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Rural Crime

Volume 838: debated on Thursday 9 May 2024


Asked by

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare my interests as a retired farmer and a member of the National Farmers’ Union.

My Lords, since 2010, overall incidents of crime have come down by 55% on a like-for-like basis. The Government are committed to tackling rural crime. Decisions on deployment of police resources are a matter for chief constables and locally elected police and crime commissioners. However, the Government set up the National Rural Crime Unit to help police secure specialist operational support, develop bespoke approaches and share best practice.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. Rural theft cost the UK £49.5 million in 2022 and that overall trend is increasing exponentially today. Fly-tipping continues to be the most prolific form of rural crime. Is my noble friend satisfied that the punishments meted out to those who commit rural crime—if indeed they are caught—provide an effective deterrent? Does he agree with me that the results of the recent election of police and crime commissioners provide an opportunity for those elected to prove their support for rural issues, especially in the fight against rural crime?

My noble friend made a couple of very good points. First, the Equipment Theft (Prevention) Act 2023 was given Royal Assent in July last year. Secondary legislation is needed before it comes into force and work has begun on the necessary regulations, with a view to hearing debates in Parliament in this Session. As noble Lords will be aware, there has been some progress on equipment theft; in fact, there was a story this morning in the Daily Telegraph and commendations go to Kent and Thames Valley Police for having arrested seven people relating to a hoard of over 1,000 suspected stolen items. It is not really my place to comment on sentencing, but I do think that significant progress is being made.

My Lords, will either the Minister or those in his department have a specific meeting with the newly re-elected police commissioner for Dyfed Powys, Dafydd Llywelyn, who represents one of the most rural areas in the whole of England and Wales? There have been specific crimes in that area that need investigation and possibly increased powers to deal with them. Will he give such a commitment?

I would of course be very happy to meet the said gentleman. Let me go into the details of the National Rural Crime Unit a little. It was established in January 2023, with a grant of £300,000. It is working and was set up with a significant input from the National Farmers’ Union, as noble Lords will be aware. The unit has made a real difference; Farmers Weekly reported on 25 April:

“They have absolutely changed the playing field in terms of policing”.

So the first port of call should be to superintendent Andrew Huddleston in that unit, which is doing great work.

My Lords, I congratulate the hugely experienced David Allen on his election as crime commissioner for Cumbria. With 47 million visitors to the Lakes annually and an associated increase in rural crime, will Ministers respond to his early call for resources to fund a major expansion in the automatic number plate recognition programme? We need it to cover our arterial road system, in particular the A66 and A69. As a matter of note, Vauxhall in London has more of these cameras than the entire county of Cumbria.

On resources, there are now over 149,000 police officers in England and Wales, which is a higher number than any time before. The Government have also confirmed a total police funding settlement of up to £18.4 billion next year, which is an increase of £842 million. On how the money is spent locally, the noble Lord will be aware that those are very much local decisions, but I hear what he says and he made some interesting points.

My Lords, I am a member of the APPG on metal theft and we have identified and reported on the enormous and growing scale of metal theft in rural areas, which of course has a massive impact on rural communities. Church roofs are stolen; a kilometre or more of copper cable is extracted from the local comms system, taking out telephone networks; and so on. Such crime is overwhelmingly committed, we heard in evidence, by organised criminal gangs. They are rarely caught and rarely held to account. Does the Minister think the police have the right strategies and tactics for handling organised crime in rural areas?

Again, the noble Lord makes some very good points. As he will be aware, operational decisions are taken locally, so that is a matter for chief constables in conversation and association with their police and crime commissioners. But plenty of national resources are available, as I have already highlighted.

My Lords, notwithstanding the figures that the Minister just gave us, the National Farmers’ Union Mutual says that 80% of its members have reported disruption from crime in their areas. One specific ask from the National Farmers’ Union Mutual is for improved protection to be given by extending the Equipment Theft (Prevention) Act to include GPS theft from farmed vehicles. Will the Government consider doing that as a matter of urgency?

That is a very good point. We still have to commence the Equipment Theft (Prevention) Act, as he knows, and a call for evidence went out last summer seeking views on the secondary legislation, as required. That would be the appropriate place for making these points and discussing this. It has been targeted at agricultural and construction sectors—manufacturers, dealers, retailers and so on. I wait to see what the results of that call for evidence deliver, but I think the noble Lord makes a very good point—and, going back to the story about Kent that I referenced earlier, it was because of a GPS tracker that these people were caught.

My Lords, it is recognised that one niche area of rural crime by organised crime groups is laundering money through events such as illegal hare coursing, which is causing a huge problem. We were very grateful for the recent support of the Government in trying to bring an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, but is the Minister sure that the new police and crime commissioners not only understand the problem but have the right training in place so the law can be implemented?

First, I commend the right reverend Prelate on his work in introducing the amendment to that particular Bill. It came into force on 1 August 2022 and, without his efforts, I do not think it would have happened. Hare coursing is not a notifiable offence, but the statistics I have are very encouraging. There has been a 60% reduction in the poaching of both hare and deer over the course of the 2022-23 season. The National Rural Crime Unit informs us that there has been an increased use of criminal protection notices when used alongside the new measures, including those involved with hare coursing. I was very pleased to hear about the successful prosecution of two individuals in Lincolnshire last week for hare coursing. So, it would seem to bear out that enough work is being done, but of course I will follow up and, if there is more to say, I will come back to the right reverend Prelate.

My Lords, we hear more in the media about crimes in urban areas and cities due to the numbers. However, many rural crimes are serious. Cuts in bus services and the decimation of youth services have left young people adrift. Young people are vulnerable to predation by criminal drug gangs running county lines. Prevention is always better than cure. Why have the Government abandoned vulnerable young people in rural areas?

Well, that was more of a statement than a question and I do not think the Government have abandoned rural young people.

My Lords, Julia Mulligan, our very good North Yorkshire police and crime commissioner, brought out a report five years ago about the wide gap in support between rural and urban victims of domestic abuse. That report, Captive & Controlled, stated:

“Abuse lasts, on average, 25% longer in the most rural areas”.

Can my noble friend assure me that this gap has narrowed, and how has this been achieved?

My noble friend asks a good question, but the findings of the Captive & Controlled report are not easily replicated, so it is difficult to give him the assurance he seeks that the gap is narrowing. But teams in the Home Office and Defra have sought to understand the additional challenges that victims in rural communities face, and we have invested to help address those. That includes funding for an older persons’ rural domestic abuse practitioner in Northumberland and support for children, young people and families in rural communities in Shropshire and Devon. I would also say that the duty to collaborate we are introducing through the Victims and Prisoners Bill will further help police forces understand and commission to meet the needs of the victims in their communities.

My Lords, would the Government agree with me that there is a direct relationship between crime and poverty? What are we doing, really, about all the things that are happening in the countryside that are stripping people of jobs? It is very, very difficult to get a job in the countryside that pays enough for you to live on the wage. It is a low-wage economy.

That may be the case, but there are also lots of good opportunities in the country and, of course, we live in a world where the gig economy gives people opportunities to live pretty much wherever they want.