Skip to main content

Rural Crime

Volume 831: debated on Tuesday 11 July 2023


Asked by

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare my interest as president of the Rural Coalition.

My Lords, we are committed to driving down rural crime. As well as recruiting 20,000 police officers, we are taking steps to address issues that we know affect rural communities. That is why the Government are providing funding to the National Wildlife Crime Unit and the National Rural Crime Unit.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but can I press him on rural crime on farms? Reports from the police suggest that there has been a 300% increase in thefts of farm machinery, which is causing devastating problems for our wonderful farming industry. When I asked the Government a Question some time ago about fitting tracker devices to machines, they said they had no plans to do so. Will the Government reconsider that? If not, what will they do to try to solve this very difficult and important problem?

I thank the right reverend Prelate for that question. The Government believe that prevention, delivered through partnership with law enforcement and industry, is the key to tackling this crime and protecting these hard-working communities from theft. That is why the Equipment Theft (Prevention) Bill is focused on measures that will make these machines more difficult to steal and sell on, which will deliver a strong and sustainable deterrent effect. The Government expect to see a real decrease in these thefts as a result of the introduction of immobilisers and forensic marking as standard. While trackers can assist in recovering stolen vehicles, many large valuable agricultural vehicles are already fitted with trackers, either as standard or as an aftermarket option for the owner. The Government have no plans to provide grants to farmers who wish to install trackers on their vehicles.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware from his own experience of the real and ongoing problem on the hillsides of Wales of attacks on sheep by dogs not kept on leashes. Does he accept that this very often happens because of the ignorance of those visiting the hillside areas? Will the Government therefore have a publicity campaign that places the responsibility clearly on the owners of dogs in those areas to avoid crimes being perpetrated?

I accept what the noble Lord says about dog attacks on sheep. Very careful consideration was given to the potential unintended consequences of introducing a ban on the use of hand- controlled e-collars for cats and dogs. Defra liaised closely with police forces, which reported that the vast majority of livestock-worrying cases that they saw involved dogs that had escaped from the premises in which they were kept without their owners knowing. The police were also clear that they would not recommend the use of e-collars to prevent instances of livestock worrying.

My Lords, my noble friend mentioned the Equipment Theft (Prevention) Bill. I invite the right reverend Prelate to be present this Friday when we hope to push through its Third Reading. It will make a tremendous difference to theft in the countryside. By fitting immobilisers to equipment, we should cut down on theft in the first place, and with the forensic marking of that equipment it should be much easier to restore it to the rightful owner. Once my noble friend has finished the consultation process, will he please bring forward the implementation regulations as soon as possible and extend them to other machinery, possibly in the construction trade?

I thank my noble friend for his question and congratulate him on taking his Private Member’s Bill through the House. The Government welcome the support the Bill has received in this House and the other place. We expect to see a real decrease in the theft of all-terrain vehicles as a result of the measures in it. The introduction of immobilisers and forensic marking as standard will help prevent them being stolen. Importantly, it will be harder for criminals to sell on stolen machinery, which will have a deterrent effect.

Metal theft in country areas is rife. Catalytic converter theft is on the rise. Lead stolen from church roofs has a devastating impact on local communities. Stealing miles of copper cable from our telecom and rail infrastructure is highly and increasingly disruptive. All these crimes are the work of sophisticated, skilled criminal gangs, operating not locally but regionally and sometimes nationally and even internationally. Will the Minister encourage a concerted, intelligence-led police focus on a category of crime increasingly committed in country areas with impunity?

Again, I thank the noble Lord for that question. I respond with two aspects. First, we have the safer streets fund, which includes funding with a focus on crime prevention in rural areas. We also have the National Wildlife Crime Unit and the National Rural Crime Unit. The Home Office is providing £200,000 in funding for the new National Rural Crime Unit this year. The funding will help to cut crime and keep communities safe by tackling anti-social behaviour and in particular, equipment theft.

My Lords, the problem with rural crime obviously is the lack of witnesses. Those of us who watch programmes such as “Springwatch” and “Autumnwatch” can see the benefits of modern technology in filming things at night. Could the Minister use more of his power to encourage local communities to harness this equipment, even it is not subsidised, to catch these people committing the crime on camera?

Yes, I agree; the noble Lord makes a very fair point. In fact, the Government, through Defra, has awarded £1.2 million in funding across more than 30 councils recently to help with such matters, such as CCTV, and to consult on other reforms.

We note the Government’s decision to take out rural fly-tipping by 2043. People dropping things is an awful scourge on our countryside. Can the noble Lord tell us what the Government’s plan is for the rural crime unit to be able to tackle gangs who deliberately tip in the countryside for profit, and who need to be caught in order that we can reduce the amount of tipping that takes place in some of the most beautiful parts of our country?

Again, I thank the noble Lord for his question. Fly-tipping is a curse of our modern society. Anyone caught fly-tipping can already face an on-the-spot fine of up to £400. More serious offences can attract up to five years in prison and a significant fine. Councils obviously also have the powers to stop, search and seize the vehicles of suspected fly-tippers. The Prime Minister’s anti-social behaviour action plan includes raising the upper limit of spot fines for fly-tipping to £1,000, delivering on the manifesto commitment to increase penalties. The regulations to raise the fly-tipping fixed penalty notice will come into force on 31 July this year—the end of this month. This will allow local authorities to raise their spot fines up to £1,000 if they choose to, from the current maximum of £400.

My Lords, there is also a very serious problem—certainly around where I live, on the Hampshire-Wiltshire border—of the theft of dogs. These dogs are stolen not only to stage cruel and horrible dog fights; quite often they are non-fighting dogs that are used as the bait in such fights. Does the Minister accept that there is a real, distinctive problem here and, if so, what position are the Government taking on trying to stop such a cruel and dreadful form of theft?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right—I fully accept that. We have only to look at our newspapers on an almost daily basis to find some story regarding dogs. Unfortunately, particularly in rural communities, people involved in the theft of these dogs are also involved with other theft, dangerous driving, all sorts of assaults and different kinds of offences. I take on board what the noble Baroness has said. The Government are aware of it and want to do something about it. New measures in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act may well be able to deal with these offences.

My Lords, will the Government encourage the very innovative ideas to combat rural crime already being pursued by some police and crime commissioners to be taken up in other areas of the country that are not at the moment following the example of the commissioners who are doing an excellent job on this front?

I agree; it may be that police and crime commissioners should share their views on how to deal with these things during the different kinds of get-togethers that they have. That is something that I completely agree with.