Illegal Hare Coursing

– in the House of Commons at 10:00 pm on 29th October 2001.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson Conservative, Wantage 10:15 pm, 29th October 2001

In bringing before the House the problem of hare coursing, I want first to draw a sharp distinction between legal coursing under National Coursing Club rules and illicit hare coursing with trespass, which is a serious difficulty to which the House and the Government must provide more effective solutions.

Some Members—I see Mr. Banks in his place—might think that the way to deal with the problem of hare coursing with trespass is to wait until all hare coursing is banned. I disagree. There is a place for legitimate hare coursing among our country sports, but its continuance should not be used as an excuse for not tackling the serious difficulty of illegitimate hare coursing.

I describe the problem as serious in the light of what I have been told is going on in my constituency and what I have learned is happening in other parts of the country. I have been given vivid accounts by local farmers, and by the police, of what commonly occurs in cases of hare coursing with trespass. Although my local farmers are grateful for the increasing effort being put in by the local police to deal with the problem, the farmers and the police have told me of their frustration at its continuing intractability.

Hare coursing is no longer an exclusively rural pursuit, if it ever was. Hare coursing with trespass has become a favourite weekend occupation of substantial numbers of rough urban dwellers, who will drive hundreds of miles for a day's "sport". They assemble in large numbers, using the motorways and co-ordinating their activities on mobile telephones, and supplement the pleasures of the chase by betting on the performance of the animals. I have heard that there are wins of the order of £20,000 in cash on the day.

The behaviour of such people towards farmers, the police and anybody who might get in their way is distinctly intimidatory. They favour the months when the crops are growing, so that cover for the hares is minimised. Crops are most vulnerable when they are growing, so that choice of season could be calculated to do the maximum economic damage. That contrasts with legitimate hare coursing, in which there is a closed season between March and September, so that the hares are undisturbed during the breeding season.

Let me dwell for a moment on the risk to the hare population. Research at the university of Bristol shows:

"after the water-vole, the brown hare is the species of mammal in Britain which has undergone the greatest decline" in the 20th century. Numbers have fallen to such an extent that the UK biodiversity steering group has put hares on its list of species in decline. Obviously many factors are involved in the decline of the hare population and such coursing is only one, but it adds to the wider concerns about economic damage and damage done to the wider sense of security in the countryside.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

The hon. Gentleman rightly notes the decline in the brown hare population. Would not it be better to ban all hare coursing? I cannot understand why he makes a distinction between illegal and legal hare coursing—the hare does not know what is illegal or legal. All it knows is that it gets ripped to pieces by greyhounds. What is the point of hare coursing?

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson Conservative, Wantage

I simply disagree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. I shall continue to make my point about what I regard as illegitimate as opposed to legitimate hare coursing and discuss the legal remedies for the problem as I have defined it. He is perfectly free to define it in whatever way he wishes.

I know from my extensive correspondence with the Home Office, which I suppose will have briefed the Minister, that it believes that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 provides the answer. It is true that the 1994 Act substantially increased the penalties for trespass in pursuit of game, but I believe that it has not solved the problem. It provides for heavy fines in certain circumstances, but despite that legislation hare coursing with trespass continues, and I have the impression that it has been increasing. It is a serious problem in rural areas, and the stiffer penalties under the Act are not acting as a deterrent.

For one thing, the effectiveness of the 1994 Act against aggravated trespass—trespass that intimidates or interferes with the local activity of farmers and landowners—has been undermined by the High Court in its ruling in Tilly v. the DPP. The case involved a genetically modified crops protester, and the High Court ruled that the farmer had to be physically present for the lawful activity of farming to be obstructed. In light of that ruling, the Government should at least review the Act to see whether those provisions are still operational, as a loophole has been created.

The fundamental problem is the fact that, in the case of trespassing hare coursers, the main offence that has to be proved is that of trespass in pursuit of game under the Game Act 1831, and that is a very difficult offence to prove.

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson Conservative, Wantage

I am afraid that I will not, because there is only a short time for the debate and I want to conclude my remarks and give the Minister reasonable time to reply.

In order successfully to establish the offence of trespass in pursuit of game, the prosecution has to prove, first, that a trespass has taken place, secondly, that a particular individual or individuals being charged actually committed that trespass, and thirdly, that the trespass was done with the intention or purpose of searching for or pursuing game.

It is common for those involved in such activity to hide their identity by wearing balaclavas. By the time that the police have arrived, the offenders have moved on, or they may be apprehended on a public footpath, in which case it is easy for them to claim that they were merely walking their dogs, perfectly legally, and were not in pursuit of game.

What can we do about this lamentable situation? As I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, if Parliament acts as the hon. Member for West Ham wishes and legislates to ban hunting with dogs, all hare coursing, including hare coursing with trespass, will become illegal. Like many other hon. Members who represent rural areas, I oppose a total ban on hunting with dogs, so I would not recommend that solution. I would be willing to support the middle way option of licensing all hunting with dogs, which would make hare coursing with trespass illegal because it would not have a licence. I put it to the Minister that, in spite of the desires and public activities of the hon. Member for West Ham, general legislation on hunting with dogs is still an uncertain prospect, and that the problem of hare coursing with trespass is a current, live problem that needs to be addressed with urgency in view of the inadequacy of the current law.

That is why I want to put to the Minister two practical suggestions for early action. First, we should legislate to reverse the burden of proof, as was done under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992. At that time, there had been a number of cases in which men had been caught digging up the land, and it was suspected that they were involved in the offence of badger baiting. They could get away with it by claiming that their purpose was legitimate pest control. The 1992 Act reversed the burden of proof, so that anyone trespassing on land and having with him the tools or implements for digging out a badger had to prove that he was not committing that offence. I understand that that change in the law has helped to reduce the illegal digging out of badgers, and I think that it would help to reduce trespass for the purpose of hare coursing.

My second suggestion was put to me by members of the local police in my constituency. It is that the law should recognise an element of persistence or continuity of conduct. If a person is given a verbal warning similar to a warning under part V of the Public Order Act 1986 and continues hare coursing on the same day within a 10-mile radius of the place where the warning was issued, he will have committed an offence for which there should be a power of arrest. That would prevent the present run-around that absorbs so many police resources on Sunday mornings between September and May, while safeguarding the rights of dog owners whose dogs genuinely slip the leash and run after rabbits and hares.

During my 20 years as a Member of Parliament, I have raised many different matters on the Adjournment, but I must tell the Minister that I have rarely encountered such interest in a subject. I have been contacted by farmers all over the country, and have been offered briefings by many concerned individuals and groups.

This is a serious matter. If the Government have rural interests at heart—as I believe that they do—they will want to respond positively, and with urgency, to my concerns.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:25 pm, 29th October 2001

We certainly take seriously the need to address rural concerns. I thank Mr. Jackson for raising this problem and for being so clear about his purpose in seeking the debate, both in advance—and I am grateful to him for his courtesy in spelling out his intentions—and in his well-judged speech.

The hon. Gentleman has rightly drawn our attention to the unpleasantness of illegal coursing. It raises the issues of trespass on farmland, damage to crops and property and the killing of scores of hares. Illegal coursing, however, also provides an opportunity for unpleasant and often violent characters to travel around the country and intimidate rural communities. The police rightly fear that it will provide the criminal element with an ideal opportunity to "case" isolated rural properties. It is also believed that it can be an organised and lucrative business. The hon. Gentleman, who gave specific figures, clearly knows more about it than I do, but betting on dogs often results in thousands of pounds changing hands. Moreover, illegal coursing is in itself an unsavoury activity, which many country people abhor.

I want to say something about the victims of that illegal activity. I stress that I share the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the conservation and status of the brown hare. It is a widespread and conspicuous farmland species in Britain, which was formerly considered abundant but appears to have undergone a substantial decline in numbers since the early 1960s. The most recent major survey is "The National Hare Survey 1997–99", undertaken by Bristol university. It estimated that the current population was about 750,000.

The survey concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that there had been a significant change in the population of brown hares nationally since the first survey of 1991 to 1993, although there had been a decline in some arable areas. That suggests that after a decline lasting several decades, populations have shown a degree of stability in recent years, albeit at a lower level than formerly.

Owing to concerns about the decline in numbers, the Government have drawn up a biodiversity species action plan to maintain and enhance its conservation status. The plan assesses the main threats to the species, and sets out a framework to maintain and expand existing populations. The three main factors identified in the plan as causing the decline are changing agricultural practices such as conversion of grassland to arable land, loss of habitat diversity and cropping regimes. Those are the threats that the plan seeks to address.

My Department and the Home Office are very alive to the need to tackle illegal coursing. I welcome the opportunity to tell Members about the legislation, and also about some recent initiatives that are available to help the police and the courts.

I understand that Thames Valley police have said they are experiencing difficulties because of legislation dating back to 1828. In fact, although old, the laws relating to illegal coursing of hares remain relevant and effective: they are still being used today. The real issue is that in some rural areas there may be difficulties in ensuring a rapid police response to illegal hare-coursing incidents.

The Night Poaching Act 1828, as amended by the Night Poaching Act 1844, makes it an offence for any person unlawfully to take or destroy any hares or other game at night. It is also an offence to enter or to be on any land with any instrument for the purpose of taking or destroying game. The Act also creates an aggravated form of the latter offence when the offender is armed with any offensive weapon, or is in a group of three or more poachers. Illegal coursing during the daytime, the real mischief, is dealt with by the Game Act 1831, which criminalises any trespass in search or pursuit of game. Aggravated offences occur if five or more people together commit the offence.

In addition to owners, occupiers and gamekeepers, the police are also able to deal with illegal coursing, having been granted wide powers of entry, stop, search and arrest under the Acts. For a poacher to be convicted, it is not necessary to prove that game has actually been taken. Nor is it necessary to prove by direct evidence either the specific land where poaching has taken place or, in the case where game is found, the unlawful means used to take it. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to stress that the prosecution must satisfy the court by either direct or circumstantial evidence, not merely by speculation that the defendant has been poaching.

The original legislation has been well tried and tested, but that is not all the police have to work with. For example, section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 provides the power to order removal of face coverings, including balaclavas. The trigger for that authorisation under section 61 is a reasonable belief that incidents of serious violence may take place in the locality and that it is expedient to give an authorisation to prevent their occurrence.

Legislation has been passed in more recent years to help the police and the courts to deal more effectively with modern-day illegal coursing. As well as the serious offences of violent disorder and affray, section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986 created an offence of using

"threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour" which causes a person to believe that immediate violence would be used against him, or which may provoke violence. Under the section, it is an offence intentionally to behave in a way which is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress. Section 5 similarly prohibits such behaviour, or disorderly behaviour which is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress, even when no intent is involved.

Other powers are as follows. A power of arrest granted by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 empowers police officers to arrest where any offence has been committed and the offender's name and address is either not given, believed to be false or insufficient to allow for the service of a summons.

Under the Game Laws (Amendment) Act 1960, courts have the power to cancel game licences and forfeit any game found on an offender. If the offence committed is one of the aggravated forms under the Game Acts, a court may under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act also order the forfeiture of any vehicle used for the purpose of committing the offence.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that a recent case, known as the Tilly case, has undermined the legislation and that the decision in that case created a loophole in requiring the presence of the landowner in order for there to be an illegal act of aggravated trespass under section 68 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. He went on to ask for a review, but it is not yet clear whether there is a loophole to be remedied. I understand that the Crown Prosecution Service has sought leave to appeal the matter to the House of Lords. It would be inappropriate to say any more about that until the matter has been resolved, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take my point that one cannot firmly say that there is a loophole.

I hope that what I have said has shown the powers that are available to combat the evil of illegal coursing, but that is not the only way to address the issue. Partnership is the really effective weapon in cutting crime in rural areas. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 introduced a new statutory framework within which crime reduction activity will be carried out—the crime and disorder reduction partnerships. That means that partnerships, comprising the police, the local authority, the probation service, the health service and many others, can work together to reduce crime in their area.

I understand that the crime and disorder audits should now have been completed in each area of the country and that draft strategies will be completed shortly and submitted to the regional crime directors. To the extent that illegal hare coursing is a problem in any area, it should be reflected in the local strategy.

The hon. Gentleman remarked on the number of people particularly in the Thames valley area which is relevant to his constituency, who have commented on the issue. They should be providing that information to police and ensuring that the issue of hare coursing is dealt with properly in the crime and disorder reduction strategy that is currently being completed. I suggest that he speaks specifically to the chief executive officer of the district council and the local superintendent in his area who have joint legal responsibility for the development of that strategy.

There are also examples in which police powers have been used successfully using the laws to which I have referred. Cambridgeshire police, for example, have tackled hare coursing in Huntingdon and the fenland where it was identified as being a major and serious problem. Operation Sparrow ran from September 2000 to March 2001, building on experience in previous years. It involved police, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Countryside Watch and Customs and Excise. Farmers from Countryside Watch helped the campaign by acting as the eyes and ears of the rural community, gathering information on any suspicious vehicles in the area, which they passed on to officers.

The operation was successful because 560 farmers and rural residents became members of the Cambridgeshire Countryside Watch. I am told that that organisation was established specifically to combat illegal hare coursing in the area, but I am sure that such a strong partnership has many other benefits. Clearly it is having the desired effect. The latest figures show that the number of reports of illegal hare coursing were cut from 357 to 164, which is an all-time low. I understand also that Thames Valley police are now talking to Cambridgeshire police, which is a good example of sharing good practice between police forces and a direct outcome of the hon. Gentleman's raising the issue as the subject of this debate.

Photo of Russell Brown Russell Brown Labour, Dumfries

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The prime purpose of the reply to an Adjournment debate is to reply to the hon. Member who initiated the debate. Once I have dealt with the points made by the hon. Member for Wantage, I shall be happy to give way.

The Home Office has provided extra funding—in the sparsity grant, which is specifically related to rural areas—to Thames Valley police specifically to improve policing. More than £1.5 million has been provided since April 2000 specifically to deal with the needs of rural areas. Police have therefore been able to set themselves a number of challenging objectives, including to deter illegal hare coursing and to prosecute such cases when the evidence can be found.

I listened with great interest to the comments of the hon. Member for Wantage on the problems of using Victorian legislation to tackle present-day crime. However, I hope that my remarks have demonstrated how that original legislation has been complemented by modern legislation and modern police methods to ensure that the powers exist for police and the countryside community to tackle effectively what the hon. Gentleman rightly described as a pernicious activity.

Photo of Russell Brown Russell Brown Labour, Dumfries

Does my right hon. Friend agree that allowing hare coursing as Mr. Jackson has described it to remain a legal activity makes it much more difficult to detect illegal hare coursing? Furthermore, is not the reduction in the number of brown hares in particular a consequence of hares being brought into areas such as mine for the fun, as some might call it, of legal coursing?

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

This debate is not about the rights and wrongs of activities that are currently legal; it is about the pernicious activity of illegal hare coursing. I certainly understand the point that my hon. Friend is making; there may well be some activities connected with legal hare coursing that many in the House would deplore, and which come close to the illegal activities that are the subject of the debate. None the less, they are beyond the subject of the debate. What we can agree across the Chamber is that illegal hare coursing is a pernicious activity, but that there are ways of dealing with it, that those methods should be used whenever it causes a nuisance either in depleting the hare population—if that is the case—or through the other damage that it does to rural communities, which the hon. Member for Wantage outlined effectively in introducing the debate.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

What aspects of legal hare coursing come close to those of illegal hare coursing?

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Many of the activities—my hon. Friend Mr. Brown referred to the artificial creation of activity—may be open to question and debate, but my point was that now is not the time to debate them. There may be a place and a time for such discussion, but this debate is not suitable because it is specifically about illegal activity.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

There are many ways in which illegal hare coursing, about which the hon. Member for Wantage complained, can be dealt with by the law, and by the police methods already available.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I want to deal with the final point that the hon. Member for Wantage raised—his specific suggestions about strengthening the law. Obviously, in considering any changes to the law, thought must be given to whether they will be effective in tackling the particular problem they seek to address, or whether they would simply move that problem elsewhere. I do not intend to comment further on those proposals today, but I will consider them further and seek the views of ministerial colleagues in the Home Office. Both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office keep an open mind on such issues—

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

—but at the moment my impression is that targeted use of existing legislation, and police action in partnership with the rural community, are most likely to achieve the end sought.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I give way to my hon. Friend, but I wish that he would allow me to complete a sentence before I do so.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

I am sorry; I was getting a bit edgy because I felt that my right hon. Friend was reaching his peroration, and that I would find myself with no Minister to reply to a very simple question. The hares—allow me, if I may, Mr. Speaker, to represent them in this House—know of no distinction between illegal and legal hare coursing. Would it not solve the problems of Mr. Jackson, and those of my hon. Friends and myself, if all hare coursing were declared illegal? Surely that would deal with the problem on both sides.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend, with his usual ingenuity, takes us into areas that are not the subject of the debate. He may or may not be correct in his argument, but I am seeking to address the illegal activity. The hare may not know which is legal and which is illegal activity, but many of the people involved in illegal activity know full well that it is illegal, and that they are acting without regard to the interests of the local community—or to those of the hare, which obviously causes my hon. Friend great concern.

I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Wantage for the welfare both of the hare population and of the rural community, whose members are frequently damaged by illegal hare coursing. I hope that what I have said will have satisfied him about our concern to address the problem of illegal hare coursing, that the legislation is in place, and that a healthy partnership between the local police and the local community can combat the threat.

I recommend again that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, and those who have expressed concern to him, enter actively into the partnership with the police and the local authority that was put in place by the 1998 Act. There could not be a better time than now, when the audit has been undertaken and strategies are being put into place for the future. I am sure that Thames Valley police would welcome his participation, and that of those who have contacted him with their concerns about the issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.