four experienced criminals who were playing ‘cat and mouse’. With assistance from my husband they were caught, but yet again have got away with it.
This incident was not an isolated one. There have been six incidents here since September 2013. We have witnessed them all and found numerous gates open on all six occasions. This is done deliberately so that the dogs have an unimpeded chase after the hares.
In 2012 we had twenty four incidents of this kind, all of which were reported. Some incidents were attended by the police and some were not. Of the twenty four incidents, arrests were made on only two occasions. In the first case the culprits received £250 fines and we are still waiting for the £15 victim cost.
In the second case the CPS abandoned the case only informing us the day before the hearing. This cost us money as we had already made arrangements for someone to care for our animals during our absence. The CPS claim there was insufficient evidence for the charge that was brought. Our view is that the case was dropped to save money. (It has been reported that the CPS drop 500 cases a week).
All this unsatisfactory state of affairs causes us much distress. We are not young and resilient like we used to be and we fear reprisals. My husband is in his seventies and not in the best of health. He has worked hard for twenty years in a government backed environmental scheme to improve wildlife on the farm. Now we suffer from people coursing hares—something it is illegal for us to do as owners of the property.
We are now in despair and have reached the stage where we may as well let these people have their fun without interruption.”
Let me read that last paragraph again:
“We are now in despair and have reached the stage where we may as well let these people have their fun without interruption.”
That is shocking, and it is why we must do something about spiralling rural crime.
Hares are in serious decline, despite being a key indicator species for conservation efforts funded by the EU through agricultural subsidies. The sad truth is that currently the only beneficiaries of the noble efforts by our farmers to conserve our hares are the criminals who are killing them as part of illegal gambling gangs who view the potential fines as an acceptable occupational hazard. If those who regularly attend hare coursing events attended 10 events and were arrested and caught at just one, resulting in a £250 fine, it would amount to £25 per event. Compared with the thousands of pounds that change hands through illegal gambling, £25 is nothing. If we are to protect people such as my constituents, farmers believe the fine for hare coursing should be increased substantially and I would like the Government to take that message on board. Hare coursing is rural crime.
Poaching is also a crime, yet there is evidence that criminals go out with dogs and snoop round farm buildings and fields in search of something to steal. If challenged, they admit to poaching because they are confident that the police regard poaching as a trivial matter and hardly a crime. We must make police officers who operate in rural locations understand that poaching is as serious as any other crime and often has links to more serious crimes.
In my constituency, three poachers recently killed 150 pheasants in one go. Those poachers ranged in age from 11 to 14 years. They were using an illegal, unregistered section 1 firearm—a .22 rifle. When it was recovered, there was a spent cartridge still in the breech and the individual carrying the rifle was found to have in his possession 200 rounds of illegally held .99 mm pistol ammunition and various other weapons. Those three boys were arrested again three weeks later after stealing a bicycle, and yet again shortly after that for breaking into a shed using tools from a robbery that had gone undetected.
The problem with poaching is that it is too often seen by the public, and sometimes the police, as being almost romantic—“one for the pot”—like boys scrumping. What they do not understand is that many poaching events are sponsored by criminal gangs operating from Traveller sites and pubs in Kent where competitions are held, again involving illegal gambling when the winner is the one with the highest number of dead animal heads.
Mike Bax, chairman of the crime rural advisory group that advises Kent police and the Kent police and crime commissioner on rural crime, gets over far better than I can the way in which poaching has wider implications than “just one for the pot”. He said that
“200 pheasants poached at the game dealers price of”
50p per head
“looks like a loss to the breeder of £100. However, it also probably means that a day’s legal shooting has to be cancelled with a gross loss of £6,000. 15 or 20 beaters lose a day’s work at £20 per head, the local pub loses the meal booking and possible accommodation booking. And other physical damage has probably been caused on the ground.
These multiplier effects on simple incidents illustrate the impact of even day to day rural crime with such events generally affecting the community at large rather than just an individual. Nevertheless, the events are so commonplace that the rural community consistently fails to report the original crime and somehow we have to change that mindset.
The police tackle the problem to the best of their ability, but they are thinly spread and intelligence is the key.”
I apologise for being a few minutes late for the hon. Gentleman’s debate. A problem in a rural part of my constituency has been people coming on to land pretending that they have hunting rights when in fact they are just there for criminality. What we found helpful, as the Minister will be aware, was that a group of local residents in Esclusham and Ponciau came together and worked on a digital mapping scheme so that land use was determined and put on that digital map. That is a good idea in such situations.
I welcome the hon. Lady’s intervention. I have heard about digital mapping. All the ways of helping to solve crime are about intelligence-led policing, which is what I am talking about at the moment. Mike Bax continued:
“With thousands of people spread across the rural areas people must learn that it is not a failure if the police do not make an arrest. The very fact that the incident has been reported to the police provides them with intelligence.
Perhaps the identity of the vehicle, a description of the clothes the offender was wearing or a boot print in the mud, might well prove vital on another occasion.
Further more regular reporting by the community provides the police with information on crime patterns. Using that they can make predictions and be in the right place at the right time more often, thereby responding more effectively.”
That is intelligence-led policing, which is what we are talking about.
Intelligence gathering and digital mapping are fine, but dedicated rural police officers must act on that intelligence. Rural dwellers are being subjected to increasing levels of intimidation and violence. The National Farmers Union is aware of gamekeepers waking up to find their dustbins and pheasant feeders stuffed with dead birds as a warning. One gamekeeper was shot at with 1.5 ounce lead balls—any shooters here will know that that is pretty hefty shot—while driving. Another narrowly escaped serious injury when bringing his daughter back from school. Two men stepped out into the road in front of him and deliberately shot his windscreen out with similar sized lead balls. The point is that poaching is rural crime.
We then have livestock rustling, which is also becoming an increasing problem. It is estimated that 60,000 sheep were stolen in 2011 alone. The broader implications of livestock theft are very serious, because once animals are stolen, they are no longer tracked by the movement databases in place, increasing the risk of another foot-and-mouth epidemic. In addition, meat entering the food chain through livestock theft cannot be traced from farm to fork and it may be subject to unhygienic slaughterhouse conditions and contamination that risks human health.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate; he is making some very good points. Where there is livestock rustling, whether it be sheep or cattle, does he agree that one of the curious factors is what is happening at the point of the slaughter of those animals, in terms of proof of identification? It is a real curiosity that the meat could find its way into the food supply chain.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention; that is exactly the point I am making. If sheep are removed from a database system that tracks them from farm to fork and they are let into the black market, there is no way of ever tracing that, so yes, it is a problem. It is a problem because, again, livestock rustling is a rural crime, but one of those that people forget about.
My point is a continuation of that. If 60,000 sheep are disappearing through rustling, somehow or other they are washing up somewhere and entering the food supply chain, at a point where an abattoir owner, a slaughterhouse man or a processor is asking that individual, “Where did this shipment come from?” It is an interesting point, because the abattoirs in my area certainly know where every single animal has come from. Something is going wrong; perhaps the Minister could answer.
Or not—people might be taking it along to illegal, unlicensed or backstreet abattoirs. They might be cutting the animals’ throats in a back shed somewhere. That is the problem. We have the issue of not being able to trace from farm to fork, but also that of animal welfare and animals being slaughtered inhumanely.
Another rural crime that I want to touch on is fly-grazing. That is the unauthorised grazing of land by horses and ponies, whether or not the owner of the horses is in breach of a previous agreement or has simply placed the horses on the land without discussion with the owner or tenant of the land. Fly-grazing is becoming an increasing problem, with several thousand horses being grazed on land without permission. I understand that the problem has become worse in the past three years, particularly since the introduction of horse passports and microchipping, which were intended to increase the traceability of horses—particularly those likely to enter the food chain.
The NFU is calling for the following action, with which I have some sympathy. It wants fly-grazing to be made a criminal offence, so that action can be taken to bring offenders to justice swiftly. It wants the Horse Passports Regulations 2009 to be amended, so that they form a streamlined set of rules, meeting the minimum requirements of the relevant EC directive, thereby helping to improve traceability. It wants the Animals Act 1971 to be amended to bring it into line with the best of the private Acts of Parliament that enable local authorities to act when horses are left on private land; it wants it to be clear that the 1971 Act covers animals deliberately placed on land by their owners.
The NFU wants police forces to develop procedures for dealing with horses on the public highway that take account of bio-security in addition to respecting property rights. Police should be aware of the danger of spreading diseases such as African horse sickness when seizing or moving horses. The union also feels that local authorities should be prepared to offer surplus land for rental to horse owners, where appropriate and compatible with surrounding land use.
I have touched on fly-grazing because, again, it is a rural crime. However, there are many other rural crimes that cause problems for farmers, such as fuel theft, metal theft, vandalism, trespassing, arson, criminal damage, fly-tipping, illegal Traveller sites and illegal raves. There are too many and they are too varied to mention in depth today, but they are all rural crimes.
In conclusion, I want to relay to the Government the worries of those of my constituents who live in more isolated rural communities. They are worried that rural crime is increasing and that it is given a lower priority than urban crime. They are worried because they rarely see a member of the police force on duty in their community and because they feel forgotten by the Government, local authorities and the police. I very much hope that the Government will take steps to reassure my rural communities that they are just as important as urban communities, and ensure that they receive the policing to which they are entitled and they deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I start by referring hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and by saying how glad I am to see the Minister in his place; I look forward to his addressing some of the points we are raising in this important debate. I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this debate on an issue that is of great importance to so many of our constituents.
It is for the Minister to answer on behalf of the Government, but the Government have made changes that devolve responsibility for much of these matters away from this place, away from the hands of Ministers and away from Government to police and crime commissioners. I confess to having been relatively agnostic about the creation of those posts when they were first mooted, but the more I look into it, the more I see what they are achieving, particularly in my area. I see the value of electoral accountability on such issues. If police and crime commissioners want to be re-elected by the large number of people who live in rural areas, they will have to address precisely the issues that my hon. Friend raised, if they are not doing so already.
I am pleased to say that Anthony Stansfeld, the police and crime commissioner in the Thames Valley, has made rural crime one of his top three priorities. I am also pleased that police and crime commissioners all across the country, working together on a number of issues, are developing a rural crime initiative. That surely is very welcome and a credit to them working across parties—of course, many of them are of no party at all—and making sure that they are joining up and sharing best practice and tackling rural crime.
My hon. Friend made a good speech, setting out precisely what rural crime is. He made the very good point that it does not accord with the quaint and slightly bucolic view that some might have—through some of our writers, painters and through other forms of culture—about historical areas of rural crime, such as how poaching may have happened for the pot in past years. This is a very serious area of criminality: it is often about the widespread stealing of plant and machinery; it can be about people trafficking; firearms can be involved; and there are many cases in which intimidation is used, not only of the victims or potential victims of crime, but to make people commit crimes. There is increasing evidence in the Traveller community that some people who are not willing participants in criminal activity are more or less forced, by a very few people in that community and elsewhere, into committing acts that they would not otherwise carry out.
It is also important that we understand that crimes that take place in towns are very often carried out by people who do not live in those towns and who travel a long way away from them, or that crimes committed in the countryside are carried out by people who live in towns. We should not assume that this is an isolated issue, or a niche area of criminality that we can deal with on its own. It has to be seen in the context of crime across the piece.
I mentioned Anthony Stansfeld, the police and crime commissioner for the Thames Valley. I have been looking closely at how he, by making rural crime one of his top three priorities in the highly complex area of the Thames Valley, where there are many other pressures on his resources, has approached tackling it.
Little things can make a big difference. The first thing is ensuring that a police officer turns up and responds to every single incident. It sounds strange to say that police officers did not do that in the past, but there was a way of reporting rural crime that often made it seem much more trivial than it actually was. The term “theft from unoccupied premises” immediately makes one think of an allotment shed perhaps when in fact it could be, as my hon. Friend mentioned, a farmer’s store, with large amounts of ammonium nitrate, large pieces of machinery or livestock. Ensuring that we define rural crime is therefore very important.
There is very good news about rural crime. In my area, it has dropped by 20% in one year. That is through a clear reporting system, lots of very good work by police forces and the priority being given to rural crime by the leadership, both at chief constable level and at police and crime commissioner level. If everything else I say is forgotten, this is the really important point, and I am sure that it is one with which the Minister would agree. This is not just about the police tackling the problem; it is about all of us who live in rural areas playing our part. I think that educating landowners, farmers and rural managers about crime and what they can do is very important.
I am particularly interested in the CESAR system—the construction and agricultural equipment security and registration system—which puts transponders and indelible marking on large pieces of machinery or high-value pieces of equipment and ensures, for all the equipment that a farmer buys, whether it is a new pick-up, a large piece of machinery or just a chainsaw, that the serial numbers are gathered and recorded at the start of his ownership of that equipment and stored so that they can be traced. That is important because, as my hon. Friend relayed, there can be cases in which large amounts of equipment are found and the issue is not just returning the equipment to the person to whom it belonged before it was stolen, but establishing a pattern of criminality that can lead to convictions. What we know about many aspects of rural crime is that a very few people are committing a lot of crimes, and if we can feel their collars, crime rates plummet. That has been proved to be effective in my area.
Another way in which we can all play our part is by joining schemes such as the countryside alert system, which 10,000 people are now part of in the Thames Valley. Under that system, we can use technology to help to beat the criminal by keeping people informed about suspicious activity and crimes that are being committed. It is about instantly being able to mobilise a large number of people to be aware of a problem that may be occurring in their area.
I want to touch on the issues of animal welfare that my hon. Friend also mentioned. We should be under no illusions about the fact that many of the activities relating to the theft or killing of wild animals in the context of rural crime are really unpleasant stuff. No one should be under any illusions that there is anything attractive about that activity at all. Gangs of people have caused havoc at times in parts of my constituency by coursing deer. It affects farmers and landowners such as Kirsten Loyd, who informed me of recurring problems on several nights running that involved 4x4s driving on to land, gates being smashed and deer being pulled down by running dogs and often just left. In some cases, they had to be humanely dispatched as a result. On my own property, I have found people coursing hares, from 4x4s, with long dogs, and when they kill the hare, they just drive round it in circles, wrecking the crops and leaving the carcase of the animal. These are not nice people, and if they are challenged, it is very often by one person, and that person is at severe risk of assault. Indeed, we have had circumstances in which firearms have been used in a threatening way.
There is also some good news, however. My hon. Friend talked about the difficulty of getting a fine imposed that means anything—that is a true reflection of the damage, fear and uncertainty that these crimes are causing among rural people, but also of the on-costs from the effects of these crimes. I sometimes have to rack my brains to think of really good things to say about the last Government, but here is one. They passed section 59 of the Police Reform Act 2002, which has given the police an invaluable tool in dealing with crimes that would otherwise attract a relatively cursory sentence. It allows them to seize a vehicle that has been used in connection with a crime. The vehicle can then be crushed or sold, but will not be returned to the perpetrator of the crime. It has had an enormous effect in allowing police to tackle some of the criminality in rural areas. I commend that legislation and hope that it is being used properly by police forces up and down the country.
My then neighbouring MP, just across the Thames in Oxford, Boris Johnson, and I, just after I had got elected, both identified a problem of dog theft. Sometimes when we raised it, people would smile or slightly roll their eyes as if that was not a big thing. It is a horrible crime. It deprives people of what are sometimes very valuable—they are certainly valuable to them—companions and working dogs. It particularly involves working dogs—sheepdogs, gundogs and so on—and it continues to be a problem. Dealing with it requires intelligence gathering, an understanding of how important the issue is to our constituents and a coherent approach, right across police forces; it cannot be governed just by the boundaries of the particular area. I am so impressed by the work that has been carried out by many people and organisations that encourage people to have their pets microchipped. There are all sorts of other methods that we can also use to take the battle to the criminal and reduce the risk of these very unpleasant crimes.
In conclusion, we can all play our part. I agree with my hon. Friend: the most depressing thing that we hear as MPs is people saying, “Well, there’s no point in my reporting this.” If people do not report crimes, however trivial—even if it has not been established that a crime has been committed, but there is a suspicion of a crime—we cannot then complain if the police say, “Well, we have no reports of serious criminality in that area. Therefore, we are putting our resources where we know that crimes are being committed.” Everyone has to report crimes.
There are small things that can be done. One might consider putting CCTV in farm buildings where there has been a persistent problem. We need to ensure that we put in the right quality of CCTV, so that it can be used as evidence to secure a conviction. People can spend a lot of money on anti-crime measures that are no good when we look at the product at the end of the day.
Much rural crime, as I have said, is down to a few—sometimes a very few—people who stalk the countryside prepared to steal anything that is not nailed down. They take advantage of the fact that many fewer people are working in the countryside and of the isolation of business premises and some of the places where high-value goods are stored. We need to ensure that rural crime is a priority at policing level, that we continue to offer support through our position in Parliament and the Government, and that we recognise the importance of this issue to our constituents. There can be a sense of siege if this activity is happening night after night in their areas. Only through a combined, partnership effort and this issue being a priority of elected politicians can we ensure that the problem of rural crime ceases to prey on the minds of people who live in rural communities.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your stewardship again, Mr Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing the debate and on his wide-ranging contribution, stretching across the panoply of issues that cover rural crime. It is sometimes difficult to establish exactly what is rural crime, but I think the essence of it is that it is non-urban crime. There are some similarities between urban and rural crime—theft of oil, for example, often takes place in the heart of my urban communities, but it is a significant issue in rural areas—but there are some special areas of concern in rural communities. The hon. Gentleman covered a wide range of them, and I commend him for doing so.
Livestock rustling is a concerning and fascinating area. As I mentioned in my intervention, the fact that 60,000 sheep disappear is of great concern and has a significant effect on those who make their livelihood from the husbandry of livestock, but of equal concern is the question of where they are disappearing to. Where are they washing up within the food chain? How are they entering the food chain where there is no traceability whatsoever? That is a real issue. I hope that the Minister, in discussions with his colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, will address how we clamp down on that further without imposing additional burdens on the farming community. We have to make sure that when animals present at abattoirs and meat processors, they can be identified and traced back to the farm and the landowner.
The hon. Gentleman drew attention to metal theft, another crime that affects urban areas but is of significant concern in sparsely populated rural areas. Many criminals, including perpetrators of quite serious organised crime, see rural areas as an easier target because they offer an opportunity to get away with criminality without the prying eyes of CCTV on every street corner.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned fly-tipping, a long-running issue that has costs and is associated with criminality. It is not an incidental occurrence involving hard-pressed people; the perpetrators are criminals who are trying to get away with not paying their dues towards landfill by simply dumping in the countryside. Ultimately, landowners and local authorities pick up the cost for collecting and disposing of such waste, so we must constantly push forward with measures to tackle the problem.
I am interested in the shadow Minister’s view on whether the increased use of technology in urban and suburban areas is driving the practice out. Has the technology got so good in urban and suburban areas that the problem is simply being spread over a wider rural area?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Increased tightening up in urban areas displaces criminal activity. Curiously, that brings me to another issue raised by the hon. Gentleman where there has been displacement of activity, namely fly-grazing. At a well attended debate in this Chamber about six months ago, hon. Members from England and Wales discussed the matter. When we talk about fly-grazing, we are not talking about the individual pony or horse that we occasionally see on an estate, tethered by a rope to a peg in the ground, where we worry about the animal welfare considerations and wonder why the animal is there. Neither are we talking about some within the Traveller community who have a culture of keeping the odd horse and parking it somewhere temporarily. There is serious criminality behind fly-grazing, as we know in Wales, which is why, as I am sure the Minister is aware, the Welsh Government recently worked with local authorities to change the law in Wales.
The change in the law in Wales was designed to deal with the massive incidence of fly-grazing, in which hundreds of animals were being parked on environmentally sensitive areas, or in which landowners would find that their fences were demolished and animals appeared on their land. In such cases, the local authority would have to go through all the bureaucracy involved in seizing the animals, many of which were in very bad condition, and absorb the cost of looking after them. If no owner came forward to claim ownership of the animals, the local authority would be obliged to auction them off at a knock-down price after giving them a full veterinary overhaul and making sure that they were all okay; only to find that, lo and behold—what a surprise—the owner, although never declaring themselves as such, would turn up and buy the lot of them, and a couple of weeks later they would appear in another farmer’s field or in another area of environmental sensitivity.
The Labour Welsh Government have changed the law in Wales, but one direct outcome of the change has been to displace that activity; it has moved elsewhere. Let us be frank about this: it is serious, organised, large-scale criminal activity. We are not talking about the odd individual; the police have identified family concerns involved in such activity. Instead of just going over the border, the problem is starting to wash up in English counties such as Hampshire. It seems to have been quite well planned. What conversations has the Minister had with ministerial colleagues in DEFRA on the matter? Is he minded to consider a change in the law to ensure that such criminal activity is not displaced across the border into England, and that local authorities have the tools to deal with the problem, should it wash up on their borders?
The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey raised the need for better collaboration to tackle serious and organised crime, and I agree entirely. Interestingly, there are good examples of predominantly urban police forces deploying their resources to assist predominantly rural areas. In my own area, South Wales police provides significant financial support, resources and expertise to deal with serious and organised crime in Dyfed-Powys, for example, which covers the largest rural area in Wales. We must ensure that police forces collaborate to deal with such issues.
The hon. Gentleman covered so many things in his speech that he did not have time to tackle one of the biggest areas of serious crime—illegitimate gangmaster activity. In a neighbouring constituency to the hon. Gentleman’s, within the past year a large group of Lithuanian workers were seized, found living in the most appalling portakabin-style accommodation. They were not being paid the minimum wage, deductions were being made from their pay left, right and centre, and they were being kept in the most appalling conditions by an illegal, illegitimate gangmaster. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority was a great innovation after the Morecambe bay tragedy. This shows that there the GLA is still needed, and I say to those present of all parties that it must still be adequately resourced so that it can be effective—lean, mean, efficient and nasty in dealing with illegitimate gangmasters. The people who suffer most from that aspect of what is predominantly rural crime are the legitimate operators—the food producers and farmers—who are undercut by those criminals. Gangmasters and trafficking are often linked to other serious crime such as drugs or money laundering, so they must be tackled.
The hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) has a great deal of experience as a former DEFRA Minister and a landowner. He mentioned the role of our new police and crime commissioners in influencing priorities on rural crime. There are good examples of best practice, and we must ensure that it is spread out to others so that they can choose whether to implement it in their own areas. We could argue that the old police authorities, if they had been so minded, always had the opportunity to deploy a rural focus on certain aspects of crime. Some PCCs have stood up and said publicly that they will focus on certain aspects of crime. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, we all need to play a part, and because of the nature of the challenges in rural areas, landowners, farmers, neighbourhood watch, farm watch and farm contractors must come together to tackle the problem.
I was glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the section 59 reforms on the seizure, confiscation and destruction of vehicles, because it saves me from having to do so. The reform is a welcome innovation, because it hits those involved in such crime, hard and rapidly. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) made an intervention, which I will return to in a moment, following on from her recent excellent debate.
I would welcome the Minister’s response on whether he is minded to consider extending the fly-grazing enabling powers to local authorities in England. That would be a huge step forward. Why not do it? It would not impose costs on local authorities in England, but would save them money. At the moment there are huge costs to them for looking after the animals and getting them veterinary treatment, and for the enormous bureaucracy and delay before an owner suddenly pops up to take them off their hands at a knock-down price.
I wonder whether the Minister has recently met DEFRA Ministers to discuss the numbers of police and PCSOs in rural areas. Has he had any representations from those Ministers about the possible effect of those numbers on matters that have been referred to this afternoon, such as hare coursing, wildlife crime, the massive increase in fuel theft from rural homes as well as businesses, livestock rustling, fly-grazing, and organised crime in relation to heavy plant, farm equipment and agricultural machinery? If he has not met Ministers, does he plan to do so soon?
There is a contentious issue that we need to deal with. We have mentioned that police and crime commissioners have flexibility and public accountability in determining priorities for their areas. Setting aside for a moment the controversy about whether badger culling should be part of an overall TB eradication strategy, a fascinating aspect of recent discussions is the fact that there have been significant policing costs, but we are left to guess what they are. However, that involves a direct input; there is a displaced cost—a cost-benefit issue.
What is the effect on other aspects of policing of being forced to put significant amounts of restricted policing money from a finite resource into the policing of badger culls? The Minister shakes his head; I shall continue with the point. Those other policing issues include fly-grazing, hare coursing, the theft of oil from farm businesses, and poaching. At the moment, our best estimate, based on statements—or semi-statements—in the public domain by chief constables or police and crime commissioners is that the cost over nine weeks in Somerset was £740,000, and it was just short of £2 million over the extended duration in Gloucestershire.
In mentioning that he was not talking about whether there should be a badger cull, the shadow Minister made his point obliquely; but does he agree that the entire cost of policing the badger culls was for policing illegal harassment and activity by animal rights organisations? Should not that be the focus of our attention, and does not it support the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) that if anything contributes to rural disillusionment it is the fact that rural people stand back and watch those things unfolding, while very little happens to deal with them? Perhaps there is now a good opportunity to deal with illegal harassment by animal rights activists, rather than to make an oblique point about the cull.
My point about the cull is far from oblique, because I am focusing on the costs. Today is not the time to rehearse again the debate about whether the tool of culling is integral to the eradication of bovine TB. The costs issue is paramount: there is a real cost-benefit analysis to be done. If the figures that I have given, such as the £2 million spent in Gloucester, are correct, that will raise an issue. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether the figure is correct or in the right ballpark—perhaps he will say it is nothing like it and is way above the right figure. I agree that intimidation, bullying and harassment cannot be tolerated, but I hope that it is accepted that there is a role for legitimate protest in any sphere. There are regularly people protesting outside Parliament.
No one should condone illegitimate threats or intimidation from whatever angle they come, but my point is that if £2 million was spent in Gloucester, and if we are to continue the cull this summer in the reasonable expectation that those costs will continue, we cannot deny that that will mean a displacement of police activity, short of the Minister telling us he has found another £2 million to defray the costs. He may say so, and that would be fine—but let us hear it. At the moment we have no clarity about costs. I agree with all the points that have been made about stretched resources in rural areas, and if they are stretched even further in Gloucester and Somerset we should be honest with the public about the impact.
Absolutely—theoretically the hon. Gentleman is right. In practice, we have seen the reality; immense policing costs are absorbed so that the culls can happen. That is my point—not debating the culls but asking the Minister directly what the costs were, and what they will be. It is right for the electorate in the affected areas to know that. The Government said that police and crime commissioners would bring transparency, and with such transparency the electorate could debate the priorities in their area. Alternatively, it would be possible to go cap in hand to the Minister to say, “Give us some more money, because this has taken a fair bit out of our area.”
A positive and constructive part of the debate has concerned collaboration. I welcome the establishment of the national rural crime network, which has brought together many partners across the UK, including at the last count 18 police and crime commissioners—with more, I understand, to come. That has happened with the assistance of, among others, the Rural Services Network—to which we should pay tribute—with the purpose of increasing collaboration and sharing best practice on rural crime, in the face of continuing acknowledged budgetary pressures.
Collaborative work on rural crime is also being done in Wales, and that includes the rural crime mapping scheme which my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South mentioned today and discussed at length in a previous debate. It is an excellent initiative, in which rural crime is electronically mapped and is highly visible to all partners, making it possible to identify and share information about what is happening and what to watch out for. I applaud my hon. Friend for raising awareness of that.
I was recently in Suffolk where a dedicated team of special constables has been established, focusing on particular aspects of crime on farms and in rural communities. There is some flexibility to determine local priorities and collaboration. Established schemes such as country watch, farm watch, horse watch and so on, go from success to success—so there is good practice. These are difficult times for policing, because of stretched budgets, but collaboration is one way forward. I would welcome the Minister’s response to my queries—particularly about his collaboration with DEFRA Ministers.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I join other hon. Members in congratulating my near constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson), on securing the debate. His entirely reasonable final point was to request reassurance that the Government are aware of and sympathetic to people who fear rural crime. I can give him that assurance, not least because his constituency, as he described it, quite closely resembles mine—that is, it is mostly urban but has a huge rural area. I suspect that what he hears from farmers and others who live in villages in his constituency is exactly the same as what I hear.
I thank the Minister for giving way so early. I forgot to ask about something, but I am sure that he can give me some clarification. The issue of liaison with Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is interesting. I understood that a DEFRA Minister was originally going to respond to this debate. I am sure that there is a good reason why that is no longer the case and why the Minister, who is very capable, is present instead. Nevertheless, will he explain? A DEFRA Minister would be able to respond on issues such as hare coursing, wildlife crime and so on. Having said that, I am sure that the Minister will be an able replacement.
The hon. Gentleman will observe that when discussing rural crime we can take either the first or the second word to decide which Department is responsible. The subject falls neatly between the two, and I will happily discuss with DEFRA Ministers the points raised today. I will also discuss his specific point about fly-grazing with Ministers from the Department for Communities and Local Government. He is correct to say that such issues inevitably fall between Departments, but one of the joys of government is ensuring that, just because something may affect more than one Department, it does not fall down a hole between two Departments.
I would like to put the debate into some kind of perspective. I was grateful to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey say that he accepted the context in which police funding is now operating. He was right to do so. When we came into office in May 2010, we inherited the largest peacetime deficit in history. Borrowing increased to unprecedented levels under the previous Government, without due consideration for the long-term economic health of the country. We are proud of the progress we have made in addressing this most fundamental of issues.
Borrowing as a percentage of GDP is down by a third, our economy is growing and unemployment is falling. However, we cannot rest there, because although we have made strong inroads into arresting the deficit, more must be done. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced earlier this year that further cuts will be required into the next Parliament. That will mean that difficult decisions will have to be made, and we should not shy away from that.
Despite all that, we have pushed to secure the best possible deal for the police and protected them again for 2014-15, this time from the further cuts to departmental budgets announced in December’s autumn statement. Central Government funding for the police will be reduced by 3.3% in cash terms in 2014-15, while overall funding will be reduced by even less, once the future police precept is factored in. We have also protected funding for counter-terrorism policing, owing to the ongoing threat of terrorism. By way of comparison with that 3.3%, the remaining Home Office budget will be cut by 7% in cash terms in 2014-15.
That was the overall context. I now turn specifically to Kent, because many of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey were about God’s own county. I know that the funding settlement is challenging, but it is manageable. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has made it clear that the proportion of officers on the front line is increasing, and we are supporting the police through a range of activities to help them to respond to the challenge and ultimately emerge stronger. I appreciate that funding reductions have meant that all forces have had to consider where savings need to be made in terms of officers and staff numbers, but, ultimately, decisions on the size and composition of the police work force are for the individual chief officers and police and crime commissioners.
Of course, Kent has particular rural policing challenges and the crime sets are different from those in other parts of the country. However, the police allocation formula, which distributes the majority of funding to the police, takes account of local circumstances to address the specific needs faced by rural forces. The point about specific needs has been made several times during the debate, and I am happy to assure the House that the formula is designed to recognise the extra difficulties caused by sparsity.
I also recognise the importance of ensuring that we update the formula to reflect the needs of modern policing. That is why the Government are currently conducting a fundamental review of how funding is allocated among police force areas. It will focus on the current police allocation formula and the process of damping, as well as looking at the funding landscape as a whole. Determining how funding should be allocated to the police in future is a complex and important matter that will require careful consideration and take time. It will not be completed before 2016, but the first phase of the work, an internal analytical review, is already under way. Obviously, we will consult the full range of partners at an appropriate point in the development of that work.
I should emphasise that how the money is spent by the forces and police and crime commissioners is at least as important as the amount that they have to spend. PCCs are key; my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey expressed his view about Kent PCC’s priorities in fighting rural crime.
Obviously, we can also do things at the national level to help the police to deal with rural crime. One of them is the police innovation fund, which is worth up to £50 million a year and represents a new step to incentivise innovation and collaboration, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). I agree with him that it is an important way for forces, perhaps those in rural areas in particular, to become more efficient. The fund will also incentivise digitisation to drive efficiencies and improve policing over the long term.
There is already a £20 million precursor fund, which received 115 bids covering a wide range of activity. Indeed, Kent and Essex police were successful in a joint bid, showing that collaboration is alive and well in Kent. They will receive £440,000 from the precursor innovation fund to support their joint visual media evidence and investigation programme. That will allow video evidence to be captured at, for example, a public order event such as illegal hare coursing. That could quickly be made available to investigators and analysed using a range of innovative software techniques, enabling officers to focus in on offenders and increase the chance of successful prosecutions. I am well aware of the point, made by several Members, that thinking that a crime will lead to a successful prosecution is important. As I said, there is a £50 million fund for 2014-15, and I urge forces that feel they have a particular issue with rural crime to put together some good bids to the fund.
Against the background of the fund and the debate more widely, it is important to remember that crime is falling and police reforms are working. Overall crime has fallen under this Government by more than 10%, according to the crime survey for England and Wales, and that is mirrored by the fall in police-recorded crime. Nevertheless, I accept the fact that we must keep pace with the way crime, including rural crime, is changing.
The point has been made that much of what is regarded almost as traditional rural crime is now actually run by organised criminal gangs, and people must be reassured that the Government are treating it as such. The need to combat organised criminal gangs is precisely why we have set up the National Crime Agency, which allows us, for the first time, to tackle the growing threat of serious and organised criminality. It has been in full operation since October, and is already making inroads into criminal gangs. Some of the people who will benefit from that are those living in rural areas who are suffering from the effects of organised criminality in their neighbourhoods.
I turn to crime in rural areas specifically, rather than the general crime statistics. DEFRA’s statistical digest, based on data from police-recorded crime, shows that the average rates of all crime types for rural local authority areas are lower than for urban local authority areas. I think that that is intuitively what people would expect. The percentage decrease in crime over the past six years in rural areas is roughly on a par with the reduction rate in urban areas. The notion that urban crime is coming down because it is being displaced to rural areas, and therefore rural crime is going up, is simply wrong. Crime is going down in both areas, although I take the point about the potential for displacement.
Although crime rates in rural areas tend to be relatively low, rural communities should be able to know what crime looks like in their area and to hold someone to account for doing something about it. I echo the point made by both my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) and the hon. Member for Ogmore: people need to report crime. It is in their own interests not to say, “It is not worth reporting it.” Inevitably, police chiefs will concentrate their resources on where they think they will have the most effect in fighting crime. If crime is not reported, an area may well appear more peaceful than its residents think it is.
As I said, people need someone to hold to account for doing something about crime, which is precisely why we have shifted power to local communities through locally elected police and crime commissioners. I am grateful that, since they have come into operation, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury has been converted to the virtue of having that local accountability mechanism. I know that he has seen benefits for his constituents in the initiatives put forward by the police and crime commissioner for the Thames valley, Anthony Stansfeld. I also agree with my hon. Friend’s remarks about target hardening in rural areas for particular types of crime, often committed against farmers who have valuable machinery on their premises. We need to do exactly that.
Rather than talking about the overall levels of reported crime, hon. Members were saying that specific crimes, such as the theft of fuel oil, metals or plant and machinery, are easily displaced to rural areas. Will the Minister tell us whether he has any figures to say that those crimes are not increasing? Certainly, the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association and others will say that they are increasing significantly—to the extent that fuel theft went up by 166% in one year. That is disproportionately within rural areas.
The figures I was citing from the DEFRA digest were, of course, aggregate figures. Within those figures, individual crime types go up for a number of reasons—not just in rural areas, but generally. Sometimes, the crime rate goes up because it is being better reported, as people think that it is worth doing something about it.
Perhaps now is a convenient time to deal with metal theft, as that is one of the points that the hon. Gentleman asked about. We recognise that it has a huge impact on communities, which is why we have taken a number of actions. We have increased the financial penalties and banned cash payments. We have supported targeted enforcement through the Government-funded national metal theft task force, which has led to a fall in metal theft. The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 further tightened the net around rogue dealers who flout rules. The task force is funded until September 2014. We have spent £5 million supporting it to give sufficient time for the reforms to become well established.
The statistics show that there has been a decline in metal theft in each quarter of 2012-13. There was a 40% fall between April-June 2012 and January-March 2013. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and others can take that as some reassurance that effective action can lead to falls in crimes that are often concentrated in rural areas.
Another important point is greater information and transparency. We have the police and crime commissioners who hold the forces to account, but the public need to be able, in an informed way, to hold PCCs to account and decide whether to re-elect them. That is why we are providing more local information about crime and what the police have done in response to it. That information is regularly updated on police.uk, the national crime and policing web portal, which provides the public, including those who live in rural communities, with local information about crime and antisocial behaviour. On police.uk, the information is presented clearly and concisely, allowing the public to access it in a useful way.
Hon. Members on both sides have made the point that some PCCs have prioritised rural crime, which is, of course, evidence of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury—that having elected local officials means that they have to reflect what local people want. If they are representing an area with a significant rural population, it would be sensible for them to reflect that, and several of them have. For example, in north Wales the PCC has put in place a rural crime plan, which focuses on engaging with the rural community and addressing their concerns, including theft of equipment and livestock from rural areas. The force is providing a presence at farmers’ markets, and a rural crime team has been created.
As has already been mentioned, the PCC in Suffolk has introduced a dedicated team of special constables, which seems to be the sort of innovative response that we would all welcome. Similarly, we have already heard about the PCC in the Thames valley and the introduction of the Country Watch messaging system, which I am glad to hear from my hon. Friend is proving effective.
A lot is happening at the local level, but a lot is also happening at the national level. We have the UK national wildlife crime unit, a police unit that assists in the prevention and detection of wildlife crime by obtaining and disseminating intelligence from a wide range of organisations. It directly assists law enforcement agencies in investigating wildlife crime. Some of its priorities relate to international crime and the enforcement of the convention on international trade in endangered species, but other priorities are some of the things that we have been discussing today—including poaching, which is one of the specific priorities of the unit.
The unit is jointly funded; this goes back to the point that I made to the hon. Member for Ogmore at the start. The Home Office provides some funding for the NWCU and will continue to throughout the period of the spending settlement. DEFRA provides the same amount of funding for the unit over the next two years.
My message to the Minister is: long may both Departments continue to do so. Some of the crimes that a police constable comes across in the course of his work may be unusual. To have that centre of knowledge to whom he can go, who will say to him, “Yes, you can prosecute this person under this piece of legislation in this way” is absolutely invaluable. Also, it is what the unit does through the partnership against wildlife crime that is of such value to the whole wider aspect.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that tribute to the unit, of which I know he has much experience. As I said, it is an example of a particular problem not being allowed to fall between Departments. We have two Departments here working to support the unit.
As has also been mentioned, at the national level a rural crime network has been set up to tackle countryside crime. So far, it has been endorsed by 18 police and crime commissioners. It is good to see PCCs in rural areas coming together in that way. The idea originated with the Rural Services Network, a not-for-profit organisation that represents a diverse range of rural service providers in the public, private and voluntary sectors.
The PCCs have convened a good group—not just the network itself, but Farmers Weekly, the national community safety network, an online crime reporting system called Facewatch, the CLA and other rural stakeholders. One of the best things the network does is to ensure that best practice is shared, so that things can be co-ordinated and sustained effectively. The network wants to provide an online resource for the police, community safety practitioners and others precisely to share information, training and development, access to case studies and so on.
Altogether, the network is one of the more exciting developments, which will enable things to happen at a national level, although it is absolutely locally based and based on real world experiences. All those involved will be able to learn from one another and to work collaboratively on new ideas and solutions that will benefit local people.
There is clearly a lot that can be done with technology. I am delighted to see that the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) has come to this debate. She will remember that on 5 March I paid tribute to her constituents who have gathered information to provide the digital map that, as she explained earlier, is helping North Wales police to tackle rural crime in their local area. Her presence in Westminster Hall today allows me to pay that tribute once again. It is a good initiative and I am glad that the information is available; it can be accessed through a tablet, which will help the police get to grips with situations in real time. Again, that is an example of how something developed as a good idea at a local level can become a piece of best practice that is spread and can have a national effect.
Before I conclude, I will mention a group of people who have not been mentioned much—police community support officers. PCSOs play a huge part in effective neighbourhood policing. They provide a highly visible presence within communities and an invaluable link between the police and the communities they serve, with their focus on understanding and identifying local priorities over a long period, as well as on solving local problems, solving low-level crime and engaging with the community.
We need only to look at those aspects of the core PCSO work to see how relevant they are to rural communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey said that people want more visible policing. It is inevitable that in sparsely populated areas people are less likely to see a police officer than if they are in an urban area; common sense would suggest that. Precisely because they have a smaller area to cover and they will not be hauled off somewhere else for response duties, and because they are often in post in a particular area for longer than police officers, PCSOs can develop that network of relationships in a rural area that not only does good things by itself but helps to promote confidence among people that there is somebody they can go to whom they know and who represents the forces of law and order.
I welcome the warm praise that the Minister has just given PCSOs. Back in the year dot, I sat on the long 13-week Committee that brought PCSOs into existence and I see now the massive change in the Minister’s party: it originally opposed PCSOs, but now supports them. That is hugely welcome, because PCSOs are a great asset.
In the seven minutes remaining—it is great when we have lots of time for a Minister to respond to a debate—can the Minister give us some of the details about the cost of the badger culls? Also, has he considered the extension of the fly-grazing legislation to England?
I shall repeat what I said earlier—perhaps I was not clear enough before—but I will happily take away the point about fly-grazing and I will discuss it with DEFRA Ministers. The hon. Gentleman will accept that this issue clearly requires input from a range of Departments, and I am happy to seek that input. Let me take this opportunity to deal with a number of issues; I will tease the hon. Gentleman by coming to the issue of badger culls last.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the process to stop stolen animals from entering the food chain. On 1 April, DEFRA launched the animal reporting and movement service, a new digital system to record and trace sheep movements. It gives farmers the option to report electronically. All markets and abattoirs are connected to the system, so anybody who has suspicions now has an easy and painless way to report them.
On the issue of badger culls, the policing costs are £2.3 million in Gloucestershire, £446,000 in West Mercia and £739,000 in Avon and Somerset. Those are indicative costs. We are yet to receive the report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary that reviews the resources deployed in respect of the badger culls; that report will obviously give the final figure. I should add that DEFRA has agreed to pay all the additional policing costs.
I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.
I thank the Minister for that response; it is great to have it accurately now on the record. Can he tell us whether those costs are for the year just gone, and does he have the costs for the year ahead? Based on the Government’s decision last week, the two culls in Gloucester and Somerset will continue for the year ahead. Does he have an estimated figure for the costs in the year ahead?
I do not, for the very good reason that we cannot possibly know what the policing requirements will be. The hon. Gentleman had an instructive exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) about the difference between peaceful protest, which we all recognise is acceptable, and illegal protest and obstruction. Clearly, the amount of extra policing cost is intimately related to the amount of illegality that may go on, so assessing costs in the future would simply be guesswork. I do not think it would be sensible for me to do that. However, those are the costs.
I am sure that DEFRA Ministers and officials are doing all that is necessary. I am just saying that it would be foolish if the hon. Gentleman tried to tie me down to detailed figures now, because until we make an assessment of the likely level of criminality it is impossible to make an assessment of the likely amount of police activity. I am sure that he recognises that.
In general, I hope that I have been able to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey and others that, first, the Government attach huge importance to issues relating to policing crime in rural areas and that, in particular, we have taken a number of actions at national level that we can see are having beneficial effects. On top of that, the introduction of PCCs has meant that a new raft of innovative ideas are being introduced all over the country, and therefore being shared all over the country, in ways that will further benefit people who live in rural communities and who have as much right as people who live in urban areas to expect a decent police presence, decent policing and decent anti-crime activities.
What we see from all this activity is that the PCCs and the forces are bringing innovative ideas into reality, and they are creating modern forces that can meet, in particular, the ever-changing demands of modern policing. When people think of modern crime, they tend to think of online crime, fraud and so on, but the debate has been instructive in pointing out that the crimes that people who live in rural areas are facing are also changing. Consequently the police response and the response of the wider public need to change too, in aspects such as target-hardening. The point that fighting crime is, in a sense, the responsibility of all citizens—although we give specific powers to the police, PCSOs and other crimefighters to lead the charge—is a good one. We all have responsibilities.
I return to the first point made about the funding settlement. Of course that creates challenges for PCCs and forces, but those who are prepared to innovate, collaborate, transform their forces and use new technology to drive efficiencies will find that it is possible not only to beat their budgets but to police more effectively than before. I absolutely believe that that is as true in rural areas as it is anywhere else. There are many ways in which rural policing is improving and can continue to improve, so the fact that, as the crime survey shows, our streets are safer than ever—[Interruption.]
Order. We will suspend for the Division. If there is one vote, we will return at 4.15 pm. If there are two votes, we will return at 4.25 pm. If both the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury are here for the next debate before then, we can start earlier.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.