I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to Mr Speaker for granting this Adjournment debate on rural policing and hare coursing. It is particularly important that we discuss this issue now, as we must reflect on, and learn lessons from, the most recent hare coursing season, which is coming to a close.
Hare coursing, poaching and the surrounding issues of antisocial behaviour should be matters of great concern for this House, both as individual crimes and examples of the challenges associated with policing rural communities. I have been struck by the number of hon. Members who have approached me following notification of the debate this evening. In particular, I would like to draw the House’s attention to my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins, who will be unable to contribute, but I understand she has a strong interest in some of the issues I am about to raise.
We must carefully consider two key issues. First, we need to recognise the damage sustained by farmers to their properties and their wellbeing, as many are made to feel intimidated by those carrying out these heinous acts. Secondly, we need carefully to consider the police’s approach to this problem and what tools are necessary to ensure that the law is effectively enforced.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As somebody who used to live in his constituency, I empathise strongly with the concerns he raises. I will set out similar examples of my constituents who have shared the same experience.
My first and principal concern is the threat that hare coursing poses to farming communities. Hare coursers are not simply a few individuals quietly chasing hares on unused land: they are, most often, large groups who show serious contempt for the law. This results in a number of significant problems for my constituents. Farms are vandalised, people are intimidated, and often farmers are isolated and unable to count on the law for timely protection.
The National Farmers Union has found that hare coursing is now the most common crime experienced by farmers in Wiltshire. That has a number of troubling implications for rural communities.
Does my hon. Friend agree that hare coursers marauding across farmers’ land in their vehicles not merely cause an unsightly mess but vandalise livelihoods, and should be dealt with accordingly?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention: I absolutely agree. Again, I will come on to set out more examples, and give the Minister some suggestions on what could be done to deal with the problem.
I want to outline some of the implications of hare coursing. First, when entering these private lands, hare coursers and poachers regularly cause criminal damage to gates, hedgerows, fences, and growing crops. This creates financial costs arising from repairs to the damage and the need to increase security infrastructure, probably involving CCTV cameras. It also wastes a huge number of man hours as farmers are forced to look for damage and repair it. This is extremely time consuming, frustrating and upsetting for many farmers, whose land is the single most important asset of their business and their livelihood.
My constituent Chris Swanton, whose family have farmed on his farm for several generations, has regularly experienced at first-hand on his farm in South Wiltshire the problems I have described. He wrote to me saying:
“I get upset because I am very passionate about my farm and I have a certain amount of pride in the appearance of my fields and crops. I find it gutting and very depressing to drive around my farm after hare coursers have been all across my fields.”
It is totally unacceptable for farmers like Chris who have worked 80 hours a week preparing seed beds and planting crops to find them ruined by mindless vandals. His experiences are by no means unique, as this happens right across my constituency, and, from what colleagues have been telling me in the past few days, over large tracts of rural England.
The impact for victims is not merely economic. Many face unjustifiable intimidation and anti-social behaviour on their doorsteps. Hare coursers will often threaten and behave violently towards landowners who attempt to challenge them or collect evidence to report to the police.
It is a great pleasure to contribute briefly to this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour on bringing this matter to the House’s attention. Does he agree that these are not good people, and that these groups probably contain within them individuals who are intent also on acquisitive crime? Not only are they violent people, but they are probably also eyeing up the property of our rural constituents, which, as he will know, is very much under threat at the moment from bespoke criminality focused on thieving to order. The suspicion is that this population and the hare coursing population are very often one and the same thing.
Those are characteristically wise words from my hon. Friend and neighbour, and I absolutely agree. This speaks to some of the suggestions that I am going to make about the nature of resourcing of rural policing. I am delighted that the Minister is here to hear those words and, I hope, respond positively.
Lincolnshire police found that the majority of persons involved in hare coursing in their county already had the criminal histories that my hon. Friend refers to, and often travelled for hundreds of miles to participate. This is particularly distressing for farming communities, who are genuinely vulnerable. The average age of farmers is now 59, and they often work alone, meaning that there are few or no witnesses to the crimes that are perpetrated on their land. Farmers know too well the repercussions of trying to deter coursers from their own land—from targeted break-ins and theft on their farms, to extremes such as arson and direct physical attacks.
Another of my constituents, who understandably did not want to be named, lives on a farm with their teenage daughter. While on their own land, the constituent was confronted by three men with dogs who threatened that they would “do over” their car and carve up their crops. My constituent’s daughter now worries for her parent’s safety and is concerned that the coursers know where they live and what their car looks like.
It is completely unacceptable that constituents do not feel safe on their own land, and these are not isolated cases. In January the BBC reported that violence and intimidation have escalated in the recent hare coursing season. One farmer, who also wished not to be named, fearing for his own safety, stated, “They would kill us if they could”.
I emphasise to the Minister that, for rural communities and farmers in particular, hare coursing is not simply a nuisance; it is a serious blight on livelihoods and wellbeing.
I want to turn to how we can ensure that there is an effective and coherent response by the police and the magistracy. In preparing for this debate, I was struck by the exasperation of constituents who tell me that they regularly reach out to the police but feel as if nothing is being done and that they are fighting hare coursers on their own. One constituent remarked that his tactic of digging ditches around the farm to stop the coursers’ vehicles felt almost medieval—building a moat to prevent the enemy from entering.
I pay tribute to Wiltshire police force. Its officers do very difficult work in challenging circumstances, and they should be commended for the innovative steps that they are taking to improve their response to rural crime. The general quality of their work was acknowledged by last week’s report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, ranking them good across the board. Wiltshire police have put in place a number of initiatives, including funding six dedicated wildlife crime officers, and I welcome the news that further funding has been secured to train another five.
I recognise the apparent logic of weighting police funding by population size and demography, but cases such as hare coursing demonstrate that rural areas require specialist resources to ensure that isolated and sparser populated communities do not feel abandoned by law enforcement.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this Adjournment debate. The rural part of my constituency is served by Humberside police, which is a predominantly urban force, and the farming and rural community feels somewhat neglected. Does he agree that it is equally important that the rural community, wherever it is situated, is suitably prioritised by the police?
I absolutely recognise the situation described by my hon. Friend. It is particularly true of hybrid constabularies that have to serve significant urban populations, but the rural element needs to be properly recognised.
May I urge the Minister to take those factors into consideration in his deliberations on the new police funding formula? Although Wiltshire is the 15th largest county geographically, it receives the fourth lowest budget from Government. The resources needed to tackle rural crime must be reflected in allocations within the overall funding envelope. That will require him to challenge his officials on the different spreadsheets that they put in front of him and make sure that the pockets of rural need are properly reflected in the review’s outcome.
Is not the real challenge faced by rural police forces the fact that they have to deal not only with issues such as hare coursing, which is a form of organised crime, but with those challenges that are also faced by urban policing, including changing tactics for cybercrime and domestic violence? That is a perfect storm and it requires special attention.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, who once again comes up with a sensible analysis and a sense of how we need better to join up the different attempts to tackle this very difficult problem.
Is not one of the issues the lack of neighbourhood policing in some rural areas? In the northern part of my constituency, in Bassetlaw, we have a long-standing police officer, Bill Bailey. He knows the lanes, he knows many of the criminals and he knows how to respond to and sort out such crimes. He is also fluent in the law in this area. All too often, when officers such as Bill retire, as he will do in October, they are replaced by police officers drawn from a much wider area. His replacement is likely to be drawn from urban areas such as Worksop and Retford, where crimes are very different. Response times will diminish, and, as my hon. Friend Martin Vickers has said, it is difficult for people to be certain that police officers who understand the rurality of the area will be able to get out and sort out the problems.
My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. Like many Conservative Members, I gained some familiarity with my hon. Friend’s constituency in the weeks running up to his election. I would not want to comment on the specific example that he gave, but it is absolutely key that we have the right resources in the right places.
I return to the specific issue of hare coursing. I believe that it is both a policing and a judicial issue, and I want to raise three policy concerns that I hope the Minister will reflect on to ensure that constituencies such as Salisbury and south Wiltshire can effectively deal with hare coursers and the many disruptions and problems that I have just described. First, I ask the Minister to consider creating a more widespread infrastructure for seizing and rehousing the dogs used in such criminal activities. Will he look—perhaps not personally—into how the police organise themselves in that regard? Hare coursing dogs are high-value assets worth tens of thousands of pounds. I think that the threat of dogs being taken or rehomed, and therefore losing their value, will deter hare coursers. To be able to seize dogs, the police must have the appropriate kennels and facilities to look after them. In Wiltshire, despite a large number of hare coursing incidents, we do not have that vital infrastructure in place.
I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. Can he give us some idea of the extent of the hare coursing, badger baiting and illegal foxhunting that take place, and the percentage of those incidents for which people have been prosecuted in the recent past?
Actually, I can give the hon. Gentleman some of those statistics, if he will just wait a few minutes.
In terms of legislation, hare coursing offences sometimes fall under the Game Act 1831, which does not provide the powers of seizure and forfeiture of dogs and vehicles that the Hunting Act 2004 provides. Updating the 1831 Act could rectify that issue and allow more hunting dogs to be seized. In addition, if we gave police the ability to recover kennelling costs for seized dogs in a way similar to the process for seized vehicles, we could make that deterrent more financially viable.
Secondly, I hope the Minister will consider the penalties given to those guilty of poaching and hare coursing. Currently, the maximum possible penalty is unlimited. Despite that, the House of Commons Library reports that between 2010 and 2015, the average fine for offences under the Hunting Act was just £256.43. Wiltshire police told me that it had a recent case in which three males were sent to court for offences under the Night Poaching Act 1828. They had dogs, lamps and a gutting knife in their possession, and they had travelled some 100 miles from Wales to Wiltshire. The three men received a fine of just £50 each. The men were persistent offenders who were known to the police, and they were stopped again just three days after their appearance in court. Are we honestly surprised that when hare coursers have the opportunity to earn thousands of pounds betting on their illegal activities, such small fines do nothing to deter them? It is nothing short of outrageous that such individuals can simply give no comment at interview, go to court, plead guilty, accept a fine of £50 or £100 and return to the fields the very next day. Magistrates must be encouraged to use the full extent of the penalties available to them. As a former magistrate, I am very aware of the guidance that sometimes comes out, and I feel that it needs to be updated. Will the Minister commit to working with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to examine such matters and ensure that sentencing guidance in this area is reviewed?
The third and final issue is conviction rates. On the figures I have, there were 2,169 reported incidents of hare coursing in Lincolnshire during the six months between September 2015 and March 2016. Some 176 men were charged or reported for summons, but only 25 were actually convicted, which is less than one in seven. Of the 176 individuals charged, 117 cases were discontinued, usually when witnesses declined to give statements for fear of reprisals. Even if CCTV cameras are used—presumably at the farmers’ expense—farmers are obliged to declare that they have individually put in an evidence-capture system, therefore putting their name on the record and risking retaliation through some of the apps I have described. That situation is simply blocking access to justice. Until the Government send a clear message that farmers will be properly protected and perpetrators brought to justice, the unwillingness to provide evidence will only increase. Will the Minister work with local police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that farmers are not deterred from coming forward because the evidence they are required to gather is too costly or cumbersome to obtain or puts them at risk?
In conclusion, hare coursing is a serious issue, and we must not underestimate the financial and emotional harm it inflicts on vulnerable rural communities, and on farmers in particular. Despite pockets of good practice, more must be done to stop the increasing prevalence across the country. I am concerned that the overall framework governing policing and sentencing does not currently act as a sufficient deterrent. May I urge the Minister to look carefully at the measures I have suggested? We must send a clear message to hare coursers that they will no longer be able to get off the hook with paltry sentences and very low conviction rates. What they are doing is wrong, and we must not allow it to continue in the way currently experienced.
It is very handy to have the opportunity of an extended debate, which has shown that a number of colleagues are concerned about this issue. My hon. Friend John Glen has done us a service by finding an opportunity to raise the matter.
I do not need to be reminded that I have been a Member of Parliament for a very rural constituency for a long time. I cannot recall circumstances that are now regularly being reported to me ever having been raised with me before. I am not naive enough to believe that hare coursing did not take place in former years, but it now seems to have achieved epidemic proportions in my area, with village after village now reporting incidents.
The police are stretched. Whatever the force available to the chief constable of Essex—indeed, this applies to any other constabulary—it is bound to be deployed in areas of higher crime than in areas of low crime. The district of Uttlesford and rural Chelmsford are areas of low crime, but that does not mean that there is no crime. This form of crime, which has now started to surge, if that is not too strong a word to describe what is happening, is particularly difficult for the police to cope with. There is obviously great mobility on the part of the offenders, and if we are to get a grip on this type of activity, there needs to be co-operation between police forces.
In my constituency, the police have set up surveillance areas, but this has become a bit of a cat-and-mouse game, because they are spotted while setting up the surveillance areas and the hare coursers simply move to another field on another farm. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that as a problem?
Absolutely; on the basis of reports I am getting from constituents, I am beginning to ask myself “where next?” .
For historical reasons, Essex has always felt underfunded, and if any of my Essex colleagues were present for tonight’s debate, they would heartily agree, because we are always pressing for more resources. This is now a new situation that has to be confronted.
The chief constable of Essex was recently quoted on Radio Lincolnshire complaining that Lincolnshire’s success at dealing with hare coursing meant that Essex was being placed under even greater strain. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that underlines the fact that we have to work together to tackle this problem?
I absolutely agree, and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond in the right terms to indicate that this has to be a co-ordinated approach.
Let me add one further point about the impact of this activity. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury spoke mainly about the farming community, which is absolutely right, but there have been some particularly odious practices performed in my constituency that affect not the farming community, but ordinary residents in villages. Mutilated corpses of hares are being laid on people’s cars or lawns, and parts of these dead bodies are being draped round the handles of doors. This is sickening, and small children will obviously be more vulnerable to the horror of seeing that kind of thing. We are getting well beyond the thought that this is some illegal sport that is far removed from everybody. Yes, this affects the farmers, as my hon. Friend clearly said—my farmers have spoken to me about it, too—but there is also this extra dimension, which makes the problem truly appalling and underlines the need for special attention to deal with it.
If this activity has not been as prevalent in former years and is now becoming a phenomenon to which we are all giving witness here today, perhaps we need to stamp down on it in order to quell it once and for all. That requires special attention, special resources and special drive of policy.
I echo the thanks and congratulations to my hon. Friend John Glen on raising this important issue. Although some people might view the debate and the problem as merely an issue of animal welfare and wildlife crime, which of course it is, as others have suggested, it goes much wider than that. We are talking about vandalism of property; loss of income for farmer and landowner; theft, atrocity and intimidation of farmers, their families and in some instances gamekeepers and others employed on estates; and a lot of road traffic issues, including the driving of unlicensed and uninsured vehicles, driving while disqualified and so forth. This all adds up to the picture of criminality that my hon. Friend Dr Murrison alluded to in his intervention.
My constituency is easily split between east and west. The western part of North Dorset is the Blackmore Vale, which has heavy clay, and nobody would try to course on that. The hares do not like it, and it is too heavy to make a form; sometimes even a 4x4 will get stuck in the clay of Blackmore Vale. The Cranborne Chase on the eastern side of my constituency, however, is beautiful, undulating chalk downland, very similar to the area at the border with Wiltshire. It is, of course, an ideal and fertile ground for illegal hare coursing, and it happens on all too regular a basis.
My hon. Friend Matt Warman talked about the chief constable of Essex blaming the robustness of his colleague in Lincolnshire for transporting a problem across a county border. In Dorset, we have also seen an element of that, given the significant success that the chief constable and officers of Wiltshire have had in clamping down in that county. They have merely translocated over the border to us.
I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury said with regard to value of the sighthound used for this purpose. I was told by one of my local police officers that, having confiscated a telephone from a hare courser, he looked—I could not tell the House why—at the gentleman’s photo album on his phone. He had 184 photographs: 20 of his family and 164 of his dog. That, I think, demonstrates the importance and value that these people place on their livestock. The problem is exactly as my hon. Friend suggested. Local authorities have pulled away from taking stray dogs off the street and have contracted it out, often on narrowly defined contracts. The police do not have kennels to house these dogs. I would prefer a far more robust approach, not just in the provision of kennels but in the removal and permanent confiscation of dogs, and their rehousing.
Last year in Scotland was, I think, the first time that a hare courser or a group of hare coursers were prosecuted successfully and imprisoned using DNA evidence taken from a confiscated dog. We have heard in the debate about the scale and importance of these crimes, so perhaps the police elsewhere in the country should look to take that forward.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The deployment of technologies that may have been advanced for other purposes can easily be used for exactly the sort of incident my hon. Friend suggests.
I want to draw the attention of the House, if I may, to the excellent work undertaken by the Dorset constabulary in this area under the leadership of Martyn Underhill, our police and crime commissioner, and the chief constable. After discussions with me as a Member of Parliament, we now have a dedicated rural team—and not in name only. The team has the right vehicles—4x4s and Polarises—telephones, equipment and so on. It is doing a fantastic job. It was my pleasure, if that is the word, to join them on a night operation ranging from 8 o’clock in the evening to two o’clock in the morning, where a collaboration of three police forces—officers from Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire—came together with local farmers and gamekeepers. I was obviously the “heavy” man brought in for intimidation. We drove around the countryside using intelligence and telephones to identify where people might be, and disrupting activity as it was about to unfold: the interception and interruption of illegal activity taking place in our countryside.
A number of hon. Friends mentioned intimidation. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury provided statistics on the number of people brought to court and the rather lenient slap-on-the-wrist fines. If someone is prepared to wager £10,000 on one greyhound getting a hare, a fine of £276 is but a drop in the ocean. I wonder, as I often do in these circumstances, whether our local magistrates feel intimidated, given the reputation of a lot of people involved in hare coursing knowing no bounds to the retribution they wish to see. I hope our magistrates are made of strong and robust stuff, but that might not necessarily always be the case.
I again congratulate Dorset constabulary on its work. I echo entirely the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury that the funding requirement is, as so often in our rural areas, very bespoke. If one talked to councillors in Manchester, Bristol or Birmingham about rural crime on farms as a result of hare coursing, they would probably scratch their heads and look very bemused, but it causes a great loss of income, great degradation of the countryside, a vast amount of cruelty and a huge amount of illegality. These niche issues that need to be policed with robustness, intelligence and co-ordination do need to find, in our rural policing and its funding formula, must identify how best to marry funds with the very clear demands elucidated by my hon. Friend in what has been an excellent debate.
I thank my hon. Friend John Glen for securing the debate, and I thank all Members for their contributions to it. The number of Members present, as well as the number who have spoken, illustrates the importance of this issue to rural communities throughout the country.
I shall not detain the House for long, because in principle I agree with what has been said, but I want to go into a little more detail about the position. It is clear from what Members have said this evening that the issue is of concern to rural communities, but I have also heard of their concern at first hand. I am very clear about the fact that people should not have to experience the crimes that have been described; nor should they ever feel threatened, victimised or harassed, whether they are witnesses or actual victims. Anything of that nature is wholly unacceptable, and I expect the police to act in such circumstances.
As has already been mentioned, the Hunting Act 2004 came into effect on
Section 30 of the Game Act 1831 gives the police the power to seize and detain vehicles taking part in hare coursing until a court hearing takes place. The police also have powers to deal with other criminal offences. When I visited Lincolnshire recently at the invitation of my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins, there was clear evidence of the ability to deal with all the crimes being committed. As we have heard this evening, hare coursing is an offence in itself, but other offences are potentially committed within it, such as aggravated trespass, abuse, intimidation, harassment and criminal damage. All those offences are prosecutable in their own right.
As one of my officials pointed out when we were in Lincolnshire, the police may not be able to catch someone in the act of hare coursing because of the speed that is involved. However, through CCTV and other means, they often discover number plates of vehicles that are not taxed or not MOT-ed. They can act on the basis of such an incident in itself, without necessarily catching someone in the act or putting farmers in a position where they have reason to be fearful. I emphasise that the police have a range of options enabling us to be smart about prosecution and cracking down on behaviour of this kind.
Decisions on the use of resources and on law enforcement in individual areas is of course a matter for chief constables. It is for them to determine their priorities and policies, along with their police and crime commissioners. I believe that the policing plan of the Wiltshire police and crime commissioner was published today. PCCs such as Lincolnshire’s Marc Jones want to get a grip on issues such as this, and I commend them for appreciating that in representing their communities they are understanding what is important to those communities. That demonstrates why devolving powers to locally accountable, locally elected PCCs was such an important step.
Members have mentioned funding this evening. Let me remind them that we are firmly committed to reforming the current police funding arrangements, because they are out of date. We want a fairer system that is up to date and, importantly, is transparently able to reflect the way in which crime is being dealt with locally. We are at the moment taking forward a detailed engagement with the sector itself—police, chief constables, police and crime commissioners, and experts and academics in the field. I have met a range of PCCs and chief constables to discuss the issues they think should be covered. A number of them, including representatives whose Members have spoken this evening, have raised the issue of making sure that the costs and challenges that rural policing faces are reflected in the formula. No new formula will be implemented without public consultation; there will be a full process of that, but it will come at the end of this substantial piece of work that we are doing, to make sure that it is fully informed. I have met the PCC for Wiltshire, who has made this point about his own force very directly to me, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury.
I also appreciate that there are complaints both from communities and Members that the police are not always doing enough to deal with the criminals involved in this activity. As I have said, we need to be smart. We need to drive this through our PCCs and our local chief constables, to make sure that local police use all the tools at their disposal to deal with criminal behaviour, including any challenge about the speed with which people move. Those tools might include trespass and the way they deal with cars. As has been noted, there is a clear and powerful message in the seizure of vehicles, which is an expensive circumstance for people to have to deal with, and the seizure of the dogs themselves. I know from talking to the police in Lincolnshire that they are looking to seize dogs; they have organised the kennels, and even have the kennels outside Lincolnshire to make things more difficult. That sends a powerful message, because the dogs are valuable to the people who own them—they are worth tens of thousands of pounds. That is a very clear message that we and the police can send.
I join my hon. Friend who secured the debate and my hon. Friend Simon Hoare who has just spoken in congratulating both of their forces on the excellent work they are looking to do to deal with issues around rural crime, as well as the work that others, including Lincolnshire police, are looking to do to develop this and make sure they are representing the needs of their local communities. I want to make it clear that, as I said a few moments ago, the decisions on how people allocate their resources and what local police are focused on is a matter for them to determine with their PCCs, based on their local knowledge, and working with their chief constables. If the police and the chief constable or the PCC are not focused on an issue such as this, I encourage people to bring it to their attention and make this point. I will happily continue to work on that as well. As I recently did, I will again be meeting the National Police Chiefs Council lead on rural crime and these issues to reinforce the strength of feeling outlined so clearly and eloquently by colleagues this evening.
My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury outlined three particular requests. I have dealt with his second, but will now deal with his first and third points. On updating the legislation procedures around seizure, I will look at the powers the police have, although I think they have the powers they need and that the question is around how they are being used and implemented. However, I undertake to do some further work, again working with the National Police Chiefs Council lead on this issue, and I will get back to my hon. Friend on that, and involve him and any other colleagues interested in making sure they are up to speed with the work we are doing and what the opportunities are.
My hon. Friend’s third point was about the number of people who are actually being charged with these offences and the issue of farmers potentially feeling intimidated if they come forward as witnesses. We discussed that recently when I was in Lincolnshire, and there is a real challenge there. I want people to feel that they can come forward and work with the police both formally and informally, and we will continue to work to develop that.
In closing, I would like to thank not only my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury for securing the debate but all the hon. Members who have taken the time to be here today to highlight the genuine importance of ensuring that we are able to police and protect our rural communities properly. I also want to take this opportunity to commend and congratulate the police, who work hard to deal with this issue, as well as to remind them that we expect them to use the full set of tools at their disposal. I will support them in doing that as we move forward.
Question put and agreed to.