“(1) The Game Laws (Amendment) Act 1960 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 2(1), after “committing” insert “or has committed”.
(3) In section 4(1)—
(a) after “section thirty” insert “or section thirty two”, and
(b) at end insert “or any animal, vehicle, or other article belonging to him, or in his possession or under his control at the relevant time.”
(4) In section 4(2), after “gun” in lines 2 and 4 insert “, animal,”.
(5) In section 4, at end insert—
“(6) The court by or before which a person is convicted of an offence under either the Night Poaching Act 1828 or the Game Act 1831 may order the offender to reimburse any expenses incurred by the police in connection with the keeping of any animal seized in connection with the offence.”
(6) In section 4A(1)—
(a) in line 1, after “under” insert “section one or section 9 of the Night Poaching Act 1828 or”,
(b) after “thirty” insert “or section thirty two”, and
(c) omit “as one of five or more persons liable under that section.””.—
This new clause is intended to broaden the powers available to the police and the courts for dealing with illegal hare coursers, measures include providing for forfeiture of animals on conviction and permitting the recovery of expenses incurred by the police in housing a seized animal.
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 70—
“(1) The Game Act 1831 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 30 (trespassing in search or pursuit of game)—
(a) for “level 3” substitute “level 5”, and
(b) delete “and if any persons to the number of five or more together shall commit any trespass, by entering or being in the daytime upon any land in search or pursuit of game, or woodcocks, snipes, or conies, each of such persons shall, on conviction thereof before a justice of the peace, forfeit and pay such sum of money, not exceeding [level 4] on the standard scale] as to the said justice shall seem meet.””.
This new clause would remove any cap on the amount of the fine, and remove the requirement for a minimum of 5 persons.
The new clauses would strengthen the powers of the police and the courts to tackle the thorny and persistent problem of illegal hare coursing. Hare coursing is a form of poaching whereby offenders trespass on private land in pursuit of hares with dogs, but that is not simply about taking one for the pot. Rather, it involves high-stakes illegal gambling, as dogs are pitted against each other in a test of their ability to chase, catch and kill hares.
Coursing contrasts with traditional poaching—I have a picture in my mind of Claude Greengrass in “Heartbeat”, which was filmed in my constituency—in that the carcases of the dead hares are cast aside as waste and often left to rot in the field after the kill. Offenders destroy gates and fences to gain access to the land, and tear up newly sown crops as they follow the chase in their vehicles. The hare coursing season, for want of a better word, runs from August to March, between the harvest being cleared from the fields and the new crops getting out of the ground. Coursing is normally, but not exclusively, undertaken on areas of flat arable land, and often filmed from a vehicle and livestreamed across the internet. Large amounts of money are illegally bet on the outcome of the chase and ultimately, and almost inevitably, the kill.
The dogs involved in the sport are highly prized by their owners due to their ability to win large amounts of money. Police have the power to seize dogs at the scene of the incident, but cannot reclaim the cost of looking after them from the offender if a conviction is secured. There can be a number of months between the seizing of a dog at the time of the offence and the trial, imposing severe pressure on the budgets of police forces. As a result, many forces do not seize the dogs at first investigation, but it is impossible for courts to issue a forfeiture order if the animal is not already in custody.
New clause 69 would strengthen the ability of the police to seize dogs, as it would enable the investigating police force to be reimbursed for the cost of kennelling confiscated dogs pending trial. That would sweep away the budgetary burden on police forces and empower officers to remove dogs from fields, which ultimately means removing the tools of the trade from hare coursers.
A broad coalition of organisations has come together to support those legislative changes, including the Country Land and Business Association, the National Farmers Union and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—three organisations of which I am a member—as well as the Countryside Alliance, the Tenant Farmers Association and the Kennel Club.
The changes are also supported by officers working on the police’s national approach to hare coursing, which is known as Operation Galileo. Police have begun to investigate the links between hare coursing and organised crime. In September 2018, Thomas Jaffray was jailed for 13 years and four months after being found guilty of conspiracy to supply cocaine, amphetamine and cannabis, and a conspiracy to launder the proceeds of crime. Jaffray was regularly involved in hare coursing in Lincolnshire and other parts of the country.
The leader of Operation Galileo, Chief Inspector Phil Vickers, has said that
“rural communities rightly expect us to use all of the tools at our disposal to tackle offending, and by developing our understanding of the criminal links, we can do just that.”
However, occasions on which there is betting activity are not the only problem. The participants see coursing as a sport in which they need regularly to train their dogs, and the Country Land and Business Association estimates that tens of thousands of hares are slaughtered each year in illegal hare coursing, with members reporting multiple incidents each week with up to 10, and sometimes as many as 20, hares being killed by dogs on each visit.
This year’s National Farmers Union rural crime survey found that 41% of farm businesses had experienced hare coursing during 2020. I should point out that neither of my new clauses attempts to interfere with the Hunting Act 2004, which the Government have a manifesto commitment not to amend.
New clause 70 makes proposals in relation to the fine that could be imposed when an individual was convicted of hare coursing offences. Fines imposed under section 30 of the Game Act 1831 are set at level 3, which means that there is a cap of £1,000. Evidence collected by the CLA refers to hare coursing convictions spanning 15 years and lists 175 separate convictions, 75% of which were brought under the 1831 Act. The CPS specifically recommends the use of that Act for hare coursing offences. Sentencing data from the same 15 years show that fines amount to just a couple of hundred pounds, even for repeat offenders. In essence, that amounts to the cost of a day out for those individuals in pursuit of their so-called sport.
The new clause would increase the financial risk attached to the practice of hare coursing better to reflect the anguish and damage caused by those offenders, against the backdrop of the large financial reward they collect for, in essence, getting away with it or, at the very least, getting off lightly.
It would be remiss of me to conclude without highlighting the fear and anguish that hangs over farmers and landowners who are regularly targeted by hare coursers. These offenders are highly unsavoury individuals who often have a string of other offences to their name and who, if challenged, can become abusive, aggressive and threatening. Farmers and landowners live in constant fear of retribution if action is taken against the coursers. Physical threats are being made to farmers and straw stacks are vulnerable to arson attacks.
Hare coursing is a blight on our rural communities and an abuse of our precious wildlife. Men are running amok around the countryside without fear of penalty as police officers are poorly equipped with the legislative tools to match the contempt of these offenders. These new clauses offer an opportunity to equip our police officers and courts with the powers they need to tackle the problem head on and send a strong message that hare coursing will no longer be tolerated.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister that this is a problem recognised by the Government and that they intend to take action. It may well be that more measures could be taken. Indeed, I am sure that the Minister is aware that my hon. Friend Richard Fuller, who was fortunate in the private Member’s Bill ballot, has published the short title of his Bill, which seems to address this issue. I hope for reassurances from the Minister that will obviate the need to divide on this issue.
I fully support everything the right hon. Gentleman has said. This is not sport, but chasing down a wild animal to rip it apart for money. I am opposed to that, as I am to other blood sports. It is not done by local people, but people who come from all over the country in an organised manner. They do enormous damage to the land, and threaten and intimidate local people who expose their actions.
I agree that the fines for this brutish behaviour are far too small. These new clauses would put much better protections and sanctions in place. I also agree that if the police had the resources to take the dogs, that would be a much better threat to those people, because without the dogs they are unable to keep going with this so-called sport. Also, the dog is worth much more to them than the threat of the fine.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby for bringing these new clauses before the Committee. I address the Committee as a Minister, but if hon. Members would indulge me for a moment, I will speak as a constituency MP. My right hon. Friend mentioned Chief Inspector Phil Vickers, who is my chief inspector. I am a Lincolnshire MP and my constituency suffers terribly from the crime of hare coursing.
These can be terrifying crimes for the farmers and landowners on whose land they are committed, because if a farmer or someone working on the farm dares to challenge those people, they can, in most cases, find out where they live. I have had instances where farmers have been worried about their family’s safety and their own safety at home, because of the fear that, in going out in the middle of the night and challenging the hare coursers, they will alert the criminals to where they live or the vicinity of where they live.
These are serious crimes that can have a huge impact on the landscape, and hares within our constituencies as well. They are the most beautiful creatures. Watching one gambolling along across a field as dawn is rising can be a very beautiful view in our countryside, yet these people come fully equipped with huge lights and, often, stolen vehicles. Money is bet on the ways in which the hare will turn, or which dog will prevail, which is truly unpleasant.
I very much welcome the efforts of my right hon. Friend and others to try to address this issue through legislation. He knows that the Government are determined to act on this. In our action plan on animal welfare, we have committed to introduce new laws to crack down on illegal hare coursing. I understand that last week the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow, hosted a meeting with interested parties on how such a law or laws may be drafted to tackle the issue. I can give my right hon. Friend the assurance that officials in both our Departments will be working through the options in detail over the coming months.
I know that my right hon. Friend well understands the complexities of developing new legislation and that he has been closely involved with DEFRA Ministers in trying to deal with the issue, and I am most grateful to him. I would like to take this opportunity also to thank Lincolnshire police and the officers who work on Operation Galileo, and officers across the country where these gangs see fit to hare course. I can give him the reassurance that the Government take these matters very seriously and are working up the necessary proposals to be able to meet our action plan to tackle this crime.
I am pleased to hear what the Minister has said and I am satisfied that the Government take this issue seriously—not just because of the words that I have heard her say now, but also because I was contacted by the office of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who has asked me for a meeting on the strength of the new clauses. It makes a nice change for Cabinet Ministers to ask Back Benchers to meet them to discuss issues. I am optimistic that action will be taken and hope that tabling the two new clauses has done precisely that. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.