I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I start by welcoming the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) to her place. I know that she has been racing around the country with her departmental responsibilities this week. It is a great pleasure to me that she has made it back, and I anticipate that she will be able to update the House with some progress on this topic, following her discussions with the Secretaries of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office. I also extend a welcome to the shadow spokesperson, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), my fellow MP from the eastern region, who I know has taken a diligent and careful interest in this topic and other rural matters.
What is hare coursing? It is the pursuit of hares by greyhounds or other sight dogs. The dogs compete and are judged as they chase the hare, as it tries to escape to, essentially, save its own life. The dogs are then evaluated when they catch and kill the hare. It involves dogs being bred as competitive animals, and quite substantial amounts of gambling are often involved. Hare coursing is already illegal in the United Kingdom, yet it is a commonplace crime in many areas of the country. That is the reason and purpose of my Bill.
Although hares are not, thankfully, an endangered species in England and Wales, their numbers have declined markedly from being counted in the four or five millions to a level of 800,000 or 600,000 today. I am grateful to the Government that brown hares are listed as a priority in the UK’s biodiversity action plan. There are strong arguments to make further legislative changes to reduce harm and protect our hares on animal welfare grounds, but also on the grounds of providing reassurance to our rural communities that the seriousness of this crime is fully appreciated and laws will be enforced appropriately.
There are lots of options for hon. Members when they are selected in the ballot for private Member’s Bills. My reason for selecting this Bill came, first and foremost, from the experience of meeting many constituents in North East Bedfordshire.
Bedfordshire is a small but mighty county. Notwithstanding its relatively small area, it is hard, if not impossible, for the police to provide the same level of response in rural areas as they can in the town. I have had the great privilege to be the Member of Parliament both for the town of Bedford and now for the much more rural area of North East Bedfordshire. I must admit that when I was Member of Parliament for Bedford I was not too familiar with the extent of hare coursing or the concerns raised about it in the county.
As I spoke to my constituents, I was struck by an analogy. It may not be a fair or appropriate analogy, but I am going to say it anyway, because it has stuck with me. In towns, for families, when they worry about whether the police are there, the main issue is drug dealing—seeing that someone is on the street corner peddling drugs and worrying for their kids about what may happen. They want it stopped and they know the police cannot stop it every time it occurs, but they are never asked to go and intervene to try to stop it. In rural areas, families on farms and in other isolated communities see hare coursing going on. They want it stopped—they do not want to see what comes along with it—but they are scared about intervening because they are scared of what may come along later. I worry that the legislative framework too often focuses on an expectation that the police will be there to help someone in the first example—drug dealing, where we would never anticipate anyone intervening—and yet is a little bit too casual in the second example, with the expectation, certainly as the legislation sits now, that the issue will somehow sort itself out locally and the police and courts do not need to get involved.
This Bill seeks to level the playing field between the two issues. Families feel isolated and intimidated, and often, sadly, there is no effective police presence available there in the moment.
After I had selected this Bill, in October there was graphic representation in my constituency of the harm caused by hare coursing, arranged around a funeral. A hundred or so people involved themselves in some form of tribute to the deceased person through a mass hare coursing event, trampling through private land, killing hares and then grotesquely parading through the town of Bedford, holding up dead hares on the fronts of their vehicles and honking their horns as they drove through the town. Bedfordshire is not the only county that suffers from this. As I know the Minister understands, this issue covers wide stretches of the country. It is time for a change.
In brief—I will return to this if time allows, Madam Deputy Speaker—my Bill seeks to recognise that hare coursing involves acts of animal cruelty to both hares and dogs, criminal damage to crops and other items, intimidation and sometimes violence from those involved in hare coursing, and stress for families living in isolated communities, with severe effects on mental health and wellbeing. I am advised that it is increasingly connected to organised crime, drug dealing and online gambling. The problem the Bill seeks to address is that a police response in rural areas can, understandably, take time or may not be possible as the crime is being committed, but the law is inadequate at present to empower the police to bring forward charges, even when the evidence is compelling.
The penalties are laughably low, certainly in comparison with the financial gains that can be made and the suffering involved. The Minister may confirm this, but I think the fines are usually in the range of £200 to £800. Often, when people are caught, £10,000 or £20,000 is found in their vehicle, so those fines are clearly not appropriate.
In brief, my Bill will broaden police powers to include a new offence of going equipped for hare coursing, introduce a power for the police to seize dogs used in hare coursing, require offenders to pay the kennelling costs, increase the level of fines for successful prosecution and, for the first time, introduce a penalty of imprisonment for hare coursing.
Despite my best efforts to ask the Clerk to include a closed season in the Bill, I was advised that that was out of scope. Therefore, I will be limited on what I say about the issue, other than to mention that if hon. Members cast their eye down the order paper they will see the Hares (Closed Season) Bill. That could, depending on what the Minister may say today, permit us some leeway to bring the issue back on another day.
My efforts have come about because of my election as Member of Parliament for North East Bedfordshire and because of my opportunity to introduce a private Member’s Bill, but as the Minister and shadow Minister know, efforts to achieve these changes have been going on for a long period. It is entirely appropriate that I should mention those involved, most importantly the hare coursing coalition. Its wide base of support indicates the level of feeling among rural communities on this issue. It involves the National Farmers Union, the Countryside Alliance, the Country Land and Business Association, the Tenant Farmers Association, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Kennel Club and the National Rural Crime Network. All of these organisations, with their disparate interests but shared concern for our natural habitats and rural communities, are speaking with one voice and asking the Government for change.
It is also the case that a Member of Parliament does not stand alone on this issue. First and foremost, I thank my fellow Bedfordshire MP, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). Not only does he have a deep understanding of policing issues, from his time as a Minister and as the senior Member in Bedfordshire, but he has been a resolute supporter of the victims of crime. I am very grateful to him for his advice and counsel as I have prepared this Bill. His focus has been very much to say that this crime should not be seen as a rare event and that for some people in some areas it is an everyday potential occurrence, having a devastating effect on families and isolated communities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) led the last Westminster Hall debate on this issue in December 2020. I spoke to him and he impressed on me that the current levels of fine are derisory and essentially can be laughed away by anyone involved in this criminal activity. He hopes we will be able to achieve some change on that.
I have a hunch that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will be raised in the Minister’s speech. My recently knighted—I do not know whether the right term is “ennobled”—colleague my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill) moved amendments to the Bill which were withdrawn. Subsequently, and perhaps drawing on an even higher authority than a knight of the realm, the right reverend prelate the Lord Bishop of St Albans—interestingly, the head of my own bishopric covering Bedfordshire—mirrored those efforts in the House of Lords. It is entirely appropriate and right that I should pay tribute to both of them for their efforts.
The police have been taking strong action to reassure rural communities, particularly in the last five years. Operation Galileo has been the front organisation for this, co-ordinating police activity across a number of police authorities under the inspiring leadership of Chief Inspector Phil Vickers of Lincolnshire Police. This co-ordinated approach has enabled the police to share crucial information to identify where hare coursing is moving from one county to another, so the police force in Bedfordshire can respond to activities that have occurred in Cambridgeshire, for instance. It has enabled co-ordination around particular days—co-ordinated action days—to catch offenders, and, most importantly, has enabled letting constituents know that the police are doing the best they can with the powers they have. I am seeking to improve those powers.
This is not a small issue. One of the people convicted for hare coursing is now serving a 13-year jail sentence not to do with hare coursing but to do with drugs and gambling, and another is doing 10 years for similar offences. So there is a strong, established connection between hare coursing and much more serious crime involving things that can obviously then lead to intimidation to those who may wish to intervene.
My police and crime commissioner, Festus Akinbusoye, has led the charge, given the constructive initiative by this Government to increase the number of police officers around the country, to bring extra focus to providing policing support in rural areas, and I am very supportive of, and grateful to, him and the chief constable for their actions. The Government say in their “Action plan for animal welfare”:
“We will also bring in legislation to crack down on the illegal practice of hare coursing. Although hare coursing is prohibited under the Hunting Act, it remains a serious problem. As well as being an important animal welfare issue, its continued practice causes serious harm in rural communities through associated criminality.”
So the Government recognise this, and of course I will be looking to the Minister responding to the debate to comment.
I now turn briefly to the detail of the Bill. Clause 1(3) amends the Game Laws (Amendment) Act 1960 to insert the principle that the police are able to seize animals as well as equipment. It also provides that if a person is found guilty of offences under the Act the courts have the ability to say that a dog should not be returned to its owner, and if it is returned to the owner the full costs of kennelling must be reimbursed before any return can occur. That is important because dogs can be the most valuable assets and are the basis upon which gambling can take place. At the moment, kennelling costs are incurred by the police, not the person involved in criminal activity. That can act as a deterrent to taking action for some police forces. It seems to me that requiring full reimbursement would be a proportionate response.
Clause 1 would introduce, for the first time, a liability on conviction of imprisonment of up to six months for those involved in hare coursing. That is quite a significant change. I have mentioned before in the context of greedy bankers and the problems in 2008 that it does not matter how much a banker is fined—it is probably a small fraction of his or her income. What was much more important was making them do the perp walk in handcuffs and taking them off to jail. It would change the risk profile for hare coursing, and I want to hear from the Minister whether she supports that change—I hope that she will.
Clause 2 would expand the understanding of the offence of hare coursing to include “going equipped”, again with the possibility of imprisonment for up to six months. That recognises how difficult it will be for the police to get to a location, often in an isolated area of the countryside, while the activity is taking place. By expanding the offence to include going equipped, it would empower the police to take more effective action.
Clause 3 provides more detail on the circumstances in which police may seize and detain a dog that has been used in hare coursing. Again, that is because most of the legislation is somewhat generic, dates back to the 1800s and is unclear. The Bill would clarify the position.
I am aware that several colleagues wish to speak, so I will end with three questions for the Minister. If we make progress through the Bill or other measures, can she give some guidance on how the Home Office will communicate with and train local police forces? Getting the message out is important, to ensure that the police know that they now have those powers. Will the Crown Prosecution Service provide guidance and advice to magistrates about the increased penalties, because that will be important, and communicate why Parliament has decided that the penalties should be increased? Will any changes be in place before the start of the new season for hare coursing at the end of the summer?
It is a tremendous honour to be selected to introduce a private Member’s Bill. It is a particular honour to be able to introduce a private Member’s Bill on an issue that affects a large number of one’s own constituents as well as many others elsewhere. I appreciate the actions to date of the Secretary of State, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about the Bill.
Hare coursing is wrong, illegal, cruel to the hares, often cruel to the dogs and, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) said, it is often linked to other criminal activity. Any hon. Members who have had the pleasure of visiting the constituency that I represent will probably appreciate that it has only so many flat and rural parts where hare coursing is likely to happen. But my constituency is surrounded by other areas where hare coursing has certainly happened in the past, and it needs to stop.
As my hon. Friend said, while brown hares were at historically high populations across the United Kingdom, their numbers are now declining. At a time when many areas of the UK are being rewilded, it makes a lot of sense to do what we can to prevent the further decline and abuse of those wild animals.
If the Bill does not proceed to Committee today, I hope that the Minister will work with my hon. Friend and those campaigning for further measures to ensure that we strengthen the powers of the police to take action to prevent hare coursing, and strengthen the penalties faced by those who are guilty of it, so that we can properly crack down on this despicable activity.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) on taking forward this Bill on such an important issue. He has mentioned the organisations that have helped. I also thank those organisations, including the NFU, the CLA, the RSPCA and, as he says, the Tenant Farmers Association.
Hare coursing is a barbaric crime. As a veterinary surgeon and MP, I passionately welcome that the Government and my hon. Friend are moving forward with this important legislation. As a House, we are passionate about animal health and welfare, and it is so important that the Bill progresses. I welcome that the Government have intimated that they are going to take it forward, and that it is an important part of their action plan for animal welfare. The Government are very much strengthening their action on animal welfare in a number of different pieces of legislation.
As my hon. Friend has mentioned, hare coursing may be covered in some other legislation, such as the Hunting Act 2004 and the Animal Welfare Act 2006, but what is so important about today’s measures and the Government moving forward is that the action is going to be strengthened, and the deterrent is going to be increased to stop and stamp out this awful crime.
My hon. Friend mentioned the blight that this activity has on rural society and the potential effects on people’s mental health—and rural mental health is a key concern across the country. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, on which I sit, has launched an inquiry on the very issue of rural mental health. It closes for evidence today, so there is still an opportunity to have some input.
I will concentrate my remarks on the animals involved. As we have heard, the hare is a beautiful wild creature that is under threat and is being persecuted in a horrific way. The numbers—about half a million—are not what they should be, so I welcome that this animal is a priority in the UK’s biodiversity action plan.
I also want to mention the dogs, which, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, are perceived as a key asset by the awful people who perpetuate this crime. This Bill will allow for the seizure and detention of such dogs. I would argue that the people involved in this activity have no concern for animal welfare—certainly not for the hares—and I question their concern for their dogs’ welfare. It is key that resources are made available. If dogs are to be seized and detained, we need to keep their welfare at the heart of what we do. I urge the Government to ensure that there is joined-up thinking, so that resources are in place and these dogs do not suffer anymore.
This activity is part of the bigger picture of rural crime that my hon. Friend has mentioned, which includes poaching, fly-tipping, the theft of farm machinery and the theft of animals. I pay tribute to my local police force, Cumbria police, for the hard work that they do to protect rural communities against the blight of rural crime. I thank our chief constable, Michelle Skeer, and police and crime commissioner Peter McCall, for all the work that they and their teams do. I also thank Farm Watch Cumbria, which is a group of police, farming communities and rural communities, in an extension of the Neighbourhood Watch scheme; people working together to stamp out rural crime is so important.
This legislation, however it moves forward, will be an example of joined-up thinking and joined-up action across Government, between DEFRA, the Home Office, and the Ministry of Justice, and potentially local government. If we feel passionately about animal health and welfare, it is important that the issue is joined up across different policies and items of legislation.
The Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill is another example. We talk about rural crime and animal crime, but I also very much welcome the fact that the Government are introducing stronger deterrents for the awful crime that is pet theft. I am on the record as having often nagged DEFRA hard to expand that legislation to include other animals, such as farm animals, horses, ponies and cats, because it is not just about dogs. I have spoken about dogs today, I am passionate about them and we have to protect them, but if we believe that stolen animals are fully sentient beings—as we talked about in the debate this week on that other pivotal legislation, the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill—we have to put animal health and welfare at the heart of our legislation.
I welcome the Bill. We need to strengthen the deterrent against the hideous crime of hare coursing. I wish to put on the record the fact that animal health and welfare is an issue that joins together Government and Opposition Members. I have worked closely with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), on animal health and welfare issues. Animal welfare unites us in humanity and I am confident that this legislation will attract support from all parties. I commend the Bill and the Government for taking it forward, in whatever capacity, and I wish it well on its travels.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) on bringing the Bill to the House and welcome the Government’s support for it. I am soon due to visit a kennel in my local council area, Dacorum. Many colleagues will be bored with my saying it, but it is worth repeating that my beautiful South West Hertfordshire constituency is around 80% rural and green belt.
As has been mentioned, hare coursing often brings about criminal damage, theft, violence and intimidation. Yesterday, I was fortunate to meet Hertfordshire’s excellent police and crime commissioner David Lloyd and Chief Constable Charlie Hall to speak about the introduction of measures to continue the fight against crime of all natures.
The Bill offers protection against the use of private land for the benefit of hare coursing. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire alluded to in his speech, this is not a victimless crime. It is all well and good to offer protection where we have sufficient evidence, but a lot of this happens in rural areas and, as he said, we normally see just the tip of the iceberg in respect of the other associated criminality. It is only right and proper that as legislators we give those on the frontline— in this case the police, DEFRA and the Environment Agency—the necessary tools. Sometimes, it is so troublesome for them to do something that they avoid doing it in the first place.
My hon. Friend mentioned the penalties associated with the existing legislation. When we are talking about, potentially, the illegal gambling of thousands of pounds, a minor fine of between £200 and £800 is part of the cost of doing business. By providing for the taking away of the animal, at least temporarily, the Bill will ensure that there can be no revenue stream while further investigations are under way. The Bill therefore makes absolute sense and I welcome it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) spoke about brown hares. As he said, with an estimated population of just under half a million in England, brown hares are listed as a priority in the UK’s biodiversity action plan. These animals are really important to our ecosystem.
I will wrap up by repeating what others have said. Hare coursing is a dangerous, unregulated and illegal sport and we need to give those on the frontline the tools necessary to ensure that it does not continue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) on his work on this Bill and on getting it off the ground and through this place. It is fantastic to see the widespread support for the Bill from not only Government Members but all parties.
It is important to note that there is a well-established connection between hare coursing and organised crime, with gangs using it for their financial gain. It involves a wide range of other criminal activities, including theft, trespass, criminal damage, violence and the intimidation of honest, hard-working farmers. There are reports of events at which thousands of pounds-worth of bets are placed on this practice, and the events are often streamed online on encrypted messaging sites.
Research from the Yorkshire Agricultural Society shows the alarming extent to which hare coursing still exists. I know the impact that hare coursing has on our farmers from my own experience—I use this opportunity to place it on record that, although I am not, my family are farmers in Lincolnshire—and through the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, which I have met many times to discuss the issue. It has informed me that far too often its members are unwilling to report hare coursing crimes to the police for fear of threat by those who undertake the crime. In fact, on more than one in four occasions, farmers often do not bother even to make the call to the policy to report hare coursing crimes, and only about 18% of police responses were deemed to be satisfactory. Farmers fear that the current legislation cannot result in a severe enough consequence to culprits of that practice, and that police are not empowered enough to act. That is why the Bill is absolutely necessary.
Some farms in Yorkshire are targeted by criminals for hare coursing. The same farms are often repeatedly targeted over a few years, with 82% of farmers targeted on at least three occasions since the start of 2020. Worryingly, research shows that 48% of those who have experienced hare coursing on farms are threatened or verbally abused, and in some instances farmers are physically attacked. Furthermore, 83% of hare coursing instances results in serious criminal damage to farms. That includes crop damage, which occurs all too often when people drive on farmers’ land, causing huge amounts of damage.
The Yorkshire Agricultural Society has informed me of reports of sheep being killed as well as livestock left to get on to the roads and highways. As a result, farmers are having to take preventative action out of their own pocket. One in five farmers have spent at least £5,000 on repairing criminal damage and taking action to prevent hare coursing, and 7% have spent more than £10,000 to do that. That is why the Bill is vital to tackle the issue. Farmers are fed up of having to deal with those issues time and time again. While hare coursing was made illegal, it is absolutely commonplace. Those caught hare coursing are typically prosecuted under the Game Act 1831, but the amount they are fined is often around the £400 mark. Sometimes it is as high as £1,000, but the amount that a farmer has to spend on preventative measures far exceeds this.
In short, measures suggested by farmers who have experienced the toughest consequences of hare coursing include giving the police and courts greater forfeiture powers over associated dogs and vehicles, for police to be able to recover kennelling costs for seized dogs and for far more practical legal powers that do not limit police to capturing criminals in the act before they can be arrested. The Bill goes a long way to helping with all those issues, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire for bringing the Bill to the House.
I, too, rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) in his important efforts to deal with the cruel practice of hare coursing. That activity is undoubtedly driven by organised gangs with links to drug networks who illegally hunt hares with dogs in Norfolk and other areas. It is a serious issue in rural areas, especially flatter arable areas such as North West Norfolk, where the land is open and easier to access.
My hon. Friend began by describing what hare coursing involves. In preparing for today I came across a pretty harrowing RSPCA video showing some activity in Norfolk. Hare coursing is linked not only to cruelty, but to other illegal activity, including theft, criminal damage, violence and threats towards farm workers or landowners. Farmers’ livelihoods are threatened because the criminals destroy their crops. Hare coursing also involves high-stakes illegal betting; higher fines are clearly needed to deal with that issue.
Norfolk police are part of Operation Galileo, the national policing operation to which my hon. Friend referred. Along with other forces, they are targeting gangs using drones, 4x4 buggies and other tactics. Police figures show a 50% reduction in reports in the year to March 2021, with 31 dogs seized, but further powers are needed for the police to target such activity effectively. I know that the Norfolk police and crime commissioner, Giles Orpen-Smellie, is very seized of the issue; I have discussed it with him on many occasions.
The Bill’s proposals to allow the police to seize any animal of someone involved in hare coursing are very welcome, because animals are hare coursers’ key asset. The Country Land and Business Association has warned that on occasion police forces are reluctant to seize dogs because they cannot charge back the kennelling costs, so that loophole needs to be closed, as the Bill proposes. The Bill has also spurred the Government to accept the need for further changes: in addition to my hon. Friend’s proposals, the inadequate powers to deal with trespassing and pursuit of game need to be strengthened with stronger penalties and prison sentences.
I have been working with other rural MPs to support the efforts of DEFRA and the Home Office to introduce new legislation to end this barbaric practice. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his Bill and on the steps he is taking to end this appalling activity, which has blighted rural areas for far too long.
It is a privilege to speak in the debate. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) for his private Member’s Bill.
The cruelty of hare coursing does not stop with wild animals. The dogs used in it face abuse of their own; they are often left for dead once their coursing days are over, when they have been exhausted and are of no use to the criminals who engage in that barbaric crime. I would be bereft without my 10-year-old Jack Russell Clemmie, my eight-year-old Labrador Peppy and my six-year-old Labrador Ebony. I know that people up and down our country—our nation of dog lovers—would be appalled at the disgusting treatment that animals face at the hands of those criminals.
We have recently made great strides in strengthening animal welfare legislation. Last year, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder), was expertly guided on to the statute book. It increases the prison time for those who cruelly mistreat animals from six months to five years. I am also pleased to see the Government supporting the Animals (Penalty Notices) Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), and hope to see it added to the statute book. It will create a system of financial penalties of up to £5,000 for animal health and welfare offences.
Introducing tougher sentences for those who engage in the act of hare coursing will further strengthen the United Kingdom’s exceptional record on animal welfare and protection. I am pleased that the Bill will finally present would-be offenders with a real deterrent. In amending the Game Laws (Amendment) Act 1960, it will remedy the current situation and ensure that the penalty for engaging in hare coursing is no longer just a paltry fine: for the first time, those convicted could also face up to six months in prison.
The Bill will also solve the issue of high kennelling costs for the police by allowing them to recover on conviction the cost of kennelling a dog that has been seized, so they will no longer face a financial barrier to prosecution. It will not only enable them to remove dogs essential to hare coursing and protect them for abuse at the hands of the coursers, but add another deterrent for would-be offenders.
The Bill will build on the animal welfare advances that the UK has already made and will crack down a horrific crime that has blighted rural communities for too long. It will modernise the legislation, giving police the tools they need to tackle the problem and providing a real deterrent for those who would engage in coursing. Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire on his efforts to guide it through Parliament; I hope that it will quickly move through its stages of scrutiny and be added to our statute book. I look forward to seeing that happen in the coming months—best of luck.
The act of hare coursing is cruel and barbaric and has seen the brown hare population drop to less than half a million in England. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) for his consistent campaigning for a strengthening of law enforcement around it. His work is incredibly important from an animal welfare perspective and in allowing for increased protections for our farmers.
Some portray hare coursing as a sport, but it is nothing of the sort. It is an illegal activity where dogs are used to chase, catch and kill hares. I know the Government are committed to strengthening Britain’s already world-leading animal welfare laws, and a much-needed clampdown on hare coursing will certainly help with that. I welcome that the Government have taken note of my hon. Friend’s work and tabled amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that will implement a number of the changes he has called for. I hope that, by that or other means, the penalties will be progressed.
I understand that the changes include an unlimited fine and possible imprisonment for trespassing in pursuit, two new offences for trespass, including with a dog to pursue a hare, offenders on conviction can be charged the costs incurred by the police in kennelling dogs and conviction can disqualify the owner from keeping the dog. That is a fundamental part, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend earlier. Those powers are so important, because hare coursing is not only associated with animal welfare, but a range of criminal activities, including theft, criminal damage—predominantly on our farms—violence and intimidation.
Unfortunately, hare coursing is an issue in Sedgefield, which is a particularly rural constituency. I have spoken to farmers from Walworth, Houghton-le-Side, Bishopton, Sadberge, Sedgefield, Foxton, Morden and Bishop Middleham, among others throughout the breadth of my Sedgefield constituency, and I have also met the National Farmers Union and police to hear their concerns, which are well made and need to be listened to.
In just the past week, Durham constabulary has announced additional patrols around farms to tackle a recent spate of incidents in which quad bike riders have been targeting farmland. A number of my farmers have spoken to me about that issue, and I have met them and been shown the damage caused and the challenges to their personal safety. Officers very much suspect that the activity is linked to poaching and hare coursing. I thank the farmers of Sedgefield for all they do and assure them that I will continue to speak up for them.
The nature of farms is that they are typically remote, leaving their residents exposed when incidents occur and resulting in situations where farmers are at risk of reprisals when reporting those crimes. Farmers in some instances have to pay thousands of pounds to attempt to protect their farms from the criminal damage caused by the quad bikes and indeed by four-wheel drive vehicles, whose owners seem to have an agenda to churn up land as badly as they possibly can to test the capabilities of their vehicles while getting across land to carry out pastimes such as hare coursing.
I hope the increased deterrents that the Bill proposes will serve to protect our farmers in that regard and help both the police and the courts system to tackle the concerning rise in hare coursing incidents. A critical next step though is how the police and courts utilise those powers. I encourage the police to step up their focus on our rural areas to get full value from the changes, but I am also concerned about how the courts proceed. Only this morning, I was talking to the Durham chief of police and her team, and I asked her to advise me of the initiatives they will be taking to use the development of the powers under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to help my constituents.
Although they have not specifically been on rural crime, I have been in discussions on antisocial behaviour. The police are spending significant time and resources to bring offenders to court and, despite multiple repeat offences, custodial sentences are not forthcoming. It is critical that once the law is in place, the police have identified the offenders, and they have been found guilty, the sentence handed down reflects the significance of the crime. It is not just a punishment for the specific offence, but it also needs to be a deterrent for them and others to not repeat. I encourage my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice to do all he can to encourage robust sentencing for those crimes.
To summarise, on behalf of the hares, dogs and farmers of Sedgefield, I thank my hon. Friend for his energies, and I look forward to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill completing its progress and our police and courts robustly enforcing these laws.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) on introducing the Bill. We were on the “Anglia Late Edition” last night, and here we are again today. I agree with every word that has been spoken from the Government Benches. I do not often say that, but I think we are in complete unanimity—[Interruption.] I think the traffic is the other way, actually. We both represent the east of England, and the geography makes this crime particularly prevalent, sadly, in our county. It is one of the rare occasions where our road network seems to work to our disadvantage, because some of the hare coursers use those roads for their nefarious activities.
I have seen the horrible effects at first hand. When I was first elected I was shown round the Trumpington estate by Richard Pemberton and the National Farmers Union. I was struck by how vicious these crimes are and how deeply felt they are by the people who have to clear up the mess and deal with the stress that they cause.
We have heard about the impact on the hare—one of the iconic creatures of our countryside—and about the fall in numbers. I understand that the Country Land and Business Association thinks that tens of thousands are slaughtered every year. We also heard about the impact on the dogs, which are clearly kept in poor conditions. We have heard about the impact on people, and about the links to crime, drugs, gambling and so on.
I would like to say something positive about the work of my local police force, with the Cambridgeshire rural action team working within Operation Galileo—we have heard about that in other areas—with the six other forces in the east of England. It tells me that it has had some success in the past year, reducing the numbers to some extent, which it attributes to joint working and shared databases. I cannot spend all my time being nice about the Government.
Like my hon. Friend, I very much support the bid by the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) to crack down on hare coursing. As my hon. Friend has done with Cambridgeshire, may I thank Gwent Police for its work on rural crime while reflecting that the police need to have the financial tools to do the job?
Indeed, I agree. While I am being horrible about the Government, I remind them that they almost abolished the National Wildlife Crime Unit a few years ago, and that it was only saved after a lot of campaigning.
There has been a lack of pace on this issue. The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson), who introduced the Westminster Hall debate in 2020, pointed out that he had been talking about it for at least six years. The Government keep saying that they are working at pace, but they never specify what that pace is. We need more hare and less snail, I would say.
Let me go back to being kind. I want to bring to the attention of the House two quotations given to me by the Cambridgeshire rural crime action team that sum up some of the problems. One officer said:
“You commonly stop a dirty 4x4 vehicle crammed with males and sighthound dogs knee-deep in mud, with a dead hare in the footwell. When you challenge them, they say they have just brought their dog for a walk in Cambridgeshire. They live in Surrey. That kind of sums it up, doesn’t it?”
Another frustration for a lot of officers is the court system. They tell me that a case can often take six to nine months before getting to court, with the force having to pay kennelling costs for that time, only to find that when it gets to court the court takes the defendant’s side because they said that it was “a family dog and their daughter would miss the dog”. There is something wrong here, which is why we need the legislation to tackle it and crack down on it. I hope that the “going equipped” offence that the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire has included in the Bill will help to address the first problem.
There is much to be done, and I commend the Bill. We want tougher sentences and we want it to be possible to recoup the costs of kennelling. I hope that the work that the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire has done will be reflected in amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Many people in rural communities feel that they have been abandoned for a long time, and they have a sense that criminals can literally ride roughshod without fear of consequences for their behaviour. Action should have come sooner, but it is better late than never. What I can say is that if this Government will not do it, the next one will.
It is a pleasure, as ever, Madam Deputy Speaker, to see you in the Chair. With the leave of the House, I will respond to the debate.
I would like to begin by saying that I grew up on my family’s mixed farm in Somerset. It was always a magical moment to come across a hare, with its great floppy ears, lolloping across the fields and even to have the chance to see hares boxing in the spring. One never forgets that—once seen, never forgotten. They are a much-loved part of our wildlife tapestry but, sadly, they are now a priority species on our biodiversity action plan. For all those reasons, many hon. Members, and even the shadow Minister, are passionate about what we are discussing today.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) for bringing this starkly to our attention and for his dogged work on his private Member’s Bill. I hope he will be pleased with what I say, because we have been working closely together in the cause of the hare. The current legislation needs strengthening to protect these beautiful creatures from the horrible, ghastly, barbaric activity about which we have been hearing so much today, and so many Members have backed that up today.
The seven speakers—all from the Conservative Benches—outlined their views very strongly. Even those representing urban areas, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood), seem to care about the hare, and I think that is very telling. We also heard from my hon. Friends the Members for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra), for Keighley (Robbie Moore), for North West Norfolk (James Wild), for Darlington (Peter Gibson) and for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson), whose expert input we always welcome.
I must also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill), who—as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire—did so much work on this earlier, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson), who initiated the Westminster Hall debate in which many of us took part a year ago and brought this issue to the fore.
We have not been moving at a snail’s pace; we are definitely moving at a hare’s pace. I think the shadow Minister will appreciate the moves that we have made recently to deal with this full-on and really stand up for hares, while also dealing with crime in rural communities. A great deal of support was received in the other place recently, but I must also pay tribute to the hare coursing coalition, which has already been mentioned today—I have met its members for a roundtable talk about the issues—and to the police: I pay tribute to Chief Inspector Phil Vickers for Operation Galileo, and to the National Wildlife Crime Unit, which we have supported through DEFRA and the Home Office and continue to do so, particularly on my watch. We now have 32 police forces joining Operation Galileo, and many police and crime commissioners, including my own Mark Shelford in Somerset and Festus Akinbusoye, who was mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire.
Crucially, we have listened to all this, and we have not only listened but acted. Through the action plan for animal welfare, we will be cracking down further on illegal hare coursing by strengthening legislation. On 4 January, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that we would take the earliest opportunity to act by tabling amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and that is exactly what has happened. I thank the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice for working with us, and I thank the right reverend prelate the Lord Bishop of St Albans, whom I also met and who, along with many others, did so much work in the other place.
Let me say something about the amendment that will, I think, do what my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire wants, because it will make a game-changing difference. It will make it altogether unacceptable to take part in hare coursing.
Yes. That is why we are moving at a hare’s pace. The intention is, of course, to be back here very shortly—let me now answer one of my hon. Friend’s other questions—with a view to having the legislation in place before the start of the next hare coursing season. So action is on the way.
This amendment will really strengthen the law. First, it will increase the maximum penalties to an unlimited fine and six months’ imprisonment if necessary, to target the people who are engaging in this horrible activity. It will apply in all cases regardless of how many people are involved. The courts will also have power of forfeiture over the vehicles. The is the first time that custodial sentences will be available in relation to convictions under the provisions of the Game Acts.
Secondly, our amendment introduces new criminal offences, the first set of offences relating to trespassing on land with the intention of using a dog to search for or to pursue a hare or encouraging the use of a dog or enabling another person to observe such use. There is also a new offence of being equipped to commit one of these new trespass-related offences.
Thirdly, our amendments give the courts new powers to make an order on conviction of hare coursing-related offences to recover the cost of kennelling the dogs. Finally, the courts have a new power to make orders on conviction, disqualifying offenders from ever owning or keeping a dog again.
I will touch on a couple of questions that were raised. On training, the Policing Minister met the police and crime commissioners group this week to discuss how Operation Galileo can give advice and spread the knowledge needed. Similarly, on advice to magistrates, sentencing guidelines are, of course, a matter for the independent Sentencing Council, but the Ministry of Justice and DEFRA are working with the Courts and Tribunals Service to ensure that magistrates are fully briefed on all that.
To conclude, I hope that I have outlined the careful consideration that has been given to everything in the private Member’s Bill. So much so that, even before we reached today’s Second Reading, the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire had been incorporated into the amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
I hope that my hon. Friend realises how much his work has done to move that forward, as have all other hon. Members who have taken part and must be thanked: even the shadow Minister—I spread the love. It has been a joint piece of work in honour of these great animals. In that spirit, my hon. Friend might feel that he does not need to progress his Bill, but I certainly thank him for all his work.
With the leave of the House, and in the light of the Minister’s undertaking to bring forward in other legislation the provisions in the Bill that farmers in Bedfordshire and across the country have long waited for, and with my thanks in particular to the rural crime team of Bedfordshire police, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.