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Organised Crime in Rural Areas

Volume 673: debated on Wednesday 18 March 2020

[Sir David Amess in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered organised crime in rural areas.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I raise an extremely important issue for my constituents, but one that I fear has not been taken seriously enough by the Government in the past. To many in the UK, when I speak of rural crime, they probably think of fly-tipping or, at a push, young people joyriding farm equipment. At worst, “Midsomer Murders” springs to mind, which, while excellent TV programming, offers a rather idyllic portrayal of crime in rural areas. The settings are pristine, the criminals amateur, the stakes low, and the suspect is usually a relative of the victim.

In fact, in much rural crime the stakes are not low for our farmers, businesses and entrepreneurs. In the last year alone, rural crime has cost rural communities £50 million, the highest amount since 2011. According to the latest figures from the National Police Chiefs’ Council, more than £39 million of insurance claims were made in 2016 because of crimes in rural areas. That has a real, substantial and enduring human cost. For many rural people, especially farmers, their homes are their businesses, so when they are attacked, they feel that their families, children and livelihoods are under threat. They often live in highly isolated areas, on their own, where feeling under attack can cause long-term mental health issues.

A 2019 NFU Mutual report stated that one in four NFU Mutual agents knew someone who had to change the way they live or farm as a result of rural crime. That is not surprising, given that £10 million-worth of farming equipment and vehicles were stolen in 2018. A farmer who loses a brand new John Deere tractor or combine harvester will not only have high deductibles and massive up-front costs payable before insurance reimbursement, but could go months without being able to harvest their fields or till their land. These are not cheap vehicles; each piece of equipment is worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. Farmers can often only afford to buy second-hand equipment, let alone the costs of reinstalling security features or upgrading and repairing extensive fencing damage.

Rural crime also has a long and intense effect on mental health. Many rural people feel particularly vulnerable because the emergency services can be a way off. Rurality means that they feel more alone, which is not good for mental health outcomes. That is why 81% of farmers under 40 consider mental health to be the biggest hidden issue that they face, according to a recent survey.

When the costs of rural crime are this substantial, one can bet that it is not the work of amateur criminals—and the Government know that. The Crown Prosecution Service states that rural organised crime is often linked to organised crime groups, which target and exploit rural communities across a range of crime types, such as organised plant theft, livestock theft, burglaries targeting firearms, poaching and hare coursing. The NPCC states that:

“Ongoing livestock theft is raising concerns that stock is being stolen for slaughter and processing outside regulated abattoirs before illegally entering the food chain. Thieves are cloning the identities of large, expensive tractors to make them easier to sell and harder to detect. Small and older tractors are being targeted by organised gangs for export to developing countries.”

Order. Does the hon. Gentleman have the permission of the mover of the motion and the Minister to intervene?

I do. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak. I wanted to come down and support the hon. Lady because rural crime is also a massive issue in my constituency, which is urban-cum-rural, and I live on a farm. I declare an interest as a member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union. In my constituency, the police and the Ulster Farmers’ Union—in the hon. Lady’s constituency it would be the National Farmers Union—are identifying vehicles, trailers and machinery, and are therefore able to trace where they go. They have been very active and some of the stuff stolen in my constituency has ended up in the Republic of Ireland. Has that been done in the hon. Lady’s constituency?

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. In fact, many farmers are doing that, but the organised crime teams behind these thefts—I will get to the organised crux of the issue—find these trackers and identification things and strip them off. That shows that is not an opportunistic crime by people who are driving past and happen to see a highly expensive piece of kit that they can nick. These are organised crime units and they should be considered in the same way as groups involved in terrorism, county lines and child sexual exploitation. We can learn from how those things are handled.

One of my constituents found that his tractor, having started the night in quiet Melton, managed to make it to the shores of Poland by next morning. These are not the actions of small-scale groups but of organised crime units. There is also the example of the farmer who, having left his farm to go to the post office, found his Land Rover being stripped for parts in broad daylight. His livestock trailer was also stolen, as was its replacement a couple of months later, because thieves lay in wait knowing that he would inevitably secure a new trailer. Large flocks are being raided, and a few years ago, animals were being killed to harvest particular organs for cuisine. We found over 900 sheep killed across a couple of counties in just a few months, with their organs shipped abroad to feed particular international cuisines.

Criminal attacks on our farmers, whether on their livestock or their machinery, are targeted, professional and skilled. Given that our farmers and rural businesses know that the people who seek to steal from them are hardened criminals, the NPCC also says:

“Being watched or ‘staked out’ is the biggest concern for people living in the countryside”.

That is unacceptable. Farmers feel under attack and businesses are losing millions every year. Before this debate, I spoke to a representative of the National Farmers Union who said:

“Country people feel that they are under siege.”

We have to take seriously the phraseology they are using—“under siege”—because they do not feel that these are local likely lads who are jumping on opportunities. These are organised crime groups that will hurt them, seek them out, and often come armed when they come to steal from them. Why should farmers not feel under siege? Rural crime is up by 37% in Leicestershire and 74% in Kent, and in Buckinghamshire and Norfolk, crime has more than doubled. It is a crisis.

I speak as a Buckinghamshire Member representing Aylesbury and its surrounding villages. Does my hon. Friend agree that fly-tipping, which she mentioned at the beginning of her speech, can be a very serious issue, because organised criminal gangs frequently bring virtually industrial amounts of waste from cities—often from London, in our case? They dump it in the beautiful villages of the countryside, and it is then left to the local authorities in those areas to clean up, literally and figuratively.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. To me, fly-tipping is the absolute rejection of personal responsibility and everything the Conservatives stand for. It is insidious, it is persistent in our communities, and it is happening on an organised level. Companies that do not want to pay to access waste disposal, or just cannot be bothered, repeatedly drop waste at the same sites, leaving farmers to pick up the cost and councils to try to deal with it.

I know too many constituents who do not believe that their real and justified concerns are being taken seriously. In particular, when farmers call the emergency services, they are often dismissed. One farmer, having found his flock of sheep significantly depleted, was asked by the 111 service, “Are you sure you actually marked them all? Are you sure they haven’t just wandered off, or that you haven’t confused them with the other ones?” Another who had agricultural equipment stolen was told, “Are you sure your child hasn’t taken it for a spin?” At best, crimes in these areas are assumed to be the actions of petty criminals; at worst, farmers are assumed to be fools. This response not only insults the intelligence of farmers and rural people, but completely ignores the steps they take to keep them and their livestock safe. Farmers invest in vehicle immobilisers and the latest CCTV technology, drones, remote tracking, five-lever mortice locks on buildings, alarms and keyless fobs. Farmers will keep fuel tanks in secure compounds and use multiple padlocks to lock their equipment, but this is still not enough.

As the NFU notes, these measures were adopted after the 2011 crime spree, because these criminals operate together, they adapt, they change, they are armed, and they get better. Too often, it appears that the emergency services and those meant to keep us safe do not keep up, which brings me to my real purpose today: we need to expand our rural crime-fighting capacity across the country. That means investing not only in services, but in strategies and training that will allow our Government and public services to better address the unique needs of rural communities when it comes to organised crime, because this is truly organised crime. We can bring together experts working in the areas of counter-terrorism—which is my field—county lines and child sexual exploitation to understand how these groups are operating. We can do some concerted research into how they operate, move together, and are able to bring together local people and convince or blackmail them to give them the information they need to undertake these crimes.

First and foremost, I call today for a dedicated rural crime unit and strategy, either within the National Crime Agency or the Home Office, or as a joint effort. It should incorporate the Plant and Agricultural National Intelligence Unit in some form or another, because of the data that it is able to bring to bear on this question. We also need to standardise policy approaches to rural crime across the UK, because responses can be inconsistent and patchy. The UK Border Agency should also review its role in tackling rural crime and what should be considered organised crime. Given that much of the proceeds of crime can end up in mainland Europe—or, as we have heard, Ireland, which is obviously part of Europe—we must ensure that large machinery stolen on a Monday does not end up on the continent on a Tuesday morning. I ask for 111 and 999 operators to receive specific and improved training to ensure that complaints and reports of crime are taken seriously and acted on appropriately. That is a small step that could make a big difference to our rural communities.

In a similar vein, I hope that the Home Office and police will introduce better guidance for the relevant services, so that investigations of the issues in question will be treated with the utmost seriousness. Police and crime commissioners should have to take account of rural crime specifically, and make sure that there is an element of rural crime strategy in their area.

Order. I do not want to be pompous or pedantic, but it is not in order for a Member who was not here for the start of the debate to intervene. However, if the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) and the Minister agree, the hon. Lady may intervene.

I apologise, Sir David. My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point about the resources we need. I recently visited a constituent after masked intruders came to their farm with baseball bats. They were physically intimidated and they had no response from the police. Does my hon. Friend agree that police services in rural areas should have more resources so that the necessary support is available?

I could not agree more. There is something I would like introduced in my area: we track police cars and know where they go and where those police spend their time, so why can we not do a review every six months to see how often rural communities get genuine visits from police cars? Having worked in the world of counter-terrorism, I recognise that police do not necessarily need to be on the beat or in the village to help those rural communities, but it is a matter of showing them that there will be an impact. In Cambridgeshire a rural crime team was introduced, which travelled around and made sure that every farm and every village was visited. It made an enormous difference and there was a reduction in rural crime.

There should be more work to address the impact on victims, and particularly the mental health of farmers, which I raised earlier. Many groups have been calling for improved services in that area, and those could include a dedicated mental health line for farmers.

Organised rural crime has a huge negative impact on my constituency and rural communities in every area of the UK. However, as with all crime, we can beat it by working together, creating a strategy and responding to the needs of our constituents. We can stop the fear and start taking their concerns seriously. I hope that the small but practical steps I have suggested may be feasible in the future, and I hope that the Minister will agree.

It is a great pleasure to appear before you, Sir David, in an oasis of rigour, discipline, etiquette and calm in these troubled times. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) on securing this debate on crime in rural areas. I know that she is passionate about her area in particular and rural communities in general, and puts their needs at the heart of everything she does. She has raised some interesting points this afternoon, which I will study. I am obviously alarmed to hear about the incident in Staffordshire and, indeed, about fly-tipping, and those things are definitely of growing concern to rural communities across the country.

Many forms of crime, such as domestic violence, modern slavery, fraud and theft, know no boundaries and can be found in urban and rural areas alike. However, the Government recognise that certain forms of crime can, by their very nature, be a particular issue for those who live and work in rural communities—crimes such as hare coursing, livestock theft, fly-tipping and, of course, the theft of high-value agricultural machinery. That is very much reflected in the rural affairs strategy published by the National Police Chiefs Council in July 2018. It was developed following consultation with rural stakeholders and sets out operational and organisational policing priorities with respect to tackling crimes that predominantly affect rural communities.

The strategy is clear that tackling organised criminality is key to police success in tackling rural crime. An example would be targeting gangs that use stolen farm vehicles or machinery to rip out ATMs from their locations and then launder the cash through other activities. That is something I have seen in my constituency. It is worth noting that the strategy emphasises the importance of forces developing close partnerships with regional organised crime units, working across force boundaries and increasing intelligence sharing between stakeholders. That seems to me to be the right approach.

In addition, to support the police response, each Crown Prosecution Service area has a Crown prosecutor dedicated to wildlife, rural and heritage crime co-ordination, to ensure that the specialist knowledge needed to prosecute such offending is readily available. Moreover, the Government are committed to providing all police forces in England and Wales with the resources they need to do their crucial work, in rural and urban areas alike. On 22 January, we announced a police funding settlement of up to £15.2 billion for next year—an increase of up to £1.1 billion compared with last year and the biggest increase in funding for the policing system since 2010.

As far as the workforce is concerned, we have committed to recruiting 20,000 new police officers over the next three years; £45 million has already been committed to start the recruitment process and a further £750 million will be invested next year to enable forces across the country to recruit 6,000 additional officers by the end of March 2021. Of that £750 million, £700 million will go directly to police and crime commissioners.

In addition, the Crown Prosecution Service is receiving an extra £85 million to ensure that the criminal justice system can support the work of those extra officers—and let us not forget the professionalism, dedication and sacrifice shown by special constables in their work. Special constables, along with a range of other volunteers in policing, make a vital contribution to keeping our communities safe, and over the next few years I hope that their numbers will expand, not least because they are incredibly useful in a rural community. Our ambition surely should be for every village and town across the country to have at least one constable or special constable resident in it; though they may not be in uniform, they are, of course, on duty 24 hours a day and therefore able to enforce the law, should that be needed.

By your leave, Sir David, I will take the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton has raised in this debate back to the Home Office and study them, but I hope to reassure everybody in the Chamber that rural crime is one of the areas that we are keen to make progress on.

I am very happy that the Minister has given way to me; I am not sure whether it is traditional or not, but it happens very often. In her introduction, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) gave an example of a tractor that within 24 hours was in Poland. I have examples in my constituency where within 24 hours the machinery has gone to the Republic of Ireland. Has there been an opportunity to discuss with other police forces—An Garda Síochána, for example—those criminal gangs that she referred to, which are operating and taking machinery mainland here and are also going into the Republic of Ireland? Has that been done?

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point, and he is quite right that our operations at the border are critical to our success in tackling in particular the theft of machinery, which takes place all too frequently. He will know that there is a specialist intelligence organisation, funded partly by the insurance industry, that looks for unexpected plant and machinery movements across the border and tries to identify them on behalf of finance companies. I should declare an interest, as the founder and majority shareholder of a plant and equipment finance company that has employed the services of that intelligence organisation from time to time.

While the hon. Gentleman is right that there will be movements across the border into Ireland, the market for plant is an international one, and left or right-hand drive does not really matter when moving a backhoe loader. The movement of plant and, indeed, other contraband and stolen items across the border is key. He might be interested to know that just this week I met the National Police Chiefs Council lead on acquisitive crime to talk specifically about some of those issues, not least ATM thefts in rural areas, the theft of plant and equipment and, indeed, high-value cars, which we are seeing more and more concealed inside containers and then shipped out of the country to other parts of the world.

From my point of view, as a constituency MP who represents 200 square miles of beautiful rolling chalk downland in Hampshire and who has in the past two or three weeks had meetings with members of the farming community to talk about exactly this issue, we have been discussing something close to my heart and on which I think we need to make progress. Hon. Members have my undertaking that we will.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.