I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Before I begin, while I have no direct or technical interest to declare, for the sake of transparency, I should bring the House’s attention to the fact that my in-laws are farmers and that we have agricultural equipment in the family, including quad bikes.
Fighting crime has been a priority for me throughout my political career. Some moons ago, I spent eight years as a councillor in a London borough where I was the portfolio holder for community safety. Working closely with the police, we reduced crime in that borough by a quarter, which showed me that, sometimes, simple ideas can make a huge difference to people’s lives in reducing their chances of being a victim of crime and deterring criminals from committing offences in the first place.
The Bill has been on something of a long and winding road from the base ideas that formed it, including the idea to shut down the resale of stolen power tools on online platforms that formed the basis of my 2021 ten-minute rule Bill, which was born on a community Facebook forum in the town of Buckingham in my constituency. That long and winding road has involved extensive negotiation with industry, insurers, the police, representative bodies such as the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association, the Countryside Alliance and others as well as, of course, the Government, to get to the plan before us. The framework started with a focus on combating thefts of equipment stolen far too often across rural communities, but is expanded in the Bill, having proven that the concept works on quads, all-terrain vehicles and side-by-sides, to other agricultural equipment such as tractor GPS units and way beyond. I sincerely hope that, once we have proved the Bill’s concept, that expansion can take place not just to further agricultural equipment but to equipment in other trades and industries.
More than 40 years ago, a significant change took place in UK farming, which transformed the way in which many farmers operate. The piece of machinery that precipitated that transformation has now become as synonymous with sheep farming as the sheepdog. That revolution in farming methods was brought about by the introduction of ATVs, which were originally three-wheel motorcycles, but are now most commonly four-wheel quad bikes. By allowing farmers to reach significantly larger geographical areas and previously impenetrable rough terrain, their impact on farming has been considerable. They are now a crucial element of livestock farming. However, the versatility of ATVs has meant that they have also become an essential piece of machinery in moorland management, urban parks and beaches, and even to spray weeds and clear snow off our streets in urban and rural environments alike.
Those machines also play fundamental roles in our military, emergency services, and mountain rescue teams across the country carrying out essential functions. They are not designed for fun—although of course there are leisure uses for them, too—but, like most other motorcycles or off-road vehicles, they really are workhorses for so many. On many farms, particularly around lambing time, they are in near constant use. They not only lighten the load of day-to-day activities but play an essential role in ensuring the wellbeing and protection of livestock, which is fundamental to the livelihood of so many farmers, land managers and their families.
Without all-terrain vehicles, many farms would simply not be able to meet the demands of caring for livestock over large geographic areas, which would have previously necessitated the employment of far larger numbers of people at a greater cost to the farmer and to the viability of the farm. In fact, they are so integral to contemporary farming businesses that many farmers choose to operate multiple ATVs, because being left without a machine in the event of a breakdown or theft is unthinkable.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is an excellent Bill to help to support farming and farming communities at this time? I congratulate him on bringing forward such a Bill.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what was quite an easy intervention because I am happy to agree with her. The Bill will make a huge difference to farmers and all businesses that use quad bikes as part of their day-to-day operations.
There is a difficult truth, which is why I felt it so important to bring the Bill before the House. The universal trend for all-terrain vehicle thefts in the United Kingdom has amounted to between 800 and 1,100 thefts per year for the last decade. I was informed only this morning that a search on the police national computer shows that we are already up to 800 such reported thefts this year alone, so the trend is not declining.
In the 43 years since their introduction, ATV technology has developed significantly. From the early three-wheel models that had only very basic handlebar controls and had to be kickstarted, modern machines are almost unrecognisable. Today’s ATVs are much more advanced and incorporate features such as four-wheel-drive, tank tracks, cabs, heaters, winches, power steering, electric start buttons and LED lights. Modern ATVs are, in short, infinitely more sophisticated than their predecessors. That is perhaps appropriate, given that they now have a market value of between £7,000 and £20,000, each.
It is almost as if my right hon. Friend read my mind, because the very next part of my speech is to say that, despite all those advances and everything else that is offered on modern ATVs, there has not been development of safety and security features that prevent theft, such as immobilisers. Those are a very basic security feature; it is almost unfathomable given that most manufacturers of quads and ATVs tend to make other equipment—motorcycles or construction equipment —that are fitted with immobilisers and other security equipment. It is striking to me, and has been somewhat surprising the more I have researched it, that the rollout of these security features has been so slow that some leading manufacturers have used the very same basic key system for 35 years.
It is easy to say that the best security advice for farmers and ATV owners is to take the key out, but when I was farming, every key seemed to fit every vehicle. When I went home at the end of the day, I would take my key home; it did not matter which tractor I would be driving the next morning, because I knew the key would fit.
My hon. Friend is quite right. Indeed, a lot of the quad bikes and ATVs out there have ignition systems so basic that in some cases people do not even need the key; they can simply start them with a screwdriver or another piece of flat metal. That should really disturb us. We should shine a spotlight on why such equipment can be started in that way.
I declare an interest: I live on the Grundy family farm, and although we do not have an ATV, the subject is obviously of interest to my family and my wider family. Does my hon. Friend agree that in many ways these issues make farms and other rural businesses more vulnerable than others? That is why legislation such as his Bill is so necessary.
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. With the scale of the theft of quad bikes, ATVs and side-by-sides, we have come to the point where the legislation is simply necessary. With those numbers—800 to 1,100 per year are stolen—something has to give. Farmers, land managers and those who use a quad bike in their businesses need the security of knowing that, when they lock it up in the barn, or wherever they keep it at night, there is a greater chance that it will still be there the next morning. The Bill is not a magic bullet—it will not simply end the theft of all quad bikes and ATVs—but it addresses practical measures such as immobilisers and forensic marking, to ensure a greater chance of equipment and machinery remaining with their owner and shut down the incentives for would-be thieves to steal them.
The frustrating thing is that the technology is here. Millions of dollars’ worth of John Deere machinery stolen by Russian Federation forces from a dealership in Ukraine was subsequently shut down remotely by John Deere. Will my hon. Friend join me in commending John Deere for its use of technology to stop that theft of agricultural equipment by the Russian state?
I absolutely join my hon. Friend in commending John Deere and all manufacturers that put the effort into research and development and into providing such products. Higher-value pieces of agricultural machinery—the tractors, the combines, the sprayers—can be fitted with remote control to shut them down and stop them being used. The Bill focuses on smaller agricultural equipment, but there is no reason why we should stop at that. The more the industry can develop such technologies, the better. If our mobile phones or iPads can be remotely wiped and turned off if someone steals them, so that they cannot be used and the data cannot be extracted, there is no reason why equipment used on farms and on land cannot be treated similarly.
To get back to the central point, when property is stolen it is a nightmare for police and law enforcement to track it and return it to its rightful owner. When the police are called to track down and apprehend a suspect who may have stolen a quad bike or other agricultural equipment from a farm, it really is a race against time. Vehicles such as quads and ATVs are light and easily transportable: within hours, thieves can have them strapped to the back of trailers and towed hundreds of miles from their owners, sometimes heading for seaports where they can be transported to and through any number of countries. By that point, it is simply too late for either the police or the owner to recover the vehicle. That leaves the farmer or landowner with a hefty bill for replacing the whole thing, and productivity lost as a result of no longer having access to such a vital piece of machinery for their business.
On the other side of the same coin, shipping delays, the effects of the covid pandemic and other global factors are contributing to a rise in demand for both new and second-hand farm machinery. As waiting lists grow and market values soar, I am afraid to say that thieves are seeing quads and ATVs as easily portable hot-ticket items.
Does not my hon. Friend further agree that this plague of thefts, due to the ease of making such thefts, is having a considerable impact on insurance for farmers and other rural businesses? Given the current financial circumstances, that is obviously making it very difficult for the more marginal farms to continue.
I absolutely agree. I have worked closely particularly with NFU Mutual in the preparation of this Bill. It is clear that, if these provisions are adopted and the Bill becomes an Act, having new quads and ATVs both immobilised and fitted with forensic marking should—of course, the market will always dictate this, but, in theory—massively bring down insurance premiums. Any slight increase in the cost of the machine to fit the immobiliser and install the forensic marking equipment should be far more than offset by the reduction in the insurance premium.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the current lack of security and safety measures here is almost a criminal waste of police time? Police still have to deal with the crime, try to identify the perpetrators and so on, yet they are not being helped by the manufacturer of the product.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend’s analysis. The police are having to spend an inordinate amount of time simply trying to identify stolen pieces of equipment, such as a quad bike, if they find them. It is not uncommon for serial numbers or chassis numbers to be ground off, making the stolen items almost unidentifiable as to where they came from and were originally manufactured and who they were stolen from or, indeed, bought by. Some of the provisions I will outline, particularly forensic marking, will go some way to massively cutting that demand on police time, enabling our fantastic police officers across the whole country to more readily identify stolen property and return it to its rightful owners, as well as prosecuting the criminals who stole it in the first place.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend Jane Hunt, is it not correct that, further to the issues we have discussed with the police, many police forces are simply ill-equipped to deal with rural crime, making it even more difficult to deal with these issues once such thefts have taken place?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Some police forces around the country have put in place robust measures, such as my home police force area, Thames Valley. The force has a new rural crimes taskforce that is very much focused on these issues and ensures that officers have the training to understand all forms of rural crime, including hare coursing, and particular elements of agricultural machinery. If someone has never worked on a farm or lived in a rural community, they would not necessarily immediately get what the machinery is on site.
The establishment of rural crimes units in different police forces is a welcome addition to the response to rural crime. It is something that needs to be rolled out across the whole country, because pretty much everywhere has a rural part to it. We need to ensure that, of the additional 20,000 officers this Government are recruiting and providing to our police force, some of that resource goes into fighting rural crime.
My hon. Friend is very generous. I know he wants to make progress, but will he join me in commending Thames Valley police’s rural crimes taskforce? It has made fantastic progress in tackling rural crime—not just theft of farm machinery, although a significant amount of stolen farm machinery has been recovered by Thames Valley this year, but things such as hare coursing, which is such a blight and such a pain for farmers. It is another one of those complete time hoovers that sucks up time and attention on farms when we should be focusing on productivity.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on that. Thames Valley covers both my constituency and his, and, as I said a few moments ago, the taskforce is making great strides to tackle rural crime, under the wonderful leadership of Inspector Stuart Hutchings, “The Mighty Hutch”. He is doing incredible work to ensure that those who wish to commit crimes in rural Buckinghamshire, and indeed rural Milton Keynes, are held to account, apprehended and prosecuted, and that stolen equipment is returned to its rightful owners.
I will give way to my right hon. Friend in a few moments, once I have made a little more progress.
This Bill will tackle the problems we have just outlined head-on. As I alluded to in response to a number of interventions, it mandates the fitting of forensic markings at source, which feed into a national database accessible to all police forces across the country. There are many manufacturers, and different standards and options out there, but the quads, ATVs and side-by-sides fitted with this forensic marking will be almost as unique as our own DNA; this will make them entirely traceable and identifiable to the police officers who have the scanning equipment to be able to read and understand that forensic marking. That will streamline the ability of each force involved to work with the same resources, simultaneously, thus massively increasing the opportunity to apprehend the suspect, and identify and return the stolen machine to its owner.
Let me turn to the other key change that this Bill makes, which has also been alluded to in answer to some of the earlier interventions. The Bill mandates the fitting of an immobiliser. For more than 20 years, immobilisers have been mandatory for all new passenger cars sold in the UK—that has been the case since October 1998. I dare say that none of us in this place, or indeed outside it, can imagine buying a car, truck or van that did not have an immobiliser, and for good reason: immobilisers are fundamental in preventing vehicle theft. Without the ignition system talking to the engine, there is simply no way that a car can be operated under its own power. Yet despite the many functions of both quad bikes and ATVs, that rule does not currently apply to either, and I put it to the House that that is simply preposterous. Something as simple and easy to fit as an immobiliser is a no-brainer in the case of such essential and valuable assets to our farmers.
This is not an isolated problem; farms of all types across the UK are impacted by vehicle theft, as are the surrounding communities. We are often talking about small communities where everyone knows each other. Farms are the beating heart of rural life, and news of any and all threats they face spreads quickly, and a sense of fear and panic sets in for residents and businesses in the whole area. Rural communities have suffered immeasurably, both during the pandemic and since. Rural businesses teetered on the edge throughout covid, and they continue to feel the effects from that extremely difficult period. When combined with the theft of farm vehicles and equipment, this situation cannot be ignored and must be taken seriously. As the chairman of NFU Mutual, Jim McLaren, has made clear:
“With diesel and fertiliser prices soaring and the cost of living crisis biting, it looks likely that we will see rural crime rise in the coming months.
Current supply chain shortages mean farmers who suffer a theft are facing delays sourcing replacement equipment which may be vital to carrying out essential farm work.”
We are in a race against time to stop farms and farmers not only facing a rise in rural crime, but dealing with the impact of those crimes, potentially and needlessly prolonging the effects on their businesses for months or even years to come. Farmers deserve as much as anyone else to operate in a safe and secure environment. That means getting ahead of the criminal gangs who are perpetrating thefts of these vehicles, and this Bill, I hope, provides a solid foundation on which to pursue them.
The Countryside Alliance, with which I have worked closely on this Bill, revealed through its 2021 rural crime survey that 95% of respondents believe that crime in their local community had become significant over the preceding 12 months. Seventy per cent. believe that there has been an increase in the local crime rate. It is clear how this worrying trend is manifesting itself, with 43% of respondents reporting having a crime committed against them over that period, and 32% of respondents saying that that took the form of agricultural machinery theft.
When we look across the whole country, I can understand how some might say that, in the grand scheme of things, those numbers are not so high, but I say that they are high. Indeed, they are too high, and they need to be tackled. Behind every victim of crime, and more specifically every theft, there lies a business and a family who are dependent on that enterprise for their own financial security. It is a business that can no longer function as it should because that piece of equipment, whether it be large or small, is likely gone forever as it cannot be tracked or retrieved in good time.
Digging deeper into the feedback from rural communities reveals the urgent need for measures specified in the Bill. Looking back to that same rural crime survey, 53% of respondents said that they had installed crime prevention measures in the past 12 months due to an increased fear of crime and directly being victims of crime. These measures include security lighting, industrial barn doors, securing keys and installing CCTV systems. Each of those comes at great cost to the farmers—to those businesses. The measures that we are seeing in farms in rural communities across our country are more typical of an industrial estate in a built-up urban area.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for giving way. Just going back to his earlier comments about rural crime, is it still not the case that, sadly, suspects are 25% more likely to be arrested for crimes committed in urban areas than those committed in the countryside?
My right hon. Friend makes a valid point, and it is something that the rural crime taskforce in my police force area, Thames Valley, and the rural crime units in other police forces, are taking seriously and are trying to get on top of. The statistics speak for themselves. The Bill is a part of the jigsaw puzzle in starting to tackle rural crime. It ensures that, where they cover rural areas, our police forces have the powers, the facilities and the equipment themselves—for example, the scanning equipment for forensic marking—to identify stolen equipment and return it to its rightful owners. These powers will give our police forces greater confidence that they can get on top of rural crime, by identifying stolen equipment, identifying who has stolen it and bringing them to justice.
The Bill, as I said earlier, is no magic bullet; it will not end rural crime overnight. However, it does introduce significant duties for the manufacturers and those who sell this equipment, to help to lift the burden on our farmers of installing all that expensive security equipment and of essentially having to turn their premises—the beating heart of the countryside—into exclusion zones. I am not saying that that other security equipment is not needed—of course it is; every little bit helps—but we must acknowledge as a country that farms being turned into mini-fortresses is not befitting to the countryside, and we need to take other measures, too.
That is an important point, and I hope my hon. Friend will agree that people who are not from rural communities need to understand how food is produced. If as a nation we are to make the transition to producing, growing and selling our food much more sustainably, the public need to see the process. Turning farms into fortresses is counter to that. Does he agree that we need more accessibility and less security if we are to get more people on farms?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He and I share a passion for farming and ensuring that farming is visible and accessible to everyone in our country. He makes an important point about people understanding how food is produced—that the chicken does not get into the plastic box on the shelves in the supermarket by magic and that the cereal does not make itself in a factory, but has to be grown somewhere first. He almost tempts me to get into the amendment I have tabled to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, but I will leave that for when it comes back on Report—as I hear my hon. Friend the Whip encouraging me to do.
Coming back to the subject at hand, pre-fitting quad bikes and ATVs with the means necessary both to prevent them from being stolen and to effectively track any that are stolen will lift a huge weight off the shoulders of our hard-working farmers. The threat is well documented, and it is more widespread and organised than most think. We are not necessarily talking about a couple of opportunists who are bored and looking for something to fill their time; those who are stealing this equipment are predominantly organised criminal syndicates intent on profiteering from high-value theft.
Let me give the House an example. A prominent recent case of agricultural equipment theft saw the successful prosecution of two men for conspiring to steal agricultural global positioning systems and other technical equipment valued at approximately £380,000 from agricultural vehicles on 13 farms and estates across the county of Essex between
This Bill will prevent the need to pursue this time-consuming and extremely costly legal process by ensuring that the quads and ATVs, and potentially further equipment in due time through secondary legislation, either cannot be stolen in the first place or, through forensic marking, are made less attractive to the would-be thieves. That case took Essex police a considerable amount of time, a lot of investigation and probably hundreds, if not thousands of hours of police time to get that fantastic prosecution. This Bill is about short-cutting that process for our police and ensuring they can get the result and get justice in much faster time.
As my hon. Friend Ben Everitt mentioned, Thames Valley police, my own local force and his, reported recently that officers from its groundbreaking rural crime taskforce, which I referred to earlier and which has only been in operation since April this year, has recovered more than 100 items totalling more than £1 million-worth of machinery, tools and equipment, 25% of which were related to theft. Those are investigations resulting in a positive outcome for the victim. That is encouraging and a great start, but we need to go much further and expand that excellent work beyond the individual forces. I am pleased to say that there is already strong engagement on this from both rural representative groups and local law enforcement, but we need to go further by tackling the problem at source.
A good example of the behind-the-scenes work already being done to tackle that type of rural crime is NFU Mutual’s approach, which is based on close co-ordination with national and local police forces, as well as with the manufacturing sector. The dedicated agricultural vehicle theft unit at the national vehicle crime intelligence service saw £2.6 million-worth of stolen machinery recovered in 2021, up from £2.3 million in 2020. Specific measures, such as the funding of CESAR—the construction and agricultural equipment security and registration scheme—forensic markings for 200 quads in Northern Ireland through working with Datatag and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, have contributed to a drop of nearly 20% in the cost of dealing with rural theft in Northern Ireland. Of course, other forensic-marking products and brands are available.
We need to lock in reductions, such as those of that Northern Ireland project, for the whole of our United Kingdom, and for every farm, because each suffers from the same threat. The Bill will provide the groundwork to bring down rates of theft and reduce the overall threat of theft, tackling the problem at source and building on the prevention measures that are already in place.
The cost of not doing that is clear. The CLA estimates that the average financial impact on the victim per rural crime equates to £4,800, and that figure increases each day as supply chain costs and overheads continue to rise. The value of quad bike and ATV thefts reported to NFU Mutual in 2021 was £2.2 million. Almost half those reports were received between September and December, demonstrating the extremely challenging circumstances that we are dealing with and how much is at stake for farmers as the weather begins to turn.
For the 10.3 million people who live in the countryside, this hits right at the heart of everyday life. Rural crime cannot simply sit alongside urban crime, as the CLA makes clear. Difficulties in tracking criminals over such vast swathes of countryside mean that local police forces are always faced with a uphill battle—they have to spread resources over a much larger geographical area compared with their more urban counterparts—and criminals already have a head start.
My hon. Friend is making an absolutely vital point. I live close to the Ceiriog valley in my constituency of Clwyd South, where there have been a lot of problems of this nature. Often, thieves come from outside the constituency. They do not come from a rural area but, in this case, from Liverpool, Manchester or Birmingham, so they are not known to the police and so on, which makes apprehending them all the more difficult. I strongly support everything he is saying.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for the Bill. I agree on apprehending criminals and local knowledge. The evidence shows that so much of this acquisitive crime is committed by criminals who are not local to the area in which they are committing the crime. They are passing through as an organised criminal gang, which adds to the pressures on our police in apprehending them.
Close collaboration between communities and the police is also key to tackling theft, as demonstrated by the agricultural and construction equipment police unit, which, since April last year, has been central to tackling the cross-border organised crime that my hon. Friend Simon Baynes rightly highlighted. Its guiding principle is one that goes right to the heart of the Bill: cross-industry co-operation is crucial for crime prevention, and prevention is fundamentally better than the cure. Just as the vehicles themselves are important to farmers, so intelligence-sharing is essential for tackling theft. That is what the Bill enables.
Dealerships would be required by law to submit details of a vehicle’s appearance and registration and the location of its forensic marking to a central database that is accessible to all police forces right across our United Kingdom, no matter their size or scope. This would better enable officers from different forces to work together within dedicated units and apprehend the assailant in an effective and timely manner. That is an essential tool not only for police forces today, but for tomorrow and far into the future as the technology evolves and is developed further.
The use of a national database for training new officers is crucial for making the most of this opportunity, because by using and sharing data, forces can pinpoint hotspots where theft is particularly prevalent and respond accordingly in a co-ordinated way, knowing that their officers are properly trained to use and interpret those information systems. That is essential to beat the ever-changing tactics that these criminal gangs use to pursue what is becoming an increasingly sophisticated operation. They have the upper hand in more rural areas. Without the same level of CCTV and automatic number plate recognition systems in place, it can be incredibly difficult to track stolen vehicles moving through rural areas, especially under the cover of darkness. That is why the behind-the-scenes work already being rolled out not only needs to be accelerated, but formalised, and that is what the Bill does.
Before I conclude, I want to place on record some particular thanks to everyone who has worked with me and my team on this Bill. That is above all, but certainly not limited to, David Exwood and his whole team at the National Farmers Union and everyone at NFU Mutual who deals with this issue day in, day out for its thousands of members and consumers across the UK. Likewise, the Bill would not exist without the vast insight, knowledge and experience of Superintendent Andy Huddleston, whose hard work and determination as the rural crime co-ordinator at the National Police Chiefs’ Council has made this Bill possible. I also thank the many other industry-led organisations that have contributed to the preparation and research for the Bill, including the Country Land and Business Association, the Countryside Alliance, the Construction Equipment Association and the Agricultural Equipment Association among others. For his huge dedication and hard work supporting me on this Bill, I thank my senior parliamentary assistant, Ian Kelly.
It would also be remiss of me not to thank the succession of Ministers with whom I have negotiated since I came out of the ballot earlier this year, not least my right hon. Friend Chris Philp on the Treasury Bench, who alongside his hard-working and dedicated officials has made himself and them available to me frequently throughout the drafting and production of the Bill, which I hope will lead to the Government’s full support for it as it passes through Parliament.
The Bill will allow my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and future Home Secretaries to expand its scope where necessary and ensure that rural communities remain protected as the threat evolves and changes. The demand is still there for globalised criminal networks of stolen equipment and machinery, and we must continue working to break that link and to shut it down at source. That means identifying and monitoring other such industries that are vulnerable to having similar types of valuable assets stolen at large. There is just as much a threat to the construction industry and other trades. There are vast amounts of specialist equipment and vehicles found everywhere, from driveways to building sites, containing everything from power tools to excavators, all of which are at risk of being stolen. Tackling it will require a cross-departmental effort, just as it requires a cross-border and cross-community approach to tackle it on the ground, but we have a starting point.
We simply cannot lose this opportunity to build a network that will ultimately enhance safety and security for countless communities, businesses and farmers across our country. I trust that these calls for a strengthened approach to tackling the scourge of rural crime will not have gone unheard. I urge the Minister to keep monitoring this policy area closely and to continue to work with the police and the farming community. This Bill can make a difference to rural crime, and I commend it to the House.
Often when I come to the House on a Friday, I look at the Order Paper and do not really have a clear position on a Bill. I sit here and listen to the debate and try to work out what the key points are and what position I am going to take. Happily, this morning I am in no such position; I fully support the Bill presented to the House by my hon. Friend Greg Smith, who I am very pleased to call a friend. I offer him my huge thanks for his work on the Bill, and I extend my thanks to the folk he mentioned, with whom he has worked so hard to bring the Bill to this stage. I know it has been a difficult passage since he came number 4 in the private Member’s Bill ballot.
Sorry, I did my hon. Friend a huge disservice. He was number 3 in the private Member’s Bill ballot.
I was going to say that many Members on both sides of the House take rural crime incredibly seriously, but it is disappointing to see the lack of numbers on the Opposition Benches.
That is the point I was stumbling to make, so I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his timely intervention. Yes, it is surprising and disappointing.
Rural crime is an incredibly important topic. My constituency contains not only the wonderful top half of Milton Keynes, but two amazing market towns and dozens of villages and farms. It is the interrelationship between the city, towns and farms that really makes our part of England so representative of England as a whole. Being a community is a team game and involves towns, villages and cities, and the interrelationship is really part of that. It is surprising that, apart from the shadow Minister, who is in her place, there are no Opposition Members here to support the Bill.
My family’s farming background makes me acutely aware of the vast range of issues facing our farmers and the agricultural sector at large. Additionally, the correspondence I get, and the visits I make to my constituents in rural areas, show me what a real pain rural crime is, specifically the theft of agricultural machinery, and that is the angle from which I will focus my remarks today.
I have worked on a farm where we have had kit stolen, and it really is so frustrating. In farming, time is money. Harvests are a race against the weather and a race against time. If a farmer does not get their harvest in while the weather is good, they will be getting it in while it is damp. They will not have had the sun dry out their crop, and they will have to spend an absolute fortune drying the grain. With today’s energy prices being so high, that is the difference—
Is it not true to say that the loss of a key piece of equipment during the harvest season is devastating? My hon. Friend has mentioned grain, but an entire crop of hay or straw can be entirely ruined if it is rained on, and it is impossible to get it dry in time.
Absolutely. That is entirely the case, and we are talking about food. Our farmers provide food for our nation, and the work that they do is so time critical and time intensive that thefts from farms can totally disrupt that. These small incidents can have a catastrophic effect on profit and loss, and on productivity—basically, on the viability of a farm. It is such an important issue.
One of the frustrating things is that we know that thefts of farm machinery are quite often the result of targeted organised crime. It is not just the horrendous effect on the viability of a farm and the impact on the food chain, prices and so on; it is the fact that farm thefts go on to fund organised crime and all the horrible things that are done, and I will come to that later.
There are concerns that the increase in the cost of living may lead to an uptick in rural crime. Regretfully, compared with other types of crime, rural crimes often go unreported, making it difficult to understand the scale of the threat faced by tradespeople and farmers. This is highlighted by the fact that suspects are nearly 25% more likely to be charged for crimes in urban areas than in the countryside.
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham mentioned the recent survey which showed that the theft of agricultural machinery is a top priority for people in rural communities. I certainly know that to be true, from talking to my farmers in Milton Keynes North and reading my correspondence on the issue. Furthermore, 32% of respondents to the survey reported experiencing agricultural machinery theft. If we do anything through this debate today, it is to shine a light on the importance of tackling this huge issue for our rural constituents.
Worse still, rural crime is having a significant economic impact. According to NFU Mutual’s recent report, rural theft cost the UK economy £40.5 million in 2020-21. Tractors, combines, drills and cultivators make up the core of a farm’s arsenal for preparing and harvesting the land. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham said, ATVs provide a vital support role for farmers, with the mobility they provide to move people around and move seed around. Unsurprisingly, these complex and vital pieces of machinery come at a huge cost to farmers, in terms of both the initial purchase price and then the maintenance.
It is not just the bits of kit themselves; it is the technology that goes into them. There is a huge amount of technology poured into farming now. I am of a generation described as being born analogue and being digital immigrants, and that is certainly true of my farming career. I do not recognise the technology picture of an ATV that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham paints, because it was a simpler bit of kit when I was buzzing around the countryside on them. In the late ’90s, I was fortunate enough to work on a farm that was considered to be an early adopter of technology, and I remember fitting a GPS kit to a combine harvester. That GPS kit, we were told, came at a cost of £12,000, which was a lot of money in those days. I remember making sure that we could get the software working and then turning the computer on, making a cup of tea while it booted up, combining the field, avidly watching the GPS as the combine crawled through the field, going back to the office, having our tea, putting the kit away, waiting for the computer, and teasing out what turned out to be three pages of A4 in very scrawly graphs, telling us exactly what we knew already—£4,000 a page.
Technology has moved on a lot since then, and frankly, it is so good and so expensive that it is such a target for thieves. GPS units now are not what I described from the late ’90s. They are incredibly valuable bits of kit and command a high price in the resale market. I happen to know that in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Buckingham, there is a company that is currently testing robot tractors, which is a fantastic innovation and will probably plough fields in neater lines than I used to. We also have ground- penetrating radar, which is a wonderful innovation that allows for the accurate and precise application of pesticides and fertiliser, minimising run-off into the watercourse and supporting our natural environment. Critically, it also makes farming much more efficient so that we can feed our nation.
Without these vital tools, our farmers cannot harvest their crops efficiently or carry on their important work on the land. Now, more than ever, our farmers need the protection they deserve to give them peace of mind and to ensure we maintain food production levels during this testing time, both domestically and, importantly, internationally. Given Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the world is at a critical time for food supply. We will be okay in the UK. We will feed our people because, comparatively, we are a very rich nation but, as the global food supply goes down, we are unfortunately heading for famine.
Time is money, and we need to make sure we do everything we can to support farmers to get the harvest in on time. The theft of larger farming machinery is often carried out by organised crime, by multiple criminals working together. It is therefore time we started treating the security of farming machinery with more importance and focus.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I wonder whether his family’s farm is a Fabergé egg farm, which I suspect might be a profitable agricultural innovation.
The challenge of equipment theft is huge, and we need to prevent not just the theft of equipment but the resale of it, too. These bits of kit are so versatile, particularly the ATVs on which this Bill focuses, that they can be resold to support many different industries and trades. They are versatile, but they are also fun. I confess that, in my earlier years, I perhaps drove an ATV a little faster than recommended, not on the public road, of course. People race these things, so they are genuinely versatile bits of kit.
By preventing the theft and resale of this equipment, which is vital to tradespeople and agricultural businesses, we can deter and reduce theft. Specifically, as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham mentioned, by mandating and fitting forensic markings and vehicle engine immobilisers, we will set a new standard for security on vehicles manufactured and sold in the United Kingdom.
On preventing resale, is it not clear that there may have to be a record-keeping requirement on retailers? Sadly, because retailers come and go, the best way for this to be effective is by way of an online database.
I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend. Data is critical to resolving these issues and, in fact, it links directly to the point made by my hon. Friend Simon Baynes, who said there is a national issue, as these criminal gangs often operate from different sides of the country. The availability of data and the ability to track not only the bits of kit that have been stolen but where they are being resold, and by which channels they are being resold, will be critical to solving this.
The requirement to fit new agricultural machinery with visible engine immobilisers is key, because we need to ensure that criminals can see that they will be caught. It will prevent vehicles from running under their own propulsion, and, obviously, it will make it very difficult for criminals to steal them. I mentioned earlier the John Deere kit that was shut down remotely by the company after being taken by the Russian forces in Ukraine. That is a very effective way of removing the resale value of stolen goods.
Perhaps most significantly, the Bill will require the recording of sales data, which, of course, includes the vehicle registration. The police will then be able to track stolen vehicles more easily once the theft has been reported. The idea is that criminals can be apprehended before arranging the transport of the vehicles. They are often transported abroad, so it is not just an organised crime in the UK, but an organised crime issue around the world. The Bill’s core aim is to design out crime, protecting our farmers and tradespeople and making the jobs of our police forces much easier.
More locally, I join my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham in welcoming the launch of the Thames Valley police rural crime taskforce earlier this year, which has already had a positive impact on the whole region. So far, £1 million-worth of equipment has been recovered by the taskforce, and last summer it recovered a machine worth £250,000 from a quarry in Buckinghamshire. Critically, the vehicle identification number plate had been removed by the criminals, the only remaining identifying feature being a 3-digit VIN. Alarmingly, that number was not registered on any database—which is relevant to the point made earlier by my right hon. Friend Sir Greg Knight.
This case highlights two issues clearly—the first being that existing vehicles are not fitted with enough security features, and the second being that expensive vehicles are often difficult to identify and track, which makes it less likely that criminals can be apprehended and the stolen vehicle can be returned to its owner. As I have already explained in detail, I am confident that the Bill will enable us to make significant progress towards tackling both issues head-on. For example, an engine mobiliser might have prevented that vehicle from being stolen in the first place.
I also believe that the Bill will enable us to make significant progress towards reducing rural crime and protecting farmers, but there is still more to be done. We need to find ways to engage with manufacturers on the issue of designing security into their tools and vehicles, because criminals will always find new ways of adapting to new security features, and we need to encourage farmers and agriculture businesses to up their security. As was pointed out earlier, it is important for farms to be accessible, but they must also be secure. The focus of the Bill is right: it is not about turning farms into fortresses, but about holding manufacturers to account, and to high standards, when it comes to security.
The Bill puts us on the right path, a path on which security becomes a bigger factor in the way in which equipment for tradespeople and agricultural businesses are designed. Ultimately, these vital pieces of equipment are inextricably linked to the functioning of our economy and our food security. Through the Bill we can show our support for the farmers and tradespeople of this country, who play a critical role in our economy— especially now, given the rising cost of living.
I am pleased to support the Bill today, and I hope that Members on both sides of the House will do so as well.
It is a genuine pleasure to follow Ben Everitt, who has shared some of his insight and expertise, having clearly spent a great deal of time working on a farm in a previous life—I am curious about the notion of Fabergé egg farms and the potential for expansion there. In all sincerity, I congratulate Greg Smith on bringing forward this private Member’s Bill and on comprehensively and convincingly setting out the case for it today.
Having considered the hon. Gentleman’s Bill and having listened carefully to his arguments, the Opposition are inclined to agree that his proposals would have a strong impact on mitigating against quad bike and all-terrain vehicle theft. That form of criminality has blighted rural and more urban communities for too long, either because of the initial theft or the illicit and antisocial use of such vehicles thereafter in constituencies across the UK.
As outlined, the Bill seeks to mandate the fitting of forensic markings and an immobiliser on all quad bikes and all-terrain vehicles sold in the UK, which would solve a specific problem. If enacted, the Bill provides the scope for those measures to be expanded further. It would be a welcome tool to support the police in deterring such thefts, finding stolen goods and supporting agricultural and land workers who need that kit to do their jobs and undertake the incredibly valued work that has been discussed.
Rural crime has been a priority. My hon. Friend Sarah Jones, who is a fellow shadow Home Affairs Minister with responsibility for policing, has visited a number of rural crime initiatives, such as Operation Hawkeye in Northumberland, where efforts to disrupt poaching recovered £850,000-worth of property and arrested 65 people. From my experience of my Halifax constituency, which takes in urban and rural areas, quad bike and all-terrain vehicle theft and subsequent misuse is a massive and sustained challenge.
Last month, I was frustrated to hear that Todmorden junior football club, just down the Calder valley, was subject to a serious act of vandalism. One of its pitches was left badly scarred and unplayable by someone repeatedly driving a quad bike over it. Louise Leeming, the club’s welfare officer, said:
“They’ve completely trashed it, you can’t play on it. The council spent an absolute fortune repairing it and they”— the vandals— have just destroyed it.”
At a time when council funding is, frankly, being decimated, it is reprehensible that an individual would flagrantly seek to damage a much-needed facility for local children.
That is just the tip of the iceberg, however. Locally, in October, as part of Operation Heelfield, officers executed a section 26 warrant to arrest a Halifax man on suspicion of burglary after a recently stolen Yamaha Kodiak quad bike was found in his garage. In March, two quad bikes were seized by police after two males, who had been involved in using them antisocially, had abandoned them. That formed part of Operation Hedgeson, which was carried out by the Halifax neighbourhood policing team to pursue, catch and convict those responsible for causing a nuisance in our communities through their antisocial and dangerous behaviour on and off the roads with such quad bikes and ATVs.
Unfortunately, such stories are not surprising and occur far too often. According to statistics released by NFU Mutual, in 2021, West Yorkshire had the third-largest number of quad bike thefts in the country. As the hon. Gentleman said, estimates suggest that nationwide, between 900 and 1,200 quad bikes are stolen every year, and many end up circulating back on to the market in some way. An NFU Mutual crime report estimated that in 2021, rural theft cost the UK £40.5 million.
I am sure that hon. Members will join me in paying tribute to our local policing teams, who work incredibly hard to try to get ahead of the criminals in getting a grip on and tackling this problem, but they simply do not have the requisite resources or toolkit to completely clamp down on such crime. The Bill, if introduced, would be a formidable starting point, but there are no two ways about it: the underfunding and under-resourcing of our police forces have undermined their capabilities for more than a decade. Analysis carried out by the Labour party, which studied the budgets of all 43 police forces in England and Wales, found that, in 2021, police budgets were £1.6 billion down in real terms on when the Conservatives came to power in 2010. In August this year, the National Police Chiefs’ Council said in a statement that crime detection and charge rates had dropped following austerity measures and a fall in police numbers since 2010. Its spokesperson said:
“Detection and charge rates for a range of crimes have fallen over the past five years.”
I would be really interested to see the details of those figures. I am sorry to say that detection rates, charge rates and prosecution rates are all going in the wrong direction under this Government. I gave a quote from the National Police Chiefs’ Council. If the Minister wants to take that up with the council, he can certainly do that. Its spokesperson said:
“Detection and charge rates for a range of crimes have fallen over the past five years…This has been impacted by austerity and the loss of thousands of police officers and staff, increasing complexity of policing and crime, growing demand related to mental ill health and impact of backlogs in the court system.”
I am grateful to the shadow Minister for giving way again. I suppose she will not get many interventions from her own side, looking at the empty Opposition Benches, so I am happy to fill the gap. She mentioned police officer numbers. Would she like to join me in welcoming the fact that, come March next year—just four months’ time—when the police uplift programme is completed and 20,000 extra officers have been recruited, we will have about 149,000 police officers, which is more than at any time in the country’s history?
I will get back to the detail of the Bill, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I quickly make the point that the Government cut 21,000 police officers. I will not be giving them a pat on the back for replacing 20,000, having recognised the detrimental impact that has had on the safety of our communities. Those pressures hit rural communities particularly hard. Interestingly, just last month, BBC analysis found that suspects are almost 25% more likely to be charged for crimes in urban areas than in the countryside. In 2021, there was a charge rate of 6.89% in rural areas compared with 8.55% in urban areas. I am sure that the policing Minister will want to have a close look at that stark difference.
I return to the detail of the Bill. I particularly welcome its provision to allow, through secondary legislation, the Secretary of State the power to expand the remit of the Bill’s requirements to other types of equipment and machinery commonly used in the agricultural and construction sectors. We hope that, if enacted, secondary legislation will expand the Bill to cover a multitude of other agricultural and construction equipment. I know that chainsaws and nail guns are the types of tools and kit that are too regularly stolen from properties, or the backs of vans and other vehicles, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds each year.
Given the expertise of the hon. Member for Buckingham in this area and his contributions on the topic in the Chamber today and previously, I know that he is all too aware of the problem of theft from vans. According to research carried out by Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, in 2021, 27% of van drivers had fallen victim to tool theft in the previous 12 months. The total cost of all lost tools and equipment is estimated to be about £15 million a year. Volkswagen estimates that the associated downtime for drivers who must replace those tools costs £550 a day per van. The Bill presents an opportunity to sharpen the tools available in the fight against this type of crime. When resources are down and geographically stretched in some rural areas, the more we can use technology to design out crime, the better.
We are satisfied that the Bill will make some progress towards that, helping to suppress theft and the antisocial use of quad bikes that is often a consequence. I again commend the hon. Member for Buckingham. We hope that the Government will allow the Bill to progress to Committee stage where Members can consider the detail, in the hope that it makes a difference when tackling this type of criminality, which blights far too many communities.
The Countryside Alliance has conducted an annual survey of rural communities’ experiences and perceptions over the last calendar year. The 2021 survey revealed that 43% of respondents reported having had a crime committed against them in the last year. Of those, 32% reported having experienced agricultural theft, which was the third most reported crime. In the 2020 survey, agricultural machinery theft was reported as the respondents’ top priority for police to tackle.
That is what the Bill deals with. However, the issue is much wider. A local farmer in Loughborough has recently been targeted, having had £2,000-worth of GPS equipment stolen from a tractor. He highlighted that it is a common occurrence and that he has already taken extensive security measures on the farm following previous thefts, including locked gates at every entrance, video cameras, motion activation sirens and locks on all sheds. However, unfortunately, often, machinery has to be left in the fields in remote locations during busy times of year, which is when criminals tend to strike. I would therefore be keen for all types of farming equipment to be included in the registration process. He is a farmer I have met on many occasions; he is very hard-working—as are many farmers across the country, but this gentleman works very hard indeed. It is wrong that he should have to think of those things and take all those measures.
The Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to make regulations that require all new all-terrain vehicles and quad bikes to be fitted with immobilisers and forensic markings, and owners’ details to be registered on a database. On the first issue, the National Farmers Union has highlighted that shipping delays and the effects of the covid pandemic and Brexit are contributing to a rise in demand for both new and second-hand farm machinery. NFU members have reported that the lack of availability of ATVs has resulted in it taking three to six months to replace a stolen vehicle, and that the cost has risen dramatically.
As waiting lists grow and market values soar, thieves are seeing quads and ATVs as expensive, easily portable, hot-ticket items with a ready resale market in this country and abroad. Thefts are therefore hitting farmers twice as hard because of the difficulties in getting replacement vehicles. The financial impact of these incidents is exacerbated further at a time when energy and feed costs are soaring. Requiring that new machinery be fitted with a prominent and visible engine immobiliser should provide a deterrent effect by making it harder to steal, thereby decreasing its attractiveness to thieves. That view is supported by the NFU, which has stated that immobilisers and trackers act as a deterrent to thieves, increase the chance of police recovering the vehicle and catching the people behind these crimes, and help farm safety as the immobiliser systems have smart technology that can raise the alarm if a machine has been impacted or rolled over. Although the NFU welcomes the Bill’s ambitions, it argues that its scope should be widened in secondary legislation to include other agricultural equipment.
The second part of the Bill requires that owners’ details be registered on a database. That will make it easier for police to investigate thefts and return stolen goods to their owners. It will also make it easier for legitimate owners to demonstrate their title, in case that is required during an investigation into a suspected theft. That is a positive step, but more needs to be done to prevent tool theft, particularly from vans.
I would be keen to widen the Bill further to include all commercial vehicles and the equipment kept within them. In October, Tradespeople Against Tool Theft published a White Paper exploring the realities of UK tradespeople who have had their tools stolen. The paper found that 78% of tradespeople surveyed had their tools stolen and 38.5% had them stolen from their van outside their home. Only 1% of tradespeople fully recovered their stolen tools. Some trades appear to be more desirable targets for thieves; 30% of carpenters had their tools stolen four times or more.
A highly skilled plumber in my constituency highlighted this issue at a national level a few years ago with his #noVANber campaign:
“Based in Loughborough, independent plumber Peter Booth (@PBPlumber) launched a petition last year aiming to get the issue of van theft taken more seriously. His #noVANber social media campaign calls on the Government to look at the increasing ways to protect tradespeople from van tool theft. A recent report by Powertools2U claimed that a van has its tools stolen every 23 minutes in the UK, with an average of 62 thefts per day.”
Peter Booth added:
“I got tired of seeing photos and stories from tradespeople who had their vans targeted and tools stolen, stopping them from working. I didn’t think it was fair. I wanted to gather support using social media influence to try and get the Government to look at the possible ways to help make this crime less profitable for the culprits.”
The impact of equipment theft on victims can be wide-ranging, including the financial costs and the emotional and psychological impact. Financially, there is not only the cost of replacing the stolen equipment, but the potential loss of business due to the delays in sourcing new tools. The Federation of Master Builders found that over a builder’s career, they will typically lose £10,000-worth of tools and six working days to tool theft. Alongside that, the FMB has reported that tool theft is causing 15% of builders to suffer from anxiety and 11% to suffer from depression. The chief executive of the FMB said:
“Decisive action is needed to tackle tool theft. Eight in ten builders report that they have had tools stolen before. This is causing mental health issues amongst builders with reports of depression, anxiety, anger, frustration, stress and even suicidal thoughts.”
Peter Booth worked on his petition alongside my predecessor, the right hon. Nicky Morgan, now in the other place, and called on the Government to consider what more could be done to tackle van theft and tool theft. The petition stated:
“The loss of a van and/or tools can severely impact on a tradesperson. Even if they are insured, sourcing replacements, organising van repairs and rebooking appointments means significant time out of work. For those who cannot find affordable insurance, this can lead to the loss of livelihood.
While tradespeople can take preventative measures to protect their vans and tools, this only goes so far in deterring thieves. We are, therefore, calling on the Government to consider what more can be done to tackle this problem, whether it be introducing new legislation, additional sentencing guidelines or regulations on the reselling of tools. Ultimately, thieves must understand that such a crime is not profitable and that stealing a livelihood carries with it commensurate penalties.”
It was signed by 40,262 people.
The prominence of the second-hand tool market is helping to drive tool theft, as second-hand tools are more affordable and can be relatively easy to source. The market is also not currently regulated, which means sellers do not have to prove the tools were acquired legally. Research by Direct Line insurance found that nearly one third of people have bought second-hand tools at some point and six in 10 tradespeople have been approached by or have seen someone trying to sell second-hand tools that they suspected were stolen.
In April 2021, my hon. Friend Greg Smith introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to require people selling second-hand tools on online marketplaces to reveal a serial number in a searchable format for each item. Making serial numbers, which are unique identifiers, searchable would help to track down stolen goods and hopefully cut off the ability of criminals to monetise their stolen items. This is an excellent idea, as it fits in well with the previous campaign of my constituent Mr Booth. I will be keen to bring these ideas forward during the passage of this Bill, should it go further.
In the meantime, a number of industry stakeholders, including the FMB, have published practical advice for tradespeople to reduce their risk of having tools stolen. An official police security initiative, “Secured By Design”, has also published similar tips to prevent tool and van theft. They include removing tools from vans, installing a tool safe, alarm and new locks, marking tools, and parking strategically. We should encourage tradespeople to follow that advice, but we should not place all the onus on them. The Government have outlined several steps they have undertaken to address the issue of stolen equipment, which include the establishment of an expert stolen goods working group, collaborating with the police and the academic community to tackle the markets for stolen goods. The then Minister of State for the Home Office and Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend Kit Malthouse, said:
“The group is examining ways to make property more identifiable and traceable and are working with partners to increase enforcement and encourage due diligence checks by second-hand goods traders.”
The national vehicle crime working group, established by the National Police Chiefs’ Council, is also being used to connect the Government and the police and motor manufacturers. The Government have said that the working group has created a network of vehicle crime specialists across police forces in England and Wales. Their work includes consideration of how to reduce thefts of items from vehicles.
In conclusion, the Bill is a good framework, which will most certainly help farmers and others who have rural business vehicles, but I would like it to go wider to encompass all farm equipment and then to help, defend and support our tradespeople, who are the backbone of our economy and this country. I ask the Minister to look to include those businesses in his plans. This Bill mandates the forensic marking of farm vehicles, which is of equal importance and value to tradespeople. Let us look after those who look after our economy and our country.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate. May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Greg Smith on bringing this important Bill before the House today? I am delighted to be here on a Friday to support it. It was good to hear the statesmanlike manner in which he spoke on this important subject of equipment theft. It is clearly an issue that is extremely important to his rural constituents in Buckingham, and he represented them with expertise, experience, authority and understanding. Theft of equipment is also a pressing issue in my constituency, so my constituents will also be grateful to him for bringing this Bill to the House today.
The Bill seeks to prevent the theft and re-sale of equipment and tools used by tradesmen, including those in the agricultural and building trades. It is such an important and groundbreaking Bill that I would like to deal with it clause by clause. Clause 1 specifies that vehicles such as quadbikes and ATVs primarily designed for use by farmers must be fitted with an engine immobiliser. It also sets out a requirement for equipment to be marked with a unique identifier, which must be able to be easily seen and is permanent. So the clause sets up a system that is the same as the VIN system we have in cars.
Clause 2 sets out a requirement that there should be a permanent record of the details of the buyer of the equipment. That could include their name, address, phone number and email, as well as the make, model and colour of the equipment in question.
Does my hon. Friend agree with the comment I made earlier about the importance of ensuring through the record-keeping provision that records are not lost if, for example, a vendor goes out of business? I believe it is essential that any records be kept online.
My right hon. Friend makes a crucial point. The whole point of the system is that we are setting up a permanent record. If the record is to be permanent, it must be accessible and held in such a way that people’s records are not lost. In this day and age, clearly the only way is to have a proper online database.
The permanent record will also include a unique identifying number for pieces of equipment, as we have discussed in reference to clause 1. Making sure that specific pieces of farm equipment are clearly linked to a specific person or owner will ensure that when the time comes for resale, a potential buyer will be able to take the details of the person selling the equipment and check the identifying mark against the permanent record on the computer database that has been established. If they match, all is well and the buyer can carry on with the purchase; if not, that is a clear flag that the piece of equipment could be stolen and the buyer should steer well clear.
Clause 3 is equally important. It will set up an enforcement mechanism and put proper measures in place so that police and other enforcement agencies can ensure compliance with clauses 1 and 2.
By making equipment more identifiable, both physically and on the online database, we will be able to detect stolen equipment more quickly. That in turn will reduce theft because the resale market will be permanently disrupted. For those reasons, I believe that the Bill is incredibly worth while and will give huge peace of mind to our hard-working tradesmen and women all around the country. That is why the Bill has been welcomed by such a diverse cross-section of business representatives: the Countryside Alliance, which represents people throughout our rural communities, says that it “fully supports this Bill”, while the insurance company Simply Business says that the Bill represents a welcome recognition that tool theft is a big problem for tradespeople of all types.
Another reason for the Bill’s widespread support is quite simply that we have seen this type of action working in other areas, so I would like to focus on the efficacy of the Bill. Let us take the car industry as a case in point. Back in the 1980s, car theft was a real problem and many cars were regularly stolen, particularly desirable hot hatches such as the Golf GTI. By the early 1990s, car crime accounted for one in four of all crimes. Cars were sometimes stolen merely for joyrides and burned out at the end of the night, but often they were sold on. Insurance premiums for such cars skyrocketed and sales plummeted. As they were profitable types of vehicle, the car industry desperately scrabbled to find a solution.
Two major solutions presented themselves. The first was to make cars more difficult to steal in the first place. One way of doing that was with car immobilisers, which were quickly adopted. In October 1998, they became mandatory in all new cars sold in this country. However, immobilisers are not a deterrent if a thief has access to the vehicle’s key, because they can still steal the car, change the number plates and sell it on easily.
Manufacturers therefore started etching a vehicle identification number, or the car’s registration number, on each window. It made it far more difficult for people to sell a stolen car on, because even if they forged the documents and changed the number plates, they still had to expensively change every single window. Research showed that window etching was a strong deterrent to car thieves. The Home Office’s own statistics show that car thefts reduced consistently since the peak in 1992, when immobilisers and window etching became more widespread. Those facts should give Members great comfort when it comes to the efficacy of the Bill under consideration today.
It is not just the car industry that makes this powerful point. If we look at the bicycle industry, we see exactly the same thing. Denmark and the Netherlands are possibly the two biggest cycling nations in the world, but bike theft in those two countries is dramatically different. The Netherlands’ population is roughly three times that of Denmark, but in 2016, extraordinarily, 30 times more bike thefts were recorded in the Netherlands. One reason is that Denmark has a system of bicycle vehicle identification numbers. Introduced in 1942 by the Danish Government, it provides that all bicycles in Denmark must have a unique code. The VIN code is a combination of letters and digits embedded into the bicycle frame.
Since 1948, it has been illegal to sell a bicycle frame in Denmark without an embedded VIN. Police check the codes of second-hand bikes that are for sale. If someone has registered a code as having been stolen with the police, that bike can be seized and returned to its rightful owner. The dramatic differences in bike thefts between Denmark, which has a VIN system, and the Netherlands, which does not, show powerfully why my hon. Friend’s Bill is so sensible in seeking to extend the system of permanent marking to rural and agricultural vehicles, in order to protect them and prevent their theft.
The Bill as introduced today primarily aims to solve the issue of theft in rural and agricultural communities, which is clearly important. We know that the theft of tractors amounts to some £10 million each year. The Country Land and Business Association has said that, while much of this machinery is being stolen to order and quickly exported to markets overseas, a significant number of machines are being stolen to commit other crimes—so, a double criminal activity. The Countryside Alliance reported that 43% of farmers had experienced a crime committed against them in the past year.
Last year, in Essex, around £380,000-worth of agricultural equipment was stolen from 13 farms in just two months. Following investigations by our fantastic Essex police force, two men were convicted and have been sentenced to a total of six years and 10 months in prison.
The Bill is not just important to rural communities. I understand that it would allow the Secretary of State to expand its remit through secondary legislation to include other types of equipment. The tradesmen in my constituency of Southend West would be extremely grateful if that could happen. Southend West is the proud home of 3,500 independent businesses, and tomorrow we will be celebrating their amazing work on Small Business Saturday. I am sure that my hon. Friend Rebecca Harris, who steers Conservative Members so well through these Friday debates, would agree with me that south Essex is the home of entrepreneurs and small tradesmen. However, too often they have to suffer from crime. A shocking 78% of tradesmen have had their tools stolen, and only 1% have ever recovered their stolen tools.
Tools theft costs tradesmen in my constituency an average of £4,470 in equipment every year, with nearly a fifth of tradesmen losing more than £5,000 of equipment and tools. Indeed, earlier this year, there was an appalling spate of thefts of tools from vans around Southend, with seven incidents in just two days. As far as I know, the thieves are still at large and the stolen items have not been recovered.
This level of theft has cost the trade industry more than £2.8 billion through lost equipment and lost work. However, that does not mention the inconvenience to and destruction of individuals’ livelihoods when their tools are suddenly stolen—it takes days, if not weeks, to replace them, work is lost and income affected. I therefore ask the Minister to confirm whether the Home Office is looking to expand the provisions of the Equipment Theft (Prevention) Bill to specifically cover the theft of tools—particularly power tools—from tradesmen’s vans.
I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham again for introducing this important Bill and allowing us the time to debate it. I wholeheartedly support it. It will be good for the whole country, and especially good for all tradesmen in Southend West.
It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend Anna Firth. I would like to compliment my hon. Friend Greg Smith on being so lucky in the ballot and congratulate him on bringing forward this Bill, which is very important indeed.
My constituency is largely focused around Barrow, which is an industrial town, but drive for 10 minutes in any direction—well, someone driving south or west will end up in the Irish sea with very wet feet, but driving in the other directions leads to very rural communities. We have the Lickle and Duddon valleys, with farms up and down those communities heading into the Lake district. When I travel around those communities with my NFU rep, the excellent James Airey, I hear time and again that this is the No. 1 issue that my constituents are concerned about. It is a pervasive issue; even if it has not happened to a particular farm, village or community, they will know someone it has happened to, and they are deeply concerned about it.
It is worth looking at some of the statistics that sit behind these crimes. The Countryside Alliance runs an excellent annual survey asking its respondents about their impressions of crime. In 2021, 43% of respondents reported that they had had a crime committed against them in the past year, with 32% of respondents having experienced agricultural machinery theft, which was the third most reported crime. In the 2020 rural crime survey, agricultural machinery theft was the top priority for police to tackle. Again, that is what I hear from my constituents and my farmers. It is something that deeply worries them.
According to NFU Mutual’s 2022 rural crime report, 50% of surveyed members of rural communities said that they were concerned by rural crime, with a third saying it is a major concern. Quad and ATV thefts reported to NFU Mutual cost £2.2 million in 2021. I am sure John Longmire, an excellent farmer in my constituency, will not mind me mentioning that it is a problem that bedevils him and his neighbours.
This issue is not about farmers not looking after their kit or being reckless with it. This is high-demand equipment—it is difficult for people to get their hands on it these days. Shipping delays, the effects of covid and the snarling up of supply chains have contributed to significant demand for both new and second-hand machinery. That lack of availability is driving this problem and driving the activity of the criminal gangs that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham talked about so well. The lack of availability of ATVs has resulted in it taking up to six months to replace a stolen vehicle, and the cost to replace these vehicles has risen dramatically. We see this in the car market, as well—people simply cannot get their hands on the tools and equipment needed to build these things, let alone sell them on the market. Criminal gangs are taking every opportunity they can to step in where there is that need.
As waiting lists grow and market values soar, thieves see quads and ATVs as expensive and easily portable hot-ticket items with a ready resale market in this country and abroad. Thefts are hitting farmers twice as hard: they lose their piece of kit and cannot replace it easily because it is more expensive to do so. That exacerbates their rapidly rising feed costs—which knock on into our economy in the cost of food and living—and their higher energy costs.
Any hon. Member representing a rural area will recognise reports of criminal gangs moving around. We see them in our papers and read about them on Facebook. They suddenly move into an area, and will sweep through a valley picking up absolutely everything they possibly can and moving it out of the area as quickly as possible. Quads and other high-value pieces of kits are their target, but as hon. Members on both sides of the House have mentioned, so are tools of lower value. The Bill’s provisions on the scope of items to be included in future will be important to our constituents.
The Bill does a couple of simple things. I will not rehash what has been said before beyond picking up on a couple of points. Preventing the theft and resale of stolen equipment is absolutely at the heart of the Bill. Stopping that trade—stopping what allows criminals to pick up and easily re-sell items—is what we need to do. Like all good private Members’ Bills, the Bill is simple enough that it absolutely hits the right note, and I hope that it will sail through the next stages as it progresses through Parliament. It gives us the ability to alter and amend it in future. As I have mentioned, it also gives the Secretary of State the power to consider immobilisers, forensic markings and putting owners’ details on vehicles—that is absolutely key. As my hon. Friend mentioned, putting those details on an electronic database means that, if a business goes under or is acquired by someone else, that record is kept, is transferable and exists in the ether for the future.
My experience before I came to this place—to steer slightly off topic—was in fraud and financial crime. We long stood by the view that we could not simply arrest our way out of such high-value, high-volume crimes. Three or four years ago, we were seeing 300,000 reports of fraud a year. We simply do not have the skilled police resource for that, so we relied on other tools. My hon. Friend mentioned that prevention is better than cure, and that was the approach we took. We worked with industry, with Government and with law enforcement to share data to understand the motivators driving those crimes, and to use that data intelligently to track, pursue and, eventually, go after those responsible.
Rural communities feel crime; they feel exposed. When I walk around Barrow, my constituents tell me that they do not see enough police, even though there are an awful lot of police around.
My hon. Friend makes a very salient point. Our police and crime commissioners have an essential role to play here, and it is important that they listen. When I do rural crime surveys, I feed them straight back to the police and crime commissioner, because it is important that they are listening to these views. Even though rural areas, by their very nature, are not highly populated, their inhabitants are the people who produce the food we rely on and the cereal that feeds our children every single day, and if we do not look after them and allow their equipment to be stolen, we are in a very poor state indeed.
Just because an area is rural, that should not mean we expect there to be no police presence there at all. Similarly, we cannot flood our rural areas with police officers, first, because that would not be an effective use of resource, and secondly, because of the nature of the gangs who commit these crimes—they sweep through areas and move on, and they know that their speed and their ability to shock, pick up equipment and move on is what allows them to continue. We have to be more clever about how we go after them, and data sharing is key to this.
Sharing the VINs and having immobilisers in place is essential to ensuring that we can stop these criminals in their tracks, go after them and, crucially, go after the money. While they operate around the UK, they shift their money around the UK and are often involved in money laundering and other activities. If we can share this information with law enforcement to make intelligent, tactical decisions about how we go after them, we can make a real impact, not just for the people we represent in our communities who are being hit day after day by these rural crimes, but against these gangs, who have an incredibly successful business model that we need to break. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham again on bringing forward this Bill, which I fully support.
I will again declare my interest: I live on the Grundy family farm in the village of Lowton in my constituency, which is where my family have lived for over 100 years. Before that, on my father’s side, they lived on farms in Astley and Tyldesley, also in my constituency, and on my mother’s side, on a farm in Chirk, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend Simon Baynes, so I can happily say that farming is very much in the bones and blood of my family. I thank my hon. Friend Greg Smith for bringing forward this incredibly important piece of legislation.
Some may wonder why I, as the MP for Leigh, am speaking in this debate. Many people naturally assume that Leigh is a gritty, urban constituency, but that is not the case. I am happy to say that Leigh’s literal meaning is “meadow”, and the Borough of Wigan, in which the town of Leigh sits somewhat unwillingly, is approximately 70% rural. The farms at the bottom end of the constituency are on the edge of the Cheshire plain, where there is sandy soil. Further north—no doubt in your constituency too, Mr Deputy Speaker—there is much more heavy clay in the soil, which makes farming much more difficult and therefore more marginal.
When it comes to farming, we have seen a number of difficult decades. I am old enough to remember going with my father in the mid-’90s to a farm in Lancashire where he was going to buy a second-hand baler—a Bamford, if I recall correctly. It was one of the old balers where you had to pick the bales up by hand and stack them Dutch bond-style, 300 to a trailer. I remember my father haggling with the other farmer for this piece of equipment, and they were haggling over whether my father was going to pay £700 or £1,000 for the baler. These days, a single part of a piece of farm equipment might cost £700.
Within the last 25 to 30 years, we have seen an incredible increase in the value of farm machinery. As a consequence, these pieces of equipment have become far more desirable targets for criminal elements, and it is not just petty thieves who opportunistically seize something left out in a farmyard or a farmer’s field overnight. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South said—sorry, my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South; I nearly promoted him dramatically, deserved as it would be—criminal gangs operate across county lines in north Wales, where his constituency lies, Merseyside and Greater Manchester, where my constituency lies. We should not be surprised that they do so, and we are not surprised when criminal gangs cross county lines for the purposes of drug dealing. We are not surprised when criminal gangs steal to order prestige cars with a value of £30,000, £40,000 or £50,000; in fact, there is considerable evidence that county lines organised criminal gang operations are engaged in that sort of theft. Why, then, should we be surprised when, as a Member referred to earlier, criminal gangs cross county lines to steal a piece of farm equipment that could be worth £250,000?
Certainly, we do not realise in how many ways rural communities are affected by these sorts of issues. Organised crime increases as the value of the prize increases, and rural communities and farms are being targeted for the huge amounts that can be made simply from passing on one piece of farm equipment. It is no surprise, therefore, that the game has changed for criminal gangs. Earlier I mentioned a £702,000 second-hand Bamford baler. Twenty-five or 30 years ago—when mobile phones were a rarity and there was no internet—people could not just take a baler down the pub and fence it to the dodgy bloke who sits in the corner. If anyone wants to contradict me, I would love to hear the story, because it would be great to get it in Hansard for all time.
These days, with the ability of criminal gangs to operate not just across county lines but internationally, it is entirely possible that a very valuable piece of farm equipment could be stolen and perhaps even exported abroad, and the customer receiving it might not even know that it was stolen. As I described somewhat floridly earlier, we might have reached a point where the security mechanisms have not kept pace with technology and with the increasing value of farming equipment. Effectively, having valuable farming equipment without putting security measures in place is like having a house full of Fabergé eggs with no lock on the door, or with the door open. If I recall correctly, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North said earlier that he wondered whether we produce Fabergé eggs on our farm, but sadly we do not—if only farming was so profitable these days.
For the record, we are not, as some people might suspect, a wealthy and large agribusiness. My family are smallholders and have sometimes been tenant farmers in the past. For the large agribusinesses, the issues that arise from the theft of farm machinery can be extremely deleterious and problematic. For small famers and, indeed, tenant farmers, who obviously cannot borrow against the value of the property that they work on, it can be a death blow if a very expensive and irreplaceable piece of machinery is stolen.
This is a critical point about inequality. As was mentioned earlier, accessing insurance is increasingly a huge cost for farms. Large agribusinesses with multiple farms, but with one home farm for the kit they share across them, have the buying power for insurance, but for our smallholders—the family farms that produce food for our nation and have been doing so for years as part of our rural communities—it is increasingly difficult to meet the extra costs, including insurance.
My hon. Friend speaks adroitly on this issue: the costs for small farmers, especially at the moment, are absolutely incredible. Indeed, I recall recently my father saying that this year the bill for fertiliser was in the many thousands. The bill for insurance can be in the many thousands—to add to that, sometimes when criminals steal farm equipment from the shed, they burn down the shed to hide the evidence and obscure any breadcrumb trail of clues. In such cases, the costs go into the hundreds of thousands, because the farmer not only loses the equipment, but the shed, which is incredibly expensive to replace. If the shed happens to contain a large amount of hay and straw, it not only acts as a serious accelerant to the fire but the farmer loses the year’s crop. When a farmer brings in a crop, its price is at its low point, but when there has been a barn fire and it needs to be replaced, it is at the top of the market. An incredibly serious series of knock-on impacts can happen from this sort of rural crime.
It is worth remembering that a wide range of organisations, including the NFU, the Countryside Alliance and others, are fully supportive of my hon. Friend’s Bill. It is long before time that such legislation was brought forward, and I commend my hon. Friend on doing so. Having come third in the private Member’s Bill ballot, if I recall correctly from earlier, he could have done any number of things, and it is much to his credit that he has done this.
We often talk about minority representation, and it is worth remembering that farmers and rural folk are an incredibly tiny proportion of the people in this country; it is easy to forget about them. Even in my hon. Friend’s beautiful rural constituency, farmers constitute only a tiny number of his electors. He has done great good with this piece of legislation, and I commend his efforts. I fully support what he is doing, and now I will sit down, as I have spoken for some time and I understand that other colleagues probably wish to contribute.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Greg Smith on bringing this Bill to the House. Equipment and tool theft is a major issue, not just in my beautiful constituency of Hastings and Rye, but across the United Kingdom. The impact of equipment and tool theft should not be underestimated. In an instant, hard-working people’s lives are destroyed by criminals who have no regard for their victims, and it is right that we are discussing this issue today, and I hope that we as lawmakers can make it as difficult as possible for those remorseless criminals to succeed.
Crime in our rural areas causes high levels of anxiety and disruption, and many farmers and rural residents feel vulnerable due to their isolated locations. Sleepless nights are common. We have tool theft in rural areas, and the numbers do not make for pretty reading. Research in 2019 by the Federation of Master Builders estimated that more than three quarters of Britain’s builders have been victims of tool theft, with some having lost more than £20,000 worth of tools in the past 10 years. Of builders who had tools stolen between 2009 and 2019, the most common value of loss was £2,500. One in 10 builders say that they had at least £10,000 worth of tools stolen; 2% said the loss was at least £20,000. Over a 40-year working life, therefore, a builder will typically lose £10,000 worth of tools.
The crime puts a financial burden on roofers, electricians, plumbers, carpenters and builders, but it also has an impact on their mental health. The Federation of Master Builders estimates that 15% of builders suffer from anxiety and 11%—around one in 10—suffer from depression, with some reporting panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.
Equipment theft is also relevant in rural areas such as in beautiful Hastings and Rye, where residents in villages such as East Guldeford, Iden, Camber and Pett all suffer from the theft of garden and farm equipment. The Countryside Alliance’s 2021 rural crime survey revealed that 95% of respondents believed that crime in their community had been significant in the past year, and 70% thought it had increased during the period. Last year, the rate of rural crime in East Sussex cost £500,000, as the insurer NFU Mutual revealed recently; that is a 12% fall from 2020, but there are worries for the future, with the figure rising again towards the end of 2021. In East Sussex, farm vehicles remain a top target, with thieves going after Land Rovers, quad bikes and trailers. Alarmingly, rustling has become more lucrative for criminal gangs. The latest analysis shows that farm animals worth an estimated £2.4 million were stolen in 2021. East Guldeford in my patch is on the west Kent-East Sussex border and has suffered from sheep rustling—it is hard to think that that sort of thing happens in this day and age.
Is my hon. Friend aware that, in recent years, there have been reports of sheep being not only rustled but butchered in the fields and then taken off to wherever that dodgy meat is sold?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; that is known to have happened in my constituency as well. Fuel theft is also on the rise. We might not think of sheep or fuel as equipment for farming and rural pursuits, but they are in many ways.
The south-east is the second-worst affected region in England after the midlands. For the sake of clarity, it is worth highlighting that legislation is in place to tackle tool and equipment theft, such as under the Theft Act 1968 and the Consumer Rights Act 2015, but that needs to go further. I agree with the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham is bringing forward to widen the protection of many people’s livelihoods.
There are many things that people can do to reduce the risk of having their tools stolen. Sussex police set up a rural crime team, because some 62% of the Sussex police area is dedicated to farming and Sussex is defined as a significantly rural area by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Last month, Sussex police had an action day to tackle burglaries in rural areas and visited many farms and small rural businesses. People were given DNA kits to mark their valuable tools, equipment and machinery, as well as CCTV posters and information on using the UK’s national property register. That might be laborious and not always possible for larger equipment, but it is important for people to protect their property.
The Bill intends to prevent the theft and resale of equipment and tools used by tradespeople in agricultural and other businesses. It has much merit and deserves our support. In this period of high inflation, it is simply unfair and cruel that tradespeople and farmers live with the constant fear of having their equipment, which provides them with a livelihood, stolen and sold to others. I am glad that we are having a serious discussion about how to confront the issue and protect hard-working tradespeople and farmers across the country, particularly in my beautiful constituency of Hastings and Rye.
I rise to speak in support of the Bill. Unlike my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham (Greg Smith), for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt) and for Leigh (James Grundy), I have no interests to declare. I have never ridden a quad bike, and it is probably in everyone’s interest that I have not.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham on winning a top prize in the lottery of parliamentary life by securing his high place in the private Member’s Bill ballot, on his choice of Bill and on his eloquent justification for it. I understand that he got the idea for the Bill from a constituent’s comment on Facebook. It is nice to see that he has been able to harness the power of social media so positively in proposing this practical and timely legislation on the Floor of the House.
The general thrust of the Bill, as we have heard from so many hon. Members this morning, is on agricultural machinery, but I understand there is scope to extend it further. Clause 1(2)(b) speaks of
“other equipment designed or adapted primarily for use in agricultural or commercial activities.”
This could extend to tradesmen and their tools. Although I recognise that agricultural theft and rural crime is a big issue in counties such as Nottinghamshire, as we are a great farming county—I have constituents who work in agriculture—I will focus on how the Bill could be extended into other areas. As Gedling is a predominantly suburban constituency, it has many plumbers, electricians and builders who would benefit from such an extension.
Equipment theft has a particularly strong impact. Having one’s tools stolen obviously has a financial cost and causes disruption. I have spoken to constituents who are victims, and their stolen tools are sometimes the ones they bought as an apprentice, so there is a great deal of sentimental value attached to them. They are also literally the tools of the trade, so their work stops until the tools have been replaced.
Research by the Federation of Master Builders found that, over a 40-year career, a builder typically loses about £10,000-worth of tools and six working days to tool theft. In my preparation for this debate, I was shocked by the scale of tool theft, with 78% of tradesmen having had their tools stolen, more than 38% having had tools stolen from outside their home and 11% having had to take time off work, or having had to decline new work, while they source new equipment. Nearly a third of tradesmen are not financially compensated at all for tool theft.
At present, as we have heard, there is no regulation of the second-hand tool market. Items are sold without proof of origin, which facilitates theft, and it is a large market. Direct Line has found that a third of British consumers have bought second-hand tools at some point, with six in 10 tradesmen having been approached by, or having seen, someone trying to sell second-hand tools that they suspected to be stolen.
“A person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it”.
There is also an offence of handling stolen goods. Tackling these crimes is resource-intensive, as illustrated by a case in Gedling last year in which power tools were stolen in my hometown of Arnold. The theft was reported in Gedling Eye, which said the victim saw the stolen power tools being advertised for sale on an internet auction site. After local police officers were alerted, a plan was hatched to reel in the suspect.
The victim had urged people in the industry to keep their eyes open and their ear to the ground for any information, and he and his labourers saw that two of the stolen items were up for sale online. His wife reported it to the police, and a plan was put in place. They made contact with the seller, which led them to get an address. They arranged a time to collect the items and informed the police. The suspects got quite a shock when, instead of the proposed buyer, it was police officers who turned up to the address in Bestwood. The stolen items were recovered from nearby gardens and returned to the victims.
I think that story illustrates the wide-ranging impact of tool and equipment theft on victims and on the wider society. The victim’s wife told the press:
“We were so angry and stressed as only a few weeks earlier we had tools stolen from the lorry. We were beside ourselves with worry as this was the second time my husband had to inform his employer of yet another theft.”
She explained that her husband worked for a small company and,
“it’s the smaller firms which are affected more by the cost and inconvenience of these sort of callous thefts.
This second incident left us feeling nervous and anxious and very vulnerable. We were incredibly upset and it makes you so angry when hard working people like us have this sort of thing happen and someone steals your belongings.
One of our elderly neighbours was also very shaken by this as her property backs out onto the private car park where the lorry was parked when this happened.”
I congratulate Nottinghamshire police on their ingenuity in organising this set-up, but the example I have given is a rare one; I understand only 1% of tradesmen have had their stolen tools recovered, and such operations are resource-intensive and difficult to set up. In that spirit, I welcome the ongoing recruitment of an extra 20,000 police officers throughout this Parliament, and I know there are many working in Gedling and Nottinghamshire who have been recently appointed.
This legislation can add further steps to make the retrieval of stolen tools easier and make it less attractive to steal them in the first place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham explained when introducing his ten-minute rule Bill, the intention could be to require online marketplaces to require individuals selling second-hand tools to show the unique identifiers of such items in a searchable format. That would close down the ways for people to turn their stolen goods into money and facilitate victims, police and insurance companies’ tracking down stolen items. In the example I gave of the power tools stolen in Arnold, it would have made them far easier to identify.
I welcome this straightforward initiative and I note the parallels with the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013, which was also brought in as a private Member’s Bill and introduced a more robust regulatory regime for scrap metal dealers, reducing opportunities for metal thieves to sell stolen material. A Home Office review of the 2013 Act concluded that the overwhelming view of those who responded was that it had improved regulation of the scrap metal industry and in doing so helped to achieve reductions in metal theft.
The statistics we have heard today are quite shocking. It is fantastic that this legislation is coming before the House and I hope that, like the 2013 Act, the Bill will pass the House and have similar results.
It is a particular pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Tom Randall. He gave an excellent speech that really went into the detail of how upsetting equipment theft is and how important it is that we try to reduce the level of theft for people running businesses and farms in our constituencies.
As my hon. Friend Anna Firth said in her excellent speech, which went through the various different clauses, the purpose of the Bill is to prevent the theft of all-terrain vehicles such as quad bikes. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling and other hon. Members have outlined, the Bill also provides a power for the Secretary of State to extend the legislation to
“other equipment designed or adapted primarily for use in agricultural or commercial activities”,
such as the construction sector.
So there we have it. The Bill addresses not only the rural market and rural areas, but small businesses. That fits my Clwyd South constituency well, since it has both significant rural areas and urban areas where small businesses, particularly in construction-related fields, are very important. For my constituents, this Bill is an excellent step forward in protecting their businesses. As such, I congratulate my hon. Friend Greg Smith on bringing it forward. It has clearly been quite a long process. As he said, there has been a change of cast on the ministerial Bench, although it is excellent to see the current Minister in his place. He is a staunch supporter of everything we are putting forward today.
I would first like to concentrate on the second part of the Bill, which is on the protection of tradespeople. As has been mentioned, 78% of tradespeople have had their tools stolen, and only 1% is ever recovered. The Bill addresses an extremely important issue that bedevils many in our constituencies. The prominence of the second-hand tool market helps to drive tool theft across the country. Second-hand tools are more affordable and can be relatively easy to source. The second-hand tool market is not regulated, which means that sellers do not have to prove the origin of items that they are selling or evidence of original purchase. Stakeholders and those working in trades have argued that this encourages and facilitates tool theft, because it makes selling stolen equipment simple and easy. That is a major part of the problem.
Research from Direct Line insurance found that nearly a third of UK consumers have bought second-hand tools at some point. Six in 10 tradespeople have been approached by or have seen someone trying to sell second-hand tools that they suspected were stolen. That summarises the issue and the problem we are facing in the second part of the Bill.
The main part of the Bill, the beginning, looks at the farming community. My hon. Friend James Grundy, who is not currently in the Chamber, gave an excellent speech and made reference to Chirk, where part of his family come from and where I live in Clwyd South. I made reference earlier to the Ceiriog valley, which lies close to Chirk. There, we have seen clearly the problems that many Members have outlined. We are talking about small farms, and in this case livestock—mainly sheep—farming.
I must pay tribute to my hon. Friend Ben Everitt, who gave an excellent speech that mainly focused on arable farming. I speak as someone with some arable farming in the Maelor, but mainly livestock farming and sheep farming on the uplands, particularly in the Ceiriog valley and the Dee valley. This is the community I grew up in at Lake Vyrnwy, which lies a little way south of Clywd South, where sheep farming is crucial. For those small farms trying to look after sheep over a large upland area, a quad bike is of particular importance. The point made earlier is that small farms, some of which may be tenant farms, are particularly vulnerable. That is another reason I strongly support this Bill.
The Big Farming Survey carried out by the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution found that 38% of the 15,000 respondents said that rural crime was a source of stress. The explanatory notes to the Bill state:
“An estimated 900-1200 quad bikes and ATVs are stolen in England and Wales each year. Findings…showed only 22% of premises in the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector reported to protect their vehicles as a crime prevention measure.”
Clearly, the Bill is addressing significant needs. NFU Mutual published its “Rural Crime Report 2022”, which assesses the level of rural crime and the impact that it has on communities. Although it found that rural crime dropped by 9.3% in 2021, it still cost £40.5 million in the UK.
It also pointed out that, despite that decrease,
“initial indications reveal that the first quarter of 2022 has seen thieves making up for lost time over the pandemic, with costs over 40% higher than the same period last year.”
An issue that I raised earlier—which was also raised, very eloquently, by my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh—is that of thieves coming from different areas. It is a major issue for my constituents. County lines is a problem in the drugs world, but it is a problem in this world as well. Farmers, particularly those in small upland areas, really need our support, which the Bill aims to provide. As has been mentioned, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham introduced a ten-minute rule Bill that would require people selling second-hand tools in online marketplaces to reveal a serial number, in a searchable format, for each item. Measures of that kind are vital, helping tradespeople and protecting agricultural equipment.
The Bill will be of enormous benefit both to tradespeople and to the rural communities that characterise my constituency, and I support it strongly.
I thank Members on this side of the House for joining us today—the Benches opposite are disappointingly empty, I must say—to discuss this extremely important Bill. Let me begin by congratulating, strongly and warmly, my hon. Friend Greg Smith on the eloquent way in which he presented it and on the persistent manner in which he developed it, over a long period—indeed, as some Members have pointed out, during the time spent by several of my predecessors in this role. He has made a compelling case for it today, and I can confirm straightaway that the Government fully support it. We will do all we can do ensure that it is on the statute book as quickly as possible, and is then implemented in full.
We believe that the Bill will provide an important additional tool to help the police to drive down crime, but of course this is by no means the only action we are taking in that regard. As I said earlier in an intervention on the shadow Minister, we are on track to recruit an extra 20,000 police officers by March next year—in just a few months’ time—when we will have about 149,000, a record number. Never in our country’s history will we have seen more police officers serving our constituents. As I also said earlier, the crime of theft has fallen by 46% since Labour left office. That is a track record of which I think Conservative Members, and the Government more widely, can be extremely proud.
This is a well-constructed Bill. It covers the theft of agricultural ATVs and equipment but also, potentially, wider categories, as a number of Members have pointed out. We expect it to lead to a significant decrease in the theft of such vehicles and equipment, as a result of, for instance, the requirement for immobilisers to be installed in newly sold ATVs and the requirement for forensic markings to be made standard. Those measures will make it much harder for criminals to sell on stolen material, and we believe they will serve as a strong deterrent.
As we have heard during the debate, the theft of agricultural vehicles from farmers can cause severe disruption to their work—work that is important not only to them, their families and their livelihoods but to the whole country, because it feeds us, our families and our constituents as well. It is therefore essential to ensure that they are protected. I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham describe the widespread support that the Bill has received from interested parties, including the National Farmers Union and NFU Mutual.
The principle of the Bill is very important. The Government expect manufacturers to play their full part in protecting items from theft. Unfortunately, my predecessors did not have as much assistance as they would have wanted from parts of the manufacturing sector, which is why the Bill is so important.
The Bill will help to mitigate the significant effects felt by the agricultural community. As we have heard, about 900 quad bikes and all-terrain vehicles are stolen every year, which is simply unacceptable. NFU Mutual’s 2022 rural crime report said that the total cost of insurance claims due to the theft of agricultural vehicles—of course, that includes more than just ATVs—last year was £9.1 million. It is therefore extremely important that we take action in this area.
My hon. Friend said in his excellent speech that despite the technological advancements made across the ATV market, the inclusion of basic security features such as those that we have discussed has been much slower, despite the exhortations of some of my predecessors. The fitting of immobilisers and forensic markings as standard is an inexpensive and straightforward measure. We have assessed the cost of those two things and it is very reasonable at under £200 per machine, which is a small fraction of the typical cost of such machines. That modest cost is far outweighed by the benefits of reducing the thefts that we are tragically seeing.
I would like to spend a moment talking to some of the points raised in the various excellent speeches made by Government Members. I should say that the shadow Minister’s speech was excellent as well, apart from the slightly incomplete comments on crime, which has of course been going down, as the crime survey for England and Wales points out, to say nothing of the record police numbers that we will soon receive.
My hon. Friend Jane Hunt talked about expanding the Bill’s provisions not just to other agricultural equipment but to other equipment used by tradespeople, builders, craftsmen and so on. My hon. Friend Sally-Ann Hart also made that point eloquently, as did my hon. Friends the Members for Gedling (Tom Randall) and for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes).
I draw the House’s attention to clause 1(2), which sets out the kind of equipment that might be subject to the provisions that we have been discussing. In subsection (2)(a), we have mechanically propelled vehicles for use off-road. Subsection (2)(b) talks about
“other equipment designed or adapted primarily for use in agricultural or commercial activities.”
Of course, working as a builder or tradesperson would qualify as commercial activity. It will be open to the Secretary of State to make regulations in due course covering not just agricultural vehicles, all-terrain vehicles and so on, but the equipment used by builders and tradespeople that hon. Members, including my hon. Friend Anna Firth, have talked about.
Having heard what hon. Members said, what I can take back to the Department is that we should be looking at making regulations in those areas as well, certainly at some point. We may start with ATVs and agricultural vehicles and then move on. Those points were extremely well made, and they have certainly been heard by me and the Department.
A number of hon. Members made other good points, not least my hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt)—he spoke second from the Back Benches—and for Southend West. There was also an intervention from my right hon. Friend Sir Greg Knight—who I do not think is in his place at the moment—about recording and ensuring that proper databases hold information on serial numbers and so on.
Again, I draw the House’s attention to clause 2, in particular subsections (2) and (3). The regulations that the Secretary of State can make may specify the kind of information that must be recorded. Subsection (2)(c) makes it clear that that includes the markings with a unique identifier. Subsection (3) specifies not just when the information is recorded and how long it must be kept, but the form in which it must be kept. Reference was made to storing that information online, so that it survives even if the business does not or it moves on. Subsection (3)(c) is very specific that that may include an online system—that is on line 25 of page 2 of the Bill.
Having listened to what Members have said today, I can say that making sure that the regulations also specify online information storage is a particularly important point. A few points have come out of this debate that will, genuinely, influence and change the way that we think about the regulations implementing the Bill once it becomes law, which I hope will happen as quickly as possible.
I also thank my hon. Friends Simon Fell and James Grundy—who talked about his family farm, the Grundy farm—for their extremely vivid descriptions of the impact that these crimes have on rural communities.
This is an extremely well-constructed piece of legislation. It clearly commands the support of everyone who has spoken on it and of the Opposition. I thank the shadow Minister for expressing her support for the Bill. Most of all, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish to conclude by thanking, once again, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham for the work that he has done in developing the Bill so carefully and so thoughtfully, through so many different Ministers in recent months. He is doing the House, his constituents and the whole country a great service by bringing this Bill forward, and I put on record my thanks to him for everything that he has done.
With the leave of the House, I wish to thank everybody who has spoken in this debate. It is incredibly pleasing to have secured the support of everybody who has spoken, including, not least, Holly Lynch on behalf of the Opposition, as well as Members on the Conservative Benches. I will not rehash the arguments that I made earlier, other than to say that I really think that the Bill will make a difference when it comes to combatting rural crime and other forms of equipment theft into the future. I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend the Minister to make that happen and to get the Bill on the statute book.
I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend Ben Everitt for his support and back-up on this. He has worked alongside me, not least in the discussions that we had the other week with farmers from our respective constituencies. His roll-call of equipment that he used in his farming days was insightful. I just hope that, given recent controversies, no one felt the need to google any of it during the course of the debate.
My hon. Friend Anna Firth, in her clause-by-clause analysis of the Bill, gave the perfect audition for the Bill Committee. Many other hon. and right hon. Members spoke in this debate, and I am grateful to each and every one of them for their support. To finish, from the multiple references to Fabergé eggs from my hon. Friend James Grundy, I think we know what is on his list to Father Christmas this year. I thank the House and look forward to continuing to pilot this Bill through Committee and beyond.
Congratulations, Mr Smith. Having represented an agricultural constituency for more than 30 years and had many reports of theft of equipment from farms during that period of time, I know that the farmers of the Ribble Valley will be very interested in this legislation.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (