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Farming Communities: Rural Crime

Volume 797: debated on Thursday 2 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of rural crime on farming communities.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. Crime, wherever it takes place, has serious repercussions. Assessments through the crime victimisation survey show that vandalism and theft were the most common crimes experienced by agriculture, forestry and fishing businesses. In addition to theft of agricultural instruments and machinery, fly-tipping, poaching and livestock worrying are also particular concerns for farmers. NFU Mutual’s Rural Crime Report 2018 estimated the cost of rural crime was £44.5 million in 2017.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I recently met with a group of Hertfordshire farmers, and among the many areas they raised with me was the problem of hare coursing, which is not only causing great damage to their land in some cases but means they receive threats of physical violence. It is a very difficult problem. The low level of prosecution shows that the current law is not making any impact on this at all, and those who have looked into it believe that some simple changes in the law could make a great difference. Would the Minister commit to looking afresh at whether we can reform the Game Act 1831 and the Night Poaching Act 1828 to bring the seizure and forfeiture powers into line with the Hunting Act 2004?

My Lords, I also last week met Stuart Roberts, the vice-president of the NFU who farms in Hertfordshire. Clearly, the intimidation and fear of gangs arriving on people’s land, often at night, is wholly unacceptable and must be addressed. I take the point that the right reverend Prelate has made about some fairly old Acts, but there is also the Game Laws (Amendment) Act 1960. What the police are doing with Operation Galileo in Lincolnshire, where there was a 30% reduction last year, is a way forward. I also commend the six forces in the east of England which have come together to share intelligence to help put an end to this devastating activity for farmers, particularly those in the eastern and southern counties.

My Lords, is this not fundamentally an issue of police resources? The current policing formula does not really take account of the particular challenges and problems in rural areas. The Minister talked about organised criminal gangs; as we know, they are operating in a number of areas, stealing livestock and farm machinery, almost to order. They cause real distress to isolated local communities. Would the Minister agree to speak to his colleagues in the Home Office about how those communities can be better supported? In these isolated communities, people feel they are fighting crime on their own and they need help. It is a question of police resources and perhaps the Minister would take it up.

My Lords, I certainly will. As rural affairs Minister, I take the whole issue of the way in which rural communities are looked after very seriously. This is particularly important for isolated communities. The police resources allocation formula is a calculation that uses various data sources to share money between authorities. The formula predicts the relative workload or need for each category of police activity. As Rural Affairs Minister, I am keenly aware of the fact that there is a lot of work that can be done with rural communities, through working with the police and police and crime commissioners. I will certainly take this up with colleagues in the Home Office, because rural communities must be looked after.

My Lords, would my noble friend take this opportunity to congratulate the work of what I think was the first rural crime task force, set up by North Yorkshire Police? Will he use his good offices to ensure that rural crime is given a higher priority by the Home Office?

My Lords, as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, it is very much the case that we need to work with the Home Office. We work with it very closely and also work with the National Police Chiefs’ Council, on wildlife crime, for instance, and the National Rural Crime Network. Clearly, these rural crimes are devastating for rural communities.

My Lords, the 2018 National Rural Crime Network survey revealed that low expectations, underreporting, a perceived poor response on outcomes and worry are all contributing factors to an increased fear of crime in our rural communities. Dyfed-Powys, the largest police geographical area in England and Wales, including Brecon, Radnor and west Wales, commissioned a report on farm and rural crime from Aberystwyth University. Has the Minister read that? As a result of that survey, the police have radically improved their rural crime strategy in line with the policies in north Wales. Do Defra and the Home Office have plans to study the outcomes of these initiatives?

Yes, we will look at all surveys. I would like to refer to your Lordships’ Select Committee on the Rural Economy, which rightly highlighted that the fear and perception of crime is viewed as a problem in rural areas. In fact, 39% of people in rural areas are worried about becoming a victim of crime, compared to 19% nationally. These are issues that we need to address, and I am most grateful to the noble Lords on that committee for highlighting some of these points. The answer is that we have an honest endeavour to ensure that crime is addressed in all parts of the kingdom.

My Lords, I would like to return to the issue of hare coursing. As the Minister is aware, hares are declining throughout our countryside and hare coursing is particularly cruel. I thought the Minister was unusually—I emphasise the word unusually—unenthusiastic about pursuing this issue. Will he reassess the position and perhaps go back to the department to see what can be done to take some action on this important issue?

My Lords, perhaps it is just my manner. All I would say is that I addressed Operation Galileo. I commended the forces where these activities take place, which are about aggravated arrivals of people committing violence to property, putting farmers and their families in fear because of their aggressive behaviour, and illegal gambling. These are all gangs of people undertaking very considerable criminal activity. I use this opportunity to say that we need to work to stop them terrorising the countryside.