(2 years, 3 months ago)Commons Chamber
I beg to move,
That this House is concerned that the level of rural crime remains high; notes research by the National Famers’ Union that rural crime cost the UK economy £42.5 million in 2015; recognises that delivering public services across large, sparsely populated geographical areas can be more costly and challenging than in urban areas; agrees with the National Rural Crime Network that it is vital that the voice of the countryside is heard; calls on the Government to ensure that the personal, social and economic costs of crime and anti-social behaviour in rural areas are fully understood and acted upon; and further calls on the Government to ensure that rural communities are not disadvantaged in the delivery or quality of public services.
In the public imagination and in international reputation, rural Britain is a place of near meadows, still streams and sleepy villages, but the challenges facing it and its police forces are significant and unique. Although media coverage and our political attention this year has, understandably, focused on metropolitan areas, particularly London, given the horrifying spate of serious violence and of growing crimes associated with mopeds, that is not to say that the crimes experienced by victims in our rural communities do not matter. Indeed, one of the greatest challenges our policing model faces is its ability to provide a consistent service to every victim, and indeed offender, regardless of where they live.
There is perhaps a sense that has crept in, as budget cuts bite, that rural crime is more trivial, but as we will hear today from many Members representing rural constituencies, not only do we face the traditional types of rural crime, but crime is mutating and rural communities are no longer immune to serious crime. In the most recent year for which figures are available, more than 88,000 farm animals were snatched by thieves, amounting to more than £6 million in lost stock to farmers, with the consequential impacts on our rural economy. Last year, Humberside police spent 1,200 hours battling hare coursing, with more than 500 reports of the crime in the 2017-18 season. The pursuit has been illegal since the Hunting Act 2004 and it involves “sighthounds” such as lurchers, greyhounds or salukis being set on hares, often with large sums bet on the outcome. Dealing with this is resource intensive for rural forces but it is necessary to respond, as the practice intimidates local communities and has significant criminal and antisocial behaviours associated with it.
My hon. Friend is making an important speech. County Durham is a large rural area—my constituency comprises 300 square miles—yet our police have been cut by 25%. Is she satisfied that the formula for policing adequately takes account of the difficulties of pursuing policing in a rural area?
It may not surprise my hon. Friend to know that I am deeply unsatisfied with the resources available for policing and with the funding formula on which we base our police funding at the moment. She makes an important point. On recent visits to forces in the south-west, I was particularly struck by the challenges facing police in huge rural areas, such as those in her constituency.
In the Devon and Cornwall force, not only is the chief constable responsible for an area of almost 4,000 square miles, but he—and in this case it is a he—is also responsible for 500 miles of coastline and for 10 miles out to sea. That is an incredible challenge when we consider that my old force, the Met, has 44 officers per square mile, while Devon and Cornwall has 0.7 officers per square mile. In that context, it is useful to discuss the proposed merger of Devon and Cornwall with Dorset police force and the strong belief of both forces that the move would produce better working, better connectivity and a better presence in communities and that neighbourhood policing would become more of a priority.
I have had similar conversations in Warwickshire and West Mercia. Given how significantly crime is changing, perhaps it is time to look at the structure of policing in this country, particularly at how we can ensure a consistent approach across the country. It has been fantastic to see innovations in forces such as those around drones, the development of tech solutions in forces such as Avon and Somerset, and the use of tri-service officers—officers who are trained as police community support officers, fire officers and paramedics all in one. However, we must ensure that where best practice is evidence-based and effective, it can be rolled out across the country, so that we are not reinventing the wheel time and again.
At the heart of our policing model is, and must always be, community policing, but that is what has been most affected by eight years of austerity. Those rural community policing beats are essential in preventing, detecting and tackling crime in rural areas. Community officers are treasured in all our communities, and yet, in many rural forces, neighbourhood teams have been completely abolished or merged with response teams, which effectively means the same thing.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend is making a really, really powerful speech that will resonate in many of our rural communities. I know that she will want to pay tribute to the great work of organisations such as Farm Watch. Those of us in rural areas are not scared of voluntary action working alongside statutory services, but where we do get angry is when there is not enough neighbourhood policing.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. True community policing and neighbourhood policing work very effectively with Farm Watch, Neighbourhood Watch and other voluntary organisations in our communities. We are not just talking about a police officer walking down the street with his hands in his pockets. True neighbourhood policing requires officers to engage and build relationships with communities and to grow trust in the police. Having grown up in South Yorkshire, I know that the policing of so many communities, particularly the hardest-to-reach communities, requires that approach in order to be able to police by consent. On top of all that, we have seen numerous rural police stations close—the symbol of a rural community’s relationship with its local police service and a symbol of the police’s commitment to those communities. There is strong evidence that they have contributed to the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of the public. Little wonder then that the National Farmers Union has found two worrying trends: first, that four in 10 people in rural areas fear crime, double that of individuals in urban areas; and secondly, that two thirds think that the local police fail to deal with the problems that matter to them—twice as many as the national average. Those figures show that the ability of the police to interpret and respond to the needs of rural communities is fading away, leaving those communities isolated.
As always, my hon. Friend is giving a very well-informed and impassioned speech. On this point about rural communities, does she agree that it is also very important that we think of rural communities not just as places such as Somerset, Devon or Cornwall, but as seats such as mine, former heavy industrial areas? For example, the Ogmore and Garw valleys in my constituency no longer have police stations, but what they do have now is high levels of rural crime. They are isolated and cut off because of deindustrialisation. That must be put into the mix of how we see rural crime moving forward.
I could not agree more. It is exactly the same in my own home force of South Yorkshire. The pernicious and long-term effects of deindustrialisation in communities are often the same issues that other rural forces and areas experience and are affected by.
The feelings of isolation can be strong and overwhelming, particularly for vulnerable individuals in rural areas such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore). If police do not have the ability to reach out, they will feel ever more vulnerable. The Conservative party used to be clear on this. A leaked internal communiqué said that
“police-stations are important to local communities and the sheer number of closures is worrying.”
But since that communiqué, closures have rocketed. Nearly 400 police stations have closed in England and Wales, with the number of front counters open to the public falling from over 900 in 2010 to just over 500 today. It is harder to ignore the knock-on effects that sales of police stations and closures of custody suites have had on policing. Particularly in large rural areas, officers now have to drive for long distances to take offenders into custody, taking them off the streets for a considerable period of time.
Is the hon. Lady actually saying that she would reopen those police stations?
No. I am saying that we would properly resource the police to be able to do their job, unlike the Conservative party. In reducing the police, as the Conservatives have done, to nothing more than a flashing blue light that only arrives when the absolute worst has happened, not only have they destroyed the police’s ability to prevent crime from happening in the first place; they have rolled back all the progress of the previous generation in building trust with the police in the hardest-to-reach communities. That is the danger of the loss of community officers from rural police forces.
The devastating assault on the strength of our police service as a result of decisions taken by the Conservatives has undermined the fundamental foundations on which policing in this country has been based. Chief among these is the notion that every community matters and every community deserves a police service that is able to respond to the challenges that it deems important. Although the challenges and risks for each community may vary, each is deserving of a community police service, and the priorities of local communities are of equal merit.
The independent inspectorate of constabulary laid bare the breathtaking pressure that the police are now under thanks to the financial constraints imposed on them by the Government and by rising demand. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary said that
“policing is under significant stress. On occasions, that stress stretches some forces to such an extent that they risk being unable to keep people safe in some very important areas of policing.”
Not only have we lost more than 21,000 police officers; thousands of emergency calls are waiting in queues with not enough officers to respond. Some victims facing an emergency get no response at all. The police have yet to assess risk posed by more than 3,000 individuals on the sex offenders register. We do not know whether those individuals are a threat to the public. There is a shortage of more than 5,000 detectives, as unsolved crime rose to 2.1 million crimes last year.
I do not want my hon. Friend to move on from this incredibly important point. It is not only the cuts to resources and the loss of police stations that are important issues that have had a terrible and adverse impact on rural crime; she is also absolutely right to point out the changing nature of the demands made on policing, including trafficking, modern slavery and some of the sex offenders to which she refers. That makes it even more important that police forces across the country are properly resourced.
I could not agree more. The police have been cut to a level at which they are unable to prevent and respond to crime, and the demand on them is completely unprecedented, not only from new crimes, but as a result of other services being cut.
The police are now unable to respond to the basic task that we ask of them and that the Prime Minister asked them to do at the Police Federation conference eight years ago, which is to prevent and respond to crime—nothing more, nothing less. Police chiefs have warned the Government about the issue time and again. They have warned that local policing is under such strain that the legitimacy of policing is at risk, as the relationship with communities is fading to a point at which prevention, early intervention and core engagement are ineffective. This is a stark warning. Never before have police chiefs, usually incredibly reticent to enter political debate, spoken out so plainly about the risks facing public safety. Only yesterday, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, told the Home Affairs Committee that it would be “naive” to dissociate police cuts from rising levels of crime.
While the lack of resources has hampered the police, there is no doubt that crime itself, and the demand on rural police forces, is changing. County lines is a clear and growing threat for rural forces. It has been partly responsible for a serious increase in violent crime in areas that do not traditionally suffer from it. County lines dealers from the cities are exploiting hidden poverty and a cohort of vulnerable youngsters in rural areas. With the numbers of looked-after children and homeless children rising, this is of significant concern. The exploitation of young and vulnerable persons is a common feature in the facilitation of county lines drugs supply, whether for the storage or supply of drugs, the movement of cash, or to secure the use of dwellings held by vulnerable people—commonly referred to as cuckooing.
As the Home Office’s own analysis of the rise in serious violence states, childhood risk factors, including economic stress, mean that interventions with vulnerable young people such as those excluded from school and looked-after children would be successful in reducing violence and drug demand. The Government are aware of this, but so far their response has been muted, and their continued refusal to fund the police properly is felt across the country.
Does the hon. Lady not agree that it is our job as constituency MPs to stay in touch with our local police forces and to address their concerns? That is what I did, and that is how I managed to raise the precept in our local area and increase the police force there.
Raising the precept in the way that the Government have done is a fundamentally unfair way to fund police forces across this country. [Interruption.] I am sorry—I do not know which police force area the hon. Gentleman represents, but I am almost positive that raising the precept by 2% will result in significantly more in his force area than in my area of South Yorkshire, or in Northumbria, Cleveland, or many metropolitan areas that have significant demand.
In my own police area of Derbyshire, we have seen a drop of over 400 police officers. Yes, we have raised the police precept, with £12 a year from every resident on top of the 5% increase in council tax for social care, but that will fund 25 officers, while we have lost over 400. There is absolutely no comparison in terms of what can be achieved.
My hon. Friend puts it much better than I did. Last year, the precept was able to raise £270 million. That is a drop in the ocean given that this Government have taken £2.7 billion out of policing over the past eight years. The force in the area of the hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) may have been able to increase numbers from their existing point, but I am sure that they will not have been driven up to the levels that we saw in 2010, and will certainly not account for the level of demand or the cuts that we have experienced.
There are other demands on rural forces—if not unique to them, then certainly more pronounced. From cyber-crime to hate crime, from domestic violence to historical child sexual exploitation, the Government keep stating that crime is falling, but the experience of the police on the ground could not be more different. Nowhere is that more obvious than in non-crime demand that falls on the police. Non-crime demand makes up about 83% of calls to command and control centres, and in rural forces that is likely to be higher. Over the past eight years, because of the sparsity of social, mental health and more general health services, rural police forces have taken on an increased role as an auxiliary social and emergency service. I know of one rural county in northern England which, at the weekend, has one social worker on duty for the entirety of its social services, including for children with learning difficulties and those living with dementia. From 5 o’clock on a Friday, the police are the only service available to fill the gap.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there has been a massive increase in the number of calls to 101 that now go unanswered? That just proves how stretched our police forces are.
There has been the same level of demand from 101 and 999 as, just a few years ago, the police would have experienced only on new year’s eve. As I say, that is coming not only from traditional crime but from the demand on other public services.
This is not only wrong for the police, who are not trained or equipped to deal with the responsibilities of other public services, but, most importantly, wrong for the people struggling with their health needs, who are met with a criminal justice response rather than a health one because the proper provision simply is not available.
The result of all this is that criminals have recognised that our rural communities do not have the protection they need, and they are exploiting that. One reason why we are now hearing calls for all rural police officers to be armed is that the response time is unacceptably high for police and armed officers in significant swathes of the country, but arming all officers fundamentally undermines the principle of policing in this country: to police in communities and by consent.
While all forces experience seasonal variations, the minimum relative to maximum variation, especially for daily crime and antisocial behaviour, is far greater in rural forces with national parks and coastal areas attracting tourism. The seasonality of demand must be recognised, to ensure not only geographic equity but that minimum levels of service can be maintained throughout the year.
Clearly the police funding formula needs to take into account the real picture of demand and pressure facing every police force. We know that the current funding formula is broken. It uses age-old data and does not reflect the needs, demands and pressures on forces, nor the modern demands of policing.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; I am listening to her with great interest. One of the worst aspects of the centralisation of police services in England and Wales over the last few years has been the centralisation of air support services and the creation of the National Police Air Service. That has removed dedicated helicopters from Dyfed-Powys, for instance, which covers two thirds of Wales. Would it be the Labour party’s policy to scrap NPAS or to keep it?
The issue with the centralisation of services such as NPAS is that those decisions have been made for all the wrong reasons. They have been made to drive cuts, rather than being genuinely about where provision should be. We would certainly keep NPAS and other services like it under review, but those decisions need to be made on the basis of the efficiency and effectiveness of that service, not solely to drive cuts for ideology’s sake.
The police funding formula cannot be reformed from a position of ever decreasing budgets. We saw what happened when they tried to do that with schools; it just shifted the pain elsewhere. It has to depend on need and take into account all demands for policing services. Though crime levels are important, we know that some rural forces face other unique challenges, such as the cost of policing a huge area, modern slavery and seasonal influxes of tourists. That has to be reflected in the funding formula.
It felt like the hon. Lady was describing Lincolnshire—a huge, sparsely populated rural area with a huge coastal influx. Given what she says, why did Labour vote against a fairer funding formula that would have benefited Lincolnshire and against £450 million extra for the police? I am still waiting for the bit in her speech where she pays impassioned tribute to the hugely brave work that police officers in Lincolnshire do, in difficult circumstances, when they are battling all the issues that she has raised.
If the hon. Gentleman had not chosen to interrupt me at that stage of my speech, I would have got on to the bit where I praise police officers. I am a former police officer, as he may well know. We voted against the Government’s unfair funding formula because it did not deliver the funding that our police services so desperately need. As I have already explained, funding our police through the precept is unfair and distributes funding disproportionately away from the areas that need it most.
I would like to close by thanking the NFU for its support in preparing for today’s debate and, of course, the tens of thousands of police officers and staff across our country who work tirelessly to keep us all safe. Our conversations so often in this place cover the pressing challenges of our urban centres, but we can demonstrate how to deliver a consistent policing service for everyone, no matter who they are or where they live. The Government’s reckless and ideological approach to policing has not only left our inner cities rocked by serious violence but has left every single one of our communities exposed to crime. Only a Labour Government will keep the public safe and give the police the resources they need. I commend the motion to the House.
May I thank the Opposition for securing this very important debate? I answer, of course, as a Minister, but I hope you will forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I occasionally speak from the heart, as a constituency MP who represents one of the largest rural constituencies in England—a mere 531 square miles. I have the pleasure of serving my county alongside my hon. Friends the Members for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) and for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson). So, with respect to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), she does not need to tell us about the challenges of policing rural areas. In Louth and Horncastle, we have beautiful countryside—not just some of the richest farming countryside in the country, but the rolling hills of the Lincolnshire wolds and some of the most undeveloped, natural coastline in the country.
It is with that experience that I respond to the motion with interest. If I may say so, I think the Opposition have fallen into a trap in the first line of their motion, in which they refer to “rural crime”, because there is of course no definition of rural crime. The crimes that can be found in urban areas can also be found in rural areas. Indeed, I have just come from a very interesting debate in Parliament Street, run by the all-party groups on domestic abuse and on mental health, where we discussed exactly the point that domestic abuse knows no boundaries.
We are aware—looking across the House, I see there are some experts here—that modern slavery and human trafficking know no boundaries. These crimes are found in urban areas, but also in rural areas. Indeed, I commend Lincolnshire police for their extraordinary piece of investigative work last year in bringing together the largest ever modern slavery prosecution. It brought to justice the Rooney family, and nearly 100 years’ worth of imprisonment was delivered to the disgraceful defendants in that case.
We should not labour under the misapprehension that rural crime is different from urban crime, although it may manifest itself in different ways. However, there are of course particular types of crime that may have a unique effect in rural areas.
The Minister will know that some crimes are present only in rural areas. In my constituency, sheep worrying—dog attacks on sheep—is one example. The police do not record that centrally, in the Home Office, as a crime, and she cannot stand at the Dispatch Box and tell me the extent of sheep attacks in the United Kingdom.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, because I was about to come on to that point. There are crimes that have a particular impact in rural areas, but I am saying that we should not confine our discussion to those crimes. Important though such crimes are, we must reflect on the fact that rural areas deserve support and attention when it comes to crimes that are also found in urban areas.
If I may, I will draw on the point about antisocial behaviour. Such behaviour might not be at the most serious end of the range, but nevertheless it may well have a hugely detrimental impact on local people. Families living in isolated homes may feel that they have been targeted precisely because they live in an isolated location. We know of examples of organised crime gangs targeting farms—for example, in my county, with fly-tipping.
Organised crime gangs are also working in consort across county boundaries to indulge in one of the cruellest crimes that can be committed against animals, which is hare coursing. I suggest that colleagues on both sides of the House may soon be addressing us on the issue of hare coursing. We know that criminal gangs are profiting from animal cruelty, with dogs that can be worth up to £50,000, depending on how large their betting rings are. This type of crime has similarities, in terms of exploitation, with types of crime in urban areas, but it has a unique impact in rural areas.
Is trespassing via organised hunts on farmers’ land and people’s private property a rural crime or an urban crime?
I am not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman is referring to. Is he suggesting there are hunts in central London or in city centres? I do not know, but perhaps I have misunderstood his intervention.
I will move on, however, because I would love to hear from the hon. Gentleman.
Over the recent bank holiday weekend, an illegal rave was held in Brechfa forest in my constituency. More than 1,400 people descended on the small village of Brechfa and into the forest to hold the rave, causing huge disruption for local residents. Will the Minister look at what extra powers can be given to the police to chase the organisers of illegal raves and to act as more of a deterrent to stop such events happening in future?
That is very interesting. I am looking at the Solicitor General. If I remember correctly, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 introduced measures to deal with organisers of illegal raves. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could write to me and I will provide an accurate response.
On cross-border matters, does the Minister agree that sometimes the issue is not the money going to police forces, but the co-operation between them in seeing matters through? That causes great problems for constituencies such as mine, which is on the border of three or four different police forces.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which I will move on to in due course. The shadow Minister mentioned the impact of county line criminality on rural areas, and I am pleased she did so, because we are both determined to tackle it. That is precisely why the Government have announced, through the serious violence strategy, £3.5 million of funding to bring about a national co-ordination centre to share intelligence and expertise among police forces, particularly in those areas whose experience of gangs is perhaps not to the same extent as that in urban areas, so that they learn not from scratch but from colleagues elsewhere in the country.
The theft of farm equipment can have a devastating impact on farmers. I had the pleasure recently of driving a tractor worth £350,000 in my constituency. I was slightly surprised when the farmer allowed me to reverse it, but it remains intact. What if that equipment is stolen? That small business person has made an enormous investment and may well have taken out loans to pay it off. That theft would be a crime committed against them, their family, their business and their local community. Rural constabularies are aware of such issues.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley raised the issue of police funding. We understand the wish that rural communities are not disadvantaged in the delivery or quality of public services to tackle crime. The Government are committed to providing police forces in England and Wales with the resources they need to do their crucial work. I must, however, set the issue in context. The hon. Lady knows that I only do this when she talks at length about funding. The reason the Government had to make such tough spending decisions after the 2010 election was the economic legacy of the previous Labour Government and the global financial crisis. If we are going to have a good, productive debate, we must remember the historical context in which we were operating.
We have absolutely recognised the resources the police need. That is precisely why in 2015 the then Home Secretary insisted in the spending review that the Government protected overall police funding in real terms, and we have done so since. We have also increased our investment to support police transformation and technology, so that our police can respond to the changing nature of crime.
Will my hon. Friend celebrate the fact that we have succeeded in getting thousands of police out from doing useless paperwork in back offices and back on the frontline of policing?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. One of the challenges to the police over the past few years has been to get warranted officers, who hold positions of responsibility after we have given them their warrant and training, to use their powers and specialist skills in accordance with their warrant. I am delighted that the figures show that constabularies across the country have made extraordinary improvements in using warranted officers in frontline policing. That means more officers on the beat or investigating crime, doing the job they signed up to do, rather than sitting in human resources departments and so on.
Will the Minister confirm that it is not that central Government have increased police funding this year, but that local ratepayers in counties such as mine, Flintshire, and throughout rural areas in north Wales, have had their rates increased to meet central Government money that was cut?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. I was just about to explain the funding settlement, but I make the point that there is no such thing as Government money: it is taxpayers’ money. Whether our constituents pay it through income tax or council tax, the fact is that it is their money that we take from them to support our public services.
If the right hon. Gentleman will please allow me, I will make a little progress. I shall deal with the funding settlement in some detail in a moment.
I was talking about transformation and technology, which is a really exciting area of policing. We have seen great innovation in recent years in how police forces can use technology to serve their communities and to use their specialist skillsets in the best possible ways. If I may, I must pay credit to my local police and crime commissioner, Marc Jones, a Conservative, who has purchased a drone for Lincolnshire police which, given the size of the county, is an invaluable tool for the local constabulary. Lincolnshire police have used the drone for a variety of reasons, including to locate missing people—one can imagine the difference that such an investment can make in a very rural area—as well as to help with hare coursing investigations, in which a drone can make such a difference.
It is very welcome that new technology is used in that way, but does the Minister accept that some technological improvements are dependent on decent wi-fi, mobile phone and broadband connections, which in rural areas are not yet quite where they need to be?
My hon. Friend knows, as I do—it was my first ever campaign as a candidate—that the challenge of improving broadband in rural areas is always there. By and large, more urban areas have excellent coverage, although there are blackspots. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has announced a scheme whereby we can use some technology at parish churches, and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has a keen interest in the issue and is acting accordingly.
Let me turn to funding. We have continued to listen to the police. Last year, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service spoke to every police force in England and Wales about the changing demands on the police and how they could best be managed. We have acted on the basis of that consultation and announced an increase in overall investment in the police of £460 million from April for this financial year. That includes a £50 million increase in counter-terrorism funding, and it enables police and crime commissioners to raise up to £280 million of local funding through council tax, protecting the police grant in cash terms and increasing funding for national priorities by £130 million. I am delighted that most police and crime commissioners have accepted the Government’s challenge to make that change to their policing precept and are consequently able to decide for themselves how that money is best spent in their local area.
My hon. Friend is right to make the point that there is no such thing as Government money, only taxpayers’ money, but my constituents in Lincolnshire, and hers, think that although it is okay to talk in these overall terms, there is a fundamental unfairness against council tax payers in rural areas, in terms of the services that we receive—our policing, NHS and broadband. We pay far more in council tax and get infinitely less than people get in urban areas. The Government have to grasp the nettle and get fairer funding for rural areas.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for raising that point. I extend that challenge to Opposition Members. If they are able to find themselves in a position where they can look at fairer funding and how it may have an impact on rural areas, I am sure that is something we would be content to consider.
Taken together, public investment in policing has grown from £11.9 billion in 2015-16 to £13 billion in this financial year.
The Minister was making the point that this is taxpayers’ money. It absolutely is, but the decimation of police forces like mine in Derbyshire, which has seen 26% cuts to its funding over seven years, has meant that it does not have the capacity to prevent county lines crimes and the sort of retail crime that saw small shops in my constituency lose £100,000 last year from their tills. That is hitting them in their pockets. My taxpayers say they would rather pay a little bit extra tax, get a decent police force and not lose out through crime.
I wonder, then, if the hon. Lady could help with the fact that her constabulary, as of March last year, had reserves of £32.2 million—20% of funding. It may be that the police and crime commissioner has plans for how those reserves are to be spent, but that is a decision for the PCC. We need to be careful. The whole point of police and crime commissioners is that they are democratically accountable to local people. They are elected by local people to set policing priorities. Decisions on how money is spent must be made by local police and crime commissioners. We gave those powers to police and crime commissioners precisely because we thought it was better for local people to make those decisions, working together with chief constables, rather than bureaucrats in Whitehall trying to decide policing priorities across the country.
As I said, taken together, public investment in policing has grown from £11.9 billion in 2015-16 to £13 billion in this financial year. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made it clear that he will prioritise police funding at the next spending review, again demonstrating this Government’s commitment to providing the police with the resources they need.
Community policing is obviously very important in our rural areas.
There is a lot of talk about rural areas. Geographically, over half of my constituency is rural and we have rural crime, such as fly-tipping and the theft of agricultural equipment. The West Yorkshire police and crime commissioner is perceived as being an urban PCC. Does the Minister accept that even in supposedly urban areas there are large numbers of rural crimes?
Absolutely. I do not claim there are boundaries when it comes to criminal behaviour. Indeed, we have heard from across the House how some criminals deliberately exploit county and constabulary boundaries, because they hope that that will cause investigations and so on to be more difficult for the police. We are very clear that we need the police to work together better. In fairness, I think they are doing that. There have been huge changes in the way police forces talk to each other and share information. On county lines for example, there is a great deal of work going on to co-ordinate and share intelligence, and we see this with the regional organised crime units.
The reformed policing landscape and the introduction of police and crime commissioners by the Government has supported community policing. We have enabled police and crime commissioners to work with local people to set priorities for their areas. They are the ones best placed to make decisions with their communities, rural or urban, based on their local knowledge and expertise.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council is also transforming its role and presence in dealing with rural crime. The NPCC recently published its rural affairs strategy, which, following a period of consultation with rural stakeholders, sets out operational and organisational policing priorities in respect of tackling crimes that particularly affect rural areas.
The strategy recognises that rural areas experience the range of crimes faced in our urban areas—the threat of modern slavery, for example—and also identifies specific rural threats, including poaching, fuel theft, theft of farm machinery and types of antisocial behaviour such as fly-tipping. We welcome that strategy.
Does the Minister accept that speeding on rural roads is an horrific problem? Is there anything in the strategy on that, because it really is devastating at the moment?
That is precisely the sort of issue that we as constituency MPs can help with—by helping PCCs, police chiefs and councils to identify areas where speeding is a problem. My constituency has, I estimate, about 100 metres of dual carriageway; the rest is single carriageway across 531 square miles, so sadly we are particularly aware of the dangers of speeding on rural lanes. It is one of the challenges that the police face in the most rural areas. I encourage colleagues across the House to engage with their councils and PCCs on that issue if they feel there is a particular need in parts of their constituencies.
Home Office officials have met the national police lead and discussed with them the approach in the NPCC strategy. It is intended that the strategy will support safer rural communities and a better rural focus on policing. Yesterday, the Policing Minister met the National Farmers Union and colleagues on the all-party group on rural crime to discuss the crime affecting rural areas. We take crime in rural areas very seriously. We know that the methods used by criminals are constantly evolving and recognise the importance of staying one step ahead, which is why we are encouraging the police to innovate and transform how they investigate.
We have recently published the serious violence strategy, which targets the drivers behind the recent increases in serious violence. This might be thought a largely urban concern, but such a belief is misplaced. With county lines, we see urban gangs exploit children and young people and spread their evil business across the country, including into rural and coastal areas. It is important that rural communities understand and respond to this threat, which is precisely what we want to achieve through the new strategy.
I will conclude by returning to my constituency and perhaps inviting yet more people to visit my beautiful rural part of the country—
Don’t forget Cheshire.
My hon. Friend will get his chance.
As the crime Minister, I think constantly about what crime means for my constituents and the consequences and impact on them. We take rural concerns about crime and policing very seriously and understand the great importance of ensuring that rural communities are taken properly into account in all the action we take to tackle crime. We thank each and every police officer and police community support officer for the work they do in our rural areas.
I am pleased to speak in this debate. I appreciate that a lot of the things being discussed today are devolved and that therefore much of the detail is unfamiliar to me and does not apply in Scotland, but I hope that I might make one or two comments about the experience in Scotland and that Members might notice some things that are the same and some that are different and perhaps think about why they might be different.
I find it a bit surprising that we are having a three-hour debate on rural crime, when, according to the Minister, rural crime does not exist, and that we are having a debate that appears to be all about policing, despite the fact that the motion does not mention policing at all. There are lots of things about how this place operates that I never expect, or indeed hope, to be able to understand.
It is difficult to know the actual level of crime in either urban or rural areas. It is accepted, including by the police, that a lot of crime goes unreported. We reckon that in Scotland about 30% to 40% of crime is never reported or recorded; for some relatively minor crimes, the figure is much higher. The Scottish crime and justice survey, which asks a large sample of people every year what has happened to them that year, gives more reliable figures.
The survey showed that, between 2008-9 and 2016-17, the number of adults reporting that they had been victims of crime fell by more than a third. The reduction in England and Wales was about the same, although the figures are not exactly comparable. That is important because it tells us that, although the level of crime is still too high and there are still people who genuinely live with the concern and even the fear of crime, it is not as big a problem as some would have us believe.
Something that I found surprising when I was told about it—and it still keeps popping up—is that older people are much less likely to become victims of crime than younger folk. I think that there is a question to be asked about the fear of crime. There are people who make it their business to make old people scared of it, but all the evidence, both from reported crimes and from comments made by people after they have been victims of crime, suggests that they are less likely to be victims.
In South Yorkshire, the number of insurance claims for rural crime has increased by 54% in a year, so it is clearly an issue. A number of constituents have come to my surgeries to report thefts of farm equipment and antisocial behaviour. A group of 500 Barnsley residents have come together because they are concerned about nightly antisocial behaviour. This is very much an issue for my constituents.
I do not doubt that at all. Indeed, I am about to say something about crimes committed in rural areas. First, there is the problem of definition: how do we decide what is rural and what is not? I would never consider myself to represent a rural constituency, and I would not be considered to do so in the House, but about 3,000 of my constituents undeniably live in rural areas, and probably another 5,000 live in villages and towns that are so small that, while their residents experience many of the benefits of living in small isolated communities, they also experience many of the challenges.
May I just finish making my point? I did promise to speak for a fairly short time, but that will be difficult if I am too generous.
A finding that appears regularly in the Scottish crime and justice survey—I do not know whether it is reflected in other parts of the United Kingdom—is that people living in rural areas are less than half as likely to become victims of crime as those living in urban areas. While people living in isolated areas undoubtedly feel more vulnerable in respect of some kinds of crime that are more likely to be committed in rural areas, overall, it is the case that rural areas in Scotland—and, I imagine, rural parts of England, relatively speaking—are safer places in which to live. It is also the case, however, that for a victim of crime, the crime rate on that day is 100%.
When I and my rural constituents travel to the most remote areas of Scotland, we are struck by the difference between the quality of the roads there and the quality the of roads in Lincolnshire. There are no potholes, and there is wonderful broadband and wonderful public services. Is the hon. Gentleman grateful to my Lincolnshire constituents who, through the Barnett formula, are subsidising his own constituents to such an extent, and would he not be sorry to see that go after Scottish independence?
What I am grateful for is the fact that the hon. Gentleman has completely contradicted his Scottish Tory pals, who seem to be away enjoying the sunshine at the moment, but who tell us almost every day of the week that the Scottish Government’s performance on broadband is useless and the UK Government’s is great. One of the things I have learnt today is that even Tory Back Benchers think that the Government are making a complete hash of providing broadband in rural areas. I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman contradict his Scottish pals the next time they raise that particular myth, both when it is relevant to the debate and, more often, when it is completely irrelevant.
Let me return to the comment made by the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock). According to the latest figures from NFU Mutual, in some parts of the United Kingdom, there have been staggering increases in rural crime levels over a fairly short period. I take that to mean that organised gangs have been targeting an area until it gets too hot for them, and then moving on. That is why co-operation and the sharing of intelligence between police forces, and between the police and other agencies, are so vital.
In 2015 the Scottish Government helped to set up the Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime—a partnership between the Government, Police Scotland, NFU Scotland, NFU Mutual, which, obviously, provides much of the insurance cover for rural businesses, and other key stakeholders. In its first full year of operation, recorded rural crime in Scotland fell by 21%. I said earlier that recorded crime figures came with a lot of caveats, but during roughly the same period, NFU Mutual reported a 32% reduction in a single year. This is perhaps not the place to go into detail about what might be done well in Scotland that could be copied or examined in other parts of the United Kingdom, but I simply read those figures to indicate that although people living in rural areas and rural businesses, as the Minister referred to—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will just finish this point. There is no doubt that, when a rural business has a piece of plant stolen that cost it a quarter of a million pounds, it is a massive blow to it, but there are ways—by sharing information and working across constabulary borders and national borders, if possible—in which, if everybody who wants to stop crime co-ordinates themselves as effectively as the criminals sometimes do, we can start to see an end to this, or at least a significant improvement in crime figures, both rural and urban.
I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech—it is like a poorly signposted ramble through the Trossachs—but if he is right that much crime is under-reported, does he acknowledge that what may be happening in rural areas is this? Because tolerance of petty disorder and petty crime has risen, many crimes take place irrespective of the effect on their victims, because the victims know that nothing will be done about them so they do not bother to report them.
I cannot comment on that. Scotland is regularly surveyed on public attitudes to policing, and generally speaking, the public have a high degree of confidence in the police and their ability to deal with crime and clear it up. It is not enough—there is not 100% confidence yet, and that has to be the target. From my first days as a councillor 25 years ago, what I have always recommended to my constituents is that there is no such thing as a crime that is too minor to report, because a lot of policing is intelligence-based and trend-based. In the policing model that is used in Scotland, it may be that a similar incident that is reported five or six times will not get a heavy response, but it will eventually trigger a very significant response of the kind that puts a large police presence into the area very quickly. It would be nice if we could get a blue-light response every time somebody phones the police, but that is simply not realistic.
I want to make a few comments on some of the exchanges that I listened to with great interest about the way in which the police service in England and Wales is set up, the way it is managed nationally and locally and the way it is funded. With all due respect, it seems to me that it is a complete and utter mess. I am not convinced that people in any part of England or Wales understand what they are paying for the police force, why they are paying that amount and not a wee bit more or a wee bit less, what they do if they want to pay a bit more to get a better service, or how they can influence the provision of their service.
I cannot understand why people who are sitting in here should take the majority of decisions about how much police funding is needed in Lincolnshire, Cornwall or Lancashire. Surely the people there know their needs better than any of us down here, with the possible exceptions of the hon. Members who represent those particular counties. Since I was elected, I have been struck by the fact that, for its size and diversity, England is a ridiculously centralised place as far as government is concerned. I do not say that meaning to be offensive or to insult anybody. I simply cannot see how local services can be effectively delivered across such a big and diverse country as England when decisions are so centralised in one place. It is bound to mean that a lot of time is spent by MPs from different parts of the country fighting about who gets a bigger share of the cake, when the problem is that the cake is far too wee to begin with.
At the end of the day, it does not benefit any of us if we move some resources from one county to another and a reduction in crime in one part of England is matched by an increase in crime in another. It is much better if we can find ways to resource the police properly, if it is quite clear that they are not properly resourced, and to make sure that crime levels can be driven down across the whole country.
I found the early part of the debate very interesting. It has been an eye-opener to me to hear about the way that local services—particularly the police service—are being delivered in a country that, in so many ways, is an example to the rest of the world. Is it fit for purpose? That is not for me to say, and not because I do not believe in politicians from one country telling other people how to run their country. But I invite Members who represent constituencies in England and Wales to ask themselves the hard question: is the way the police service is set up fit for the 21st century? If not, potentially, there are difficult decisions to be taken.
I will be happy after the debate to give more details about how the police service is set up in Scotland. It is not perfect. There are problems. The new national service has some teething problems and there are things people do not like as much as what they had before, but the fact is that, by almost any measure, public confidence in the police remains high. People’s feeling of being safe is as high as it has been for a great number of years. Three quarters of people in Scotland feel safe walking home alone after dark. It would be nicer if it were 100%, but I was surprised that it is as high as 75%.
There are ways that our respective national Governments can learn from each other about the way we manage and provide public services. I sincerely suggest that Members here with responsibility for policing look at some of the changes that have happened north of the border over the last few years. They were not always easy or popular, but some of what has happened there might give an indication as to changes that could be implemented for the benefit of the 50 million-plus people—there are another 3 million or 4 million people in Wales—who deserve the best police service that can possibly be provided for them.
Order. I would prefer not to impose a time limit, and if colleagues stick to about eight minutes we should be able to get everybody in without one.
I am unaccustomed to being called this early in a debate; it is something of an inversion of the norm.
First, I want to respond to the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), as it takes a brass neck for the SNP Front-Bench spokesman to complain about the over-centralisation of this country when it is a system that massively benefits his constituents, and in particular his party as it does not have to make the tough decisions we face in other parts of the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) was absolutely right: my constituents are net contributors, whereas those of the hon. Member for Glenrothes are net recipients. That is a great unfairness, and I would prefer it if his party recognised that now and again. But I am going to move on to the subject in hand.
As an MP for a rural constituency, I am particularly concerned about this subject and I welcome the fact that Her Majesty’s Opposition have tabled this motion. I last spoke on the subject in the final stages of the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill—the Bill of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—on Friday 27 April. I said that I was concerned that we seemed to be living in more violent times, and that comment then unexpectedly appeared all over the local radio and newspapers because many of my constituents share that sense.
This debate is not about the sort of stats we bandy across the House in political fashion; this is about the experience of recent months in South Suffolk, where we have unquestionably had a spate of serious incidents. In the last week in Sudbury, the main town in my constituency, there was a very violent rape, for which I am glad to say there has been an arrest of an individual today by the police in Sudbury. I pay tribute to them, because at the same time as they have been investigating that crime, police in our part of the world have been focused on a very serious murder in Ipswich, of a 17-year-old, which was raised by my constituency neighbour the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) at Prime Minister’s questions today. The sense of greater violence is therefore impossible to escape, and is, I am afraid, borne out by the figures for Suffolk: there has been a 29% increase in violent crime in Suffolk in the year to September 2017.
The context of this, however, is an overall fall in recorded crime in the independent crime survey for England and Wales of 38% since 2010. That is a very large decrease in overall crime, and it has occurred at a time when, because of the funding pressures we were under—because of the deficit we inherited—we have seen significant reductions in police numbers; I would be the first to accept that.
But this is the thing: if we have seen such a fall in crime when police numbers have been falling, it cannot simply be the case that police numbers are the sole determinant of the level of crime. This spike in violence, which has been seen in other parts of the country too, is a relatively recent phenomenon, and I want us to move away from these political brickbats about how many police stations have been closed—I should point out that some 400 police stations were closed between 1997 and 2007. Instead, we should try to understand why we are seeing this change. I want to try to understand some of those causal factors in my brief remarks.
My hon. Friend is right to say that police numbers are not the sole determinant of a rise or fall in crime, but they must be a determinant. In Lincolnshire, fundamental flaws in the funding formula have left us short of funds, and that makes it very difficult for my excellent local police force to respond to crimes of the kind that he has just described.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. The way I would put it—which is kind of what he is saying—is that the fall in numbers does not, of itself, drive the social behaviours that cause a change in crime, but clearly, in an ideal world, we would have more officers to deal with it. It is a question of how we respond to the situation.
In terms of the primary causal factors, lots of hon. Members have talked about the county lines crime phenomenon, which was on the front page of The Sunday Times as recently as 6 May. It is a real problem not only in Suffolk but right across the country. The statistics show that 85% of police forces across England and Wales are dealing with county lines, and that 80% of those cases involve children. This is a serious crime phenomenon, and the growth in county lines, which involves increasing violence, leads to the spread of drug crime, knife crime and other associated crime.
There is another factor, which I find potentially the most interesting. I was at the Suffolk show recently, and I was talking to the chief constable. I asked him why he thought there had been this change in behaviour, and he said that social media were a really important factor because the videos and other media that are shared by the young people in gangs are being used to goad them. The gangs are goading each other into more violent behaviour in a competitive fashion. That is the type of behaviour that we see in the very worst crime areas such as Mexico, which has a terrible murder rate. The reason that crime escalates in such areas is that more violence is used to mark out and defend territory. We are seeing gang violence worsening here because the gangs are becoming competitive, and social media drive that competition because the videos—which, according to my chief constable, are often of very high quality—are being used to brag and to goad.
I do not pretend to have the answer on the social media issue, but I believe that the companies providing the media—they are private companies—have a social responsibility to involve themselves in this. I fundamentally believe that the primary responsibility of the Government is the defence of the realm, at home and abroad, and if the media companies will not get involved, we will have to start talking about the defence of the virtual realm. We cannot have any no-go areas in crime; we do not want them in a physical sense, and we cannot have them in a virtual sense either. I for one would support more powers to ensure that social media companies took action on these kinds of videos to ensure that they are not shown, not displayed and do not incite greater gang violence.
I also want to talk about funding. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) said, police numbers may not directly cause the changes in crime rates, but we need the officers in place if we are to resource our forces to deal with the changing patterns of crime. There are two elements involved: national funding and local funding. On national funding, I recently tabled a written question to the Home Secretary asking him what assessment he had made of the different costs involved in policing rural and urban areas. The answer from the Home Office was that it had made no such study and that there was no such information. I believe that rural MPs should be engaging with local stakeholders such as the National Farmers Union and possibly the Country Land and Business Association to look into the hard stats and the evidence. If we want to go to a Government Department and ask for a change in the spending formula to favour our local area—or rural areas more broadly—we have to have the evidence to show that we need that extra funding. A study of the cost of rurality in policing would be very welcome, and I would certainly support one.
My last key point is about local funding. I disagree with Opposition Members on this point. I strongly support the use of the precept to fund the police, for the simple reason that it is a guarantee that the money will be spent in our county. If we increase the precept to fund the police in Suffolk, it might cost more than an increase in central taxation that people would not necessarily notice, but every pound will be spent in the county on the Suffolk constabulary. I want to see more of that, and I would go further. I would like to see more of what I call parish policing, where parishes—or perhaps groups of parishes in electoral wards—would have the opportunity to fund their own police community support officers. This is where we must be realistic about rural crime. When the police in Suffolk deal with a major incident, such as the stabbing we had in Ipswich, or when we have the threat of terrorism, it is unrealistic to expect the force to prioritise shed theft or the theft of tractors at the same time, no matter how many officers we have. If our villages and rural communities want the added value of an extra visible police presence, they should be prepared to see something on top of the precept and get direct policing as a result—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) wants to intervene—she is obviously very interested in what I am saying—I will be more than happy to take an intervention, because she completely failed to answer the question about police stations earlier. In fact, when I asked her whether she would reopen closed police stations, she confirmed that Labour would not, and I do not understand why on earth an Opposition would criticise something that they are not going to reverse.
I am sitting here fairly flabbergasted listening to the hon. Gentleman making the case for some of his poorest constituents paying the price of delivering the sort of law and order that he says is the Government’s responsibility—the first responsibility of the state is to keep its population safe. People are already paying an extra £12 a year in Derbyshire, so how much more does he want his constituents to have to pay to get back to proper levels of policing?
I would be more than happy for them to pay more. Is the idea that the poorest cannot afford 50p extra a month on their precept to get a police officer? The point is that it would be a choice for the community. Many communities would not choose to have parish policing or direct policing, but it is a new option for them.
I will take one last intervention, Madam Deputy Speaker, because you will be pleased to know that I will then be concluding.
Does my hon. Friend agree that many of our constituents have requested the ability to pay more specifically for local policing? Constituents have written to me to say that if the Treasury could not fund it, they would happily pay extra.
Absolutely. I will finish by saying that the local funding formula means that funding is transparent—people will know that the money will be spent in their county. We should still look at the national formula, but the model of elected police and crime commissioners being responsible for the money raised locally in a clear and transparent fashion is the right one, and we should use it to get more officers on the beat, providing greater security and comfort to our constituents.
Despite having two towns, the majority of my beautiful constituency is rural, meaning that my constituents are increasingly on the receiving end of rural crime. Nationally, fly-tipping has increased by 7%, becoming something of an epidemic in rural areas. In 2016, agricultural vehicle theft cost farmers and others working in rural industry £5.4 million. It is likely that that increased in 2017 and in the first quarter of this year, which is simply unacceptable. How long will the Government stand by, slashing our police force funding and leaving my constituents to pick up the pieces and pay themselves for the damage caused to their livelihoods?
My constituency is in Kent, which is the fifth-worst affected area for rural crime. Sadly, that is not a surprise. The Government have cut 532 police officers and 104 police community support officers in Kent, while simultaneously ever promising us that they will be tough on crime. To be honest, the myth of the Tories being tough on crime has been long since busted, and probably no one living in Kent believes it to be true anymore. These days, “tough on crime” is just about as untrue a Conservative adage as “strong and stable”.
The truth is that due to the shocking austerity measures imposed on Kent’s police since 2010 not only are our towns and high streets more vulnerable, but so are our rural lanes, our quiet villages and our previously idyllic hamlets. All those places have seen a huge rise in fly-tipping, littering and nuisance crime. Kent police has launched the Country Eye app, through which members of rural communities can share information on crime and suspicious behaviour. While I of course commend the effort and thought behind the initiative, it is a sad indictment of the state of police funding that communities are expected to shoulder the responsibility to deal with problems themselves. An app and volunteers should supplement adequately resourced police forces, not simply replace them.
I recently had another meeting with the National Farmers Union, an organisation comprising over 55,000 members, and it shares my constituent farmers’ concerns about livelihood-destroying crime. Farmers are paying for the damage to their equipment; they are rebuying livestock; they are paying to clear waste that has been dumped on their land; and they are paying for installing expensive CCTV camera systems. They cannot afford it.
I am standing up for Canterbury and for Kent by saying that enough is enough. When will this Government start taking seriously the concerns of farmers and those who live in rural areas? More than 9 million people live in rural areas, and agriculture contributes around £24 billion to the UK economy, yet rural crime continues to be ignored and the issue has been sidelined again and again. Why? The Government admit there is a problem, so they therefore admit the entire austerity agenda is flawed.
Although we need to be clear that rural crime predominantly affects farmers and agricultural workers, it is also a question of animal rights. This country has a moral duty to uphold high animal welfare standards. From foxhunting to badger baiting, we are neglecting our responsibility to protect our animals and wildlife. Although foxhunting remains illegal and polling suggests that 85% of the British people are opposed to making it legal again, we know foxhunting is still widely practised in Kent and other areas.
Just last year, shocking online footage showed two fox cubs being taken into a kennel and being brought out dead. This so-called “sport” is a savage exercise in bloodlust, and it must be properly policed. Equally, we see badgers being sold on the black market by criminal groups for as much as £700, often for badger baiting. The chief inspector of the RSPCA special operations unit recently spoke about the effect of this exercise on dogs:
“Because the criminals can’t go to a vet, they self-medicate: they patch the dogs up with drugs bought from the internet. Eventually the flesh of the jaw may fall away. We’ve seen dogs with their faces destroyed by these fights.”
It is clear that badger baiting is not only cruel to the badgers themselves but is detrimental to dogs’ health and wellbeing. Despite the clear brutality, the Government fail to act or police it properly.
Instead of listening to those with expertise in animal welfare and providing funding for police forces to enforce existing laws, the Government lazily abdicate their responsibilities. I suggest they look at Labour’s plan for animal welfare, which pledges to strengthen the Hunting Act 2004 and to look at ways to close existing loopholes that allow for cruel illegal hunting to take place in rural areas.
Rural crime is not just an economic issue of people’s livelihoods; it is a moral issue. I am sure the Government will agree that more action needs to be taken to ensure that rural communities are protected and our animals are not subjected to such terrible cruelty.
I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) for introducing this debate, the subject of which is important to me and my constituents. In fact, I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on rural crime. Coincidentally, we had a meeting last night at which we discussed a number of topics, such as the theft of heating oil and diesel, the benefit of drones—drones have already saved lives in Lincolnshire and elsewhere—the use of WhatsApp groups in policing rural areas, the theft of rural machinery, the fear of isolation among those living in isolated areas, and the National Police Chiefs Council rural and wildlife crime strategies, as described by the Minister. I invite Opposition Members, as well as any more Conservative Members who wish to join, to come along and join our APPG so we can tackle rural crime together.
One of the main areas of discussion yesterday evening was hare coursing, a cruel crime in which lurcher-style dogs chase after a hare. Often there are bets on which dog will catch the hare first, as part of which gangs of mostly men in 4x4s and other heavy vehicles traipse across farmers’ land in pursuit of the animals to make sure they see which dog catches the hare in order to secure the bet.
Hare coursing is a disgusting crime, and it has a huge impact on farmers that is not well understood. Some who see the tyre tracks going across fields and the torn up crops might not think it important, but it is important. The farmer has invested in those crops, which they have nurtured to provide that year’s income for their family. The crime is essentially the same as going into John Lewis, or a similar store, on Oxford Street and destroying every item of merchandise, and then preventing the shop from restocking for the next 12 months. This is a serious crime, which has a huge impact economically and on a farmer’s lifestyle. I should mention at this point that although I have not been a victim of hare coursing crime, my husband is a farmer.
Hare coursing is not just a criminal pastime, but a pastime of criminals. One thing Lincolnshire’s police and crime commissioner has made clear to me is that the vast majority of the people the police catch for this crime come not from Lincolnshire, but from elsewhere. They have come across county lines to commit crime in Lincolnshire, perhaps because they feel it gives them the best chance of not being caught. It is fear of being caught that will stop them doing these things.
There is hope, because our PCC is making huge strides by using drones. It is important in these debates that we are not miserable the whole time. There are technological ways in which we can combat crime with great success.
My hon. Friend is right, and I shall come on to discuss that shortly.
The crime of hare coursing also involves a fear of violence, because when farmers catch these people many of them threaten the farmer with violence then and there. Sometimes when the crime is reported to the police the farmer is threatened with having their sheds burned down. In some cases pets or livestock have been injured deliberately to try to frighten farmers into not reporting the crime or not pursuing a prosecution for it. Once prosecution occurs, we encounter an issue with sentencing, as it does not reflect the severity of this crime, with an average fine of £250.
My hon. Friend is making a vigorous and effective case on hare coursing in Lincolnshire. She knows that our PCC, Marc Jones, and our chief constable, Will Skelly, have done pioneering work to counter this activity, with good effect. Will she join me in asking those on the Treasury Bench to examine the whole matter of sentencing, as there is a good case for having a specific offence related to hare coursing, so that once the police do their job, the courts will back them up and encourage them to do still more?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that important intervention. He rightly says that the fines are not proportionate, and indeed our next all-party group meeting will be with the Solicitor General to discuss the impacts of sentencing on rural crime. The dogs themselves can be worth very much more than £250 and some of the bets are for £10,000 or more. My right hon. Friend makes reference to Operation Galileo, a Lincolnshire police initiative masterminded by Bill Skelly and Marc Jones, our Conservative PCC. It has had great success in Lincolnshire, with the number of incidents having gone down from 2,000 to 1,400. The police credit that 600 fall to two initiatives, the first of which is the institution of criminal behaviour orders, whereby people convicted of hare coursing are no longer allowed to be in a vehicle and in possession of a lurcher-style dog, or in the company of others with such an animal, in Lincolnshire. However, Lincolnshire police can catch these people but they can then go to Cambridgeshire or North Yorkshire to do the same thing. I therefore ask the Minister to consider the possibility of allowing courts to impose such an order covering a wider geographical area, so that the Cambridgeshire police do not then have to catch these people, then the North Yorkshire police have to do the same, and so on. These orders could apply in other areas as soon as someone has been caught once.
The main initiative that has brought about the success is the seizing of dogs, because, as I say, the dog is what is valuable to these criminals. Taking the dog from them means they are not able to pursue their crime; these dogs are trained to do what they are doing. Tackling the crime is expensive; we have seen the crime fall in Lincolnshire, but I understand from our PCC that dog kennelling fees have cost £46,000 this year. There is currently no provision in law to reclaim that money from the criminal once they have been prosecuted, so I ask the Minister to consider whether he can add a clause into law that would allow the kennelling fees to be reclaimed from the criminal after their conviction. That would be only fair and reasonable.
In her opening speech, the Minister mentioned that there was no definition of rural crime, but police tell me that intelligence and evidence-based policing is hampered by the fact that they do not have some of the data that they need. I therefore ask her to consider better and more detailed recording of crime—heating oil theft and hare coursing are not always specifically recorded—so that we can identify where these crimes are taking place and target them much more effectively.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) mentioned fear. Nobody should experience fear in their own home. People have a right to feel safe as well as to be safe. In an isolated setting, however, it is perhaps understandable that people do not always feel that way. If a person is attacked in their flat, or if someone comes into their home, or they feel unsafe, they can scream, run outside and seek help relatively quickly. If someone is in an isolated rural farmhouse, more than a mile from the nearest property, it is understandable that the response time from the police and from any member of the public will be much slower. That would leave them feeling much more isolated.
I have great admiration for the work of Lincolnshire police, especially the way that they police a large geographical area, with 6,000 miles of road and a widely dispersed population. It is a credit to them that our crime level is among the lowest in the entire country, but money is an issue. Lincolnshire police has one of the lowest levels of funding in the country. I understand the point that there is only so much money and that it has to be shared out somehow, but we receive the least amount of funding for a service that is more difficult and more expensive to deliver because of the area that the police have to cover. Moreover, a particularly high proportion of our money is funded locally. I agree with my hon. Friends who have said that it is reasonable for some of the money to come from local sources as it is directed back locally, and for some of it to come from central Government grant. However, at the moment, there are areas of the country, particularly urban areas, where the local population is being asked to contribute around 25% of the money that is used for the overall policing budget in their area, and yet in Lincolnshire, it is 43%, and I understand that in North Yorkshire it is closer to 50%. We need greater fairness. I welcome the fact that the Government are looking into how we can make police funding much fairer in the future, and I will be happy to support them in doing so.
It is a great pleasure to follow the very thoughtful speech of the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) and the other very thoughtful speeches in this debate. I very much welcome the fact that our Opposition Front-Bench team has chosen to hold this debate on rural crime and public services. Those of us who represent rural constituencies welcome the fact that many people view our communities in very glowing terms. We all know about the green and pleasant land, the apple tree in Linden Lea and so on, and our communities are all of those things—plus we also have a good few mountains in North Wales for good measure—but, like every other community, they have problems. They also have problems that are unique because of their rurality.
I was pleased to hear the emphasis in this debate on criminality pure and simple when it comes to animal abuse. These cases are truly horrific—whether it is hare coursing or badger baiting. Let us be absolutely clear on this: this is not some gentle historical relic of the past of some rural sport and the like; it is criminal behaviour pure and simple. The people who perpetuate these evil practices deserve to have the strong arm of the law used against them.
Would the hon. Lady not include in that abandoning horses in fields to starve? That happens in my area. It is not only criminality, but sheer ignorance as well.
Yes, I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman; it is animal abuse, it is cruelty and it needs to be stamped out. The punishment needs to fit the crime in those areas.
A couple of years ago I held an Adjournment debate in this House on rural crime, in which I highlighted the work of a local initiative—a rural crime mapping scheme—in the wards of Esclusham and Ponciau in my own constituency. The Minister then praised the local endeavour in our area, as well as the work of Farm Watch, the intriguingly named OWL—Online Watch Link—and of course the excellent work of the rural crime team of North Wales police, to which I also pay tribute today.
Many Members have spoken about the impact of police cuts. I must report on the situation in north Wales, using January Home Office figures. Five years ago, North Wales police employed 160 officers for neighbourhood policing and 254 police community support officers. Last year that figure fell to 90 police officers and just 148 police community support officers. That is a worry. Now, we know that there is technology and we welcome new technology—none of us is advocating the return to a sort of era of “Dixon of Dock Green”—but we do recognise that neighbourhood policing is vital if we are serious about tackling crime in our rural communities.
There are many aspects to rural crime, but today I will stick to just one: the issue of speeding on our rural roads, which I asked the Minister about earlier. Many of us are very concerned about the extent of speeding now. We need a major clampdown on speeding and, yes, a justice system that is prepared to be serious in its use of driving bans—something that is not happening to the right degree today.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the lack of funding for safety measures on our roads is contributing to the increase in speeding? In Derbyshire, for example, an area has to have seen seven personal injury accidents within three years before the authority will even look at considering safety improvements on the road. Does she agree that that is contributing to the problem?
I agree with every word my hon. Friend said.
Let me give a couple of examples. In north Wales, a biker was recently clocked doing 138 mph on the single-lane carriageway A5. For that he got fines, plus a grand total of a 90-day ban. Chillingly, a newspaper report spoke of photographs of the defendant riding towards a triangular sign warning of a pedestrian crossing 250 yards ahead of him. That is terrifying. In another example on the A5 in north Wales, a so-called supercar—I believe it cost around £70,000 and it could obviously go extremely fast—was clocked doing 122 mph. That is double the speed limit. The driver in that case got fines, which were clearly worth nothing to the tune of his £70,000 car, plus a grand total of a 56-day driving ban.
The Institute of Advanced Motorists has shown that there have been speeds of up to 140 mph on our roads in the last couple of years, so it is small wonder that it has called for an increase in visible policing as an active deterrent to speeding. It has also called for advanced driving and riding tuition, and the continuous development of skills. As a spokesperson from the organisation put it:
“Those guilty of this level of excessive speeding are clearly not being deterred by a short ban or fine. Their minds need to be concentrated to appreciate that they are putting other road users at significant danger by acting in this way.”
We need to be aware that car occupants and motorcyclists are twice as likely to die on a rural road as on an urban one. For cyclists, it is three times as much. The road safety charity Brake found, in a Brake and Digby Brown survey, that 33% of drivers admit to driving too fast on country roads, 19% admit breaking speed limits on country roads, 37% have had a near miss on country roads and 72% support lower speed limits.
I would like to end with a specific plea. More motorcyclists have died in north Wales so far this year—eight people—than in all of 2017. This is a sad feature not just of north Wales but of some other rural areas too. This week, North Wales police released details of an anonymous call where a man’s partner called them and begged them to arrest her speeding biker boyfriend over fears that he would die on the roads. North Wales police released the transcript of this anonymous call. The woman told them:
“My partner is a biker and is visiting north Wales this weekend and already boasting that he will be doing over a ton whenever he can. I know where they are starting from. Please, please try and find and stop them. We have children and I would rather him banned or in jail than dead. I am sorry to put this on you as I know you are already overworked.”
It is time we brought in proper speeding bans, time we funded more police to watch over our rural roads, and time we took the issue of speeding seriously. I really hope that this will become a much bigger issue in years to come and that the Government will act.
It is vital, as we have heard from colleagues across the House, that we tackle the challenge of crime in rural communities. My constituency is unusual on Teesside in that it is the only one with a significant rural element, in the shape of rural East Cleveland. At my rural club, I have heard eloquent testimony from local farmers and people who run rural businesses on issues such as hare coursing, theft, trespass, and the production of drugs on isolated patches of farmland. There is a very serious problem. Perhaps it does not attract some of the media attention that urban crime, particularly crime in the capital, receives, but that does not mean that it is not very serious.
For example, in the coastal town of Saltburn at Easter, there was a real wave of antisocial behaviour. The Coco & Rum restaurant was attacked. A gang of youths was gathering around the local Sainsbury’s, drawn there by the wi-fi signal. Saltburn may not be a rural community, but it is a coastal community, so it falls into the category of somewhere that is quite difficult to police.
Good local policing makes a huge difference in cracking down on all these problems. I pay great tribute to the work of the Guisborough neighbourhood policing team, who are the main focus of policing in East Cleveland. Led by Inspector Fay Cole, they do a really fantastic job. They do not have large numbers of people. They have a very large area to police—it profiles as somewhere with many of the features of an urban community, just spread out in a more disparate fashion. They do a brilliant job. At the Skelton McDonald’s during the recess, I heard directly from the people there how grateful they were for the work of the local constabulary in cracking down on problems they had had with antisocial behaviour. So it can be done. Considering the resources that are available, the team do an outstanding job.
That brings me to the issue of resources. I will concede that there is funding pressure on our police. That would be my No. 1 priority for additional investment as our national finances stabilise, and I welcome the comments made by the Home Secretary in his Andrew Marr interview at the weekend. However, I find it well-nigh unbelievable that Labour Members show such collective amnesia as to why we are in the current situation regarding our public finances. The ruinous state that we inherited in 2010, which they—[Interruption.] They look down. They look at their phones. They look anywhere other than at the truth of the matter, which is—[Interruption.] The truth of the matter is that it was a shambolic situation, and we are still paying the price for it now. Were they to have the opportunity to put into practice some of the policies that they boast about now, we would very quickly return to that state of affairs.
My hon. Friend is giving an important speech and making his point very well. Is it not right that the cost of the interest we are paying on the debt created by the Labour Government is roughly equivalent to the current policing budget? Had they not created such huge levels of debt, would we not be able to provide a much better service?
My hon. Friend is completely right. The Opposition may deny it because it is fundamentally inconvenient to them.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. To put the record straight, the debt of which he speaks was less than £1 trillion in 2010. It is now practically £2 trillion. That is where the interest on the debt is coming from. Not only have this Government doubled the country’s debt, but they have decimated our police forces to the lowest level ever and are letting criminals back into our rural communities to run riot.
That is the height of economic illiteracy. It fails to distinguish between the debt and the deficit. We inherited an enormous deficit, so of course the debt continued to grow while there was a deficit. We have now virtually closed that deficit on current spending, and all that we now borrow is for investment. That is an absolute calumny in terms of economics, and it is frightening that the hon. Lady believes it.
With respect to my hon. Friend, to return to the issue of policing, it is also true that the problem with the funding of rural policing goes back a long way. I first campaigned on this when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, I took a petition on it to Downing Street when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister and I continued to campaign on it during the coalition Government. We have a fundamental problem across politics of getting the funding for rural policing right, and now we have the opportunity to do so.
I agree. How we slice the cake is certainly a topic to which we can return. I find myself in an interesting situation, because part of Cleveland is an urban community and part of it is a rural community. It is certainly important, as a matter of principle, that we have a funding settlement that is fair to all parts of our society.
I want to look at the positive things that are going on, and there are some very positive things going on in Cleveland. I want to congratulate Cleveland police today on opening its recruitment drive. It aims to significantly increase the number of special constables from the current number of about 50 to more than 200. That is a great tribute to our new chief constable, Mike Veale, but it is also a tribute to the police and crime commissioner for allowing it to happen; I welcome, on a cross-party basis, his decision to do so.
I think that lots of people in East Cleveland will want to take up the opportunity to serve as a special constable. I have heard lots of enthusiasm from people who want to serve their communities and who know them well, which means they can establish a bond and will be likely to be able to identify problems before they arise and tackle them decisively. I hope that any constituents listening to the debate will proceed to the Cleveland police website and look at the recruitment process.
A huge amount can also be done through sensible reform. I have met our new chief constable, and he has talked about things such as greater use of technology, so that officers are not obligated to return to station every time there has been an incident and write it up, but can do so while out on the beat, and flattening the force structure. The chief constable has been talking about removing certain ranks from the force structure, to free up more funding for constables who will be out on the beat. It is the sergeants and constables who so often make a real difference on the ground by extending availability of cover. That is an extremely healthy mindset and something that I hope we will see progress on in the years ahead.
There is an opportunity to restore confidence to communities such as Loftus and Brotton. I am holding a series of meetings in those two villages this Friday with the chief constable and the police and crime commissioner precisely to try to identify how, while recognising the financial realities, we can deliver a better balance of policing between the urban and rural areas of Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to the debate.
I represent a constituency in north Wales, which has a number of urban areas but is also significantly rural, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) said. We have something like 700,000 people in north Wales, spread over 6,000-plus sq km. It is a drive of 82 miles from one end of north Wales to the other, and it would take me 20 miles by 10 miles to cover my constituency. It is a big rural area represented by Members of Parliament in the House today. We have six counties in the North Wales police force area, and we have two languages—Welsh and English—because of the area’s history.
We have an influx of tourists each year, which doubles the population in the key summer months. That brings its own challenges, as my hon. Friend said, such as increased traffic problems, more deaths on roads and an increase in the number of events that need policing. We have individuals who occasionally drink too much on holiday and cause difficulties, and we have increased crime in the summer months. Those challenges are by no means and by no stretch of the imagination the ones facing central London or the inner cities, but they are interesting challenges that need to be addressed by the Government as part of the rural crime debate. We border the two metropolitan areas of Merseyside and Manchester, which have significant crime challenges, such as the promotion of drug and other criminal activity, which are very often transferred to areas of north Wales. We have to be aware of all those issues.
I approach this debate in the light of those challenges for north Wales. We are an area of moderate or reasonably low crime, but I bring to the House the fact that in the past 12 to 15 months crime has significantly increased. I listened with some interest to Members who have seen crime fall in their area. We must remember that this is against a backdrop of having 20,000 fewer officers across the whole of the United Kingdom since I had the honour of being the police Minister in the Home Office. There has been a 6% drop in police numbers—100 fewer officers—in my North Wales police force area, but over the past 18 months there has been a 13% increase in recorded crime in north Wales. The number of murders is at a seven-year high. Shop theft has risen, and it is estimated that its cost is over £128,000 a year in my constituency. Theft from buildings and properties has risen by 37% in the past year and violent crime is up by 21%, with domestic burglary up by 38% across the board.
I accept that this brings many challenges, and I know for a fact that North Wales police officers are doing a sterling job—they are concerned to drive crime down, and they want to do more—but the chief constable himself has said that we face a £2.1 million cut next year because of reduced funding from central Government. It is all very well to talk, as we did earlier, about taxpayers’ money, but central Government money comes from everybody, with the richest and the poorest in our society paying it through direct taxation, while the rises for local rate payers, who are now the source of funding needed to maintain the police service—we have had a significant 5% rise in north Wales—come from everybody, rich and poor, in north Wales entirely on the basis of their property, even though a council tax increase raises less in our area than it would, for example, here in Westminster. There is a funding issue, and it has been well rehearsed.
I support the proposal made from the Front Bench by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) to increase police force numbers by about 10,000. That will not get us back to where we were when I did the job, but it would still be a significant increase and it would help to support the thin blue line in north Wales. There are now 1,300 police officers in north Wales, but we must remember that, although they are at work for eight hours in any one day, they are asleep for eight hours and they are off for eight hours, while some are off sick and some are on holiday so, recognising that as a whole, it is an extremely thin blue line.
Crime in urban areas is very important, and antisocial behaviour and a range of other issues do affect my constituency, but there are specific issues of rural crime, which this debate is about, and I want to draw the Minister’s attention to one in particular. I congratulate him on his elevation to the Front Bench, where I know he will do a good job. He represents a north-west constituency that has rural areas, and he comes to my constituency on occasion, so he will know it is a rural one. He has it within his gift today to take action, in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in support of the North Wales police rural unit in tackling sheep attacks and sheep worrying.
The Minister needs to know that in north Wales, and I pay tribute to North Wales police for this, we have a specific unit to deal with rural crime. It deals not just with attacks on sheep, but with attacks on birds, badger baiting and the enforcement of the fox hunting and hare coursing legislation, as well as fly-tipping and the rural issues of metal theft, tractor theft and all such crimes. Its officers do so in a specific and targeted way, dealing with the impact of those crimes, but also working to prevent them by visiting agricultural shows, talking to farmers and coming to farmers markets. They provide information to support the prevention of crime, which is a great use of policing time, rather than just dealing with the criminal activity itself.
The head of the unit, Rob Taylor, and its officers have brought to my attention the vital issue of sheep worrying. I want to put it on the Minister’s agenda because he can make a difference today by saying that he will act on it. Sheep worrying in my north Wales constituency has resulted in 648 dead animals in the past year. Farmers have shot 52 dogs because they were sheep worrying. There have been 449 livestock attacks. Damage to sheep and livestock has cost farmers thousands of pounds. Farmers in Lixwm in my constituency have experienced two attacks in 48 hours.
Why do I say that the Minister can take action? There are some clear things he can do, so let me put them on the record. I know those figures because North Wales police have kept a record of those attacks. At present, attacks on livestock in general—not just sheep—are not a recordable offence across the United Kingdom. The Home Office could make that a recordable offence so that we know how many attacks have taken place and where, and the extent of the problem.
The Government also need to address the fact that the police have no powers to seize dogs that undertake attacks. The fine for irresponsible dog owners whose dogs attack sheep is £1,000, but that does not even cover the cost of dead sheep following attacks on some of my constituents’ farms, and no compensation is paid to people who lose sheep as a result of criminal activity. It is very difficult to get sheep insurance if there has already been an attack. Finally, no disqualification order is applied to the owner of a dog that attacks sheep and kills perhaps 10 or 15 of them, as has happened on some of the farms in my constituency.
It is in the gift of the Minister to address those issues. He could make it a recordable offence, increase the fine, give the police powers to seize dogs legally, and give disqualification orders to dog owners whose dogs misbehave in a way that causes carnage, increased costs and damage.
The all-party parliamentary group on animal welfare, ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), has produced an excellent report on those issues which has been submitted to DEFRA. The Minister could indicate today that he will look at the issues. Although that would not increase police numbers or necessarily reduce crime in my urban areas, which is still a severe issue, or prevent murders linked to county line issues and other drug offences, it could help, in a small way, to support the efforts of the North Wales police rural unit to tackle sheep worrying and sheep crime. Many people think it is a frivolous crime, but it comes at a cost.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I was about to finish, but I will certainly give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and I am sorry for interrupting just as he was finishing. Does he think it might be helpful to reintroduce a form of licensing or registration for dogs so that we know where they are and who owns them?
There are a range of issues and that could certainly be looked at. In the immediate term, however, although my force records the crimes, we do not know how many animal attacks there are against livestock in Essex, for example, because the police are not required to record them. Recording them would be a start, and increasing the fine and allowing the police to disqualify dog owners are other major proposals. Important though I think other issues are, none of those proposals would be a major expenditure item for the police or for DEFRA. I hope they would act as a deterrent and help tackle this particular crime, which has caused mayhem in my constituency. They have the support of North Wales police. If I can have extra police, I will take them, and if we can deal with urban crime, I will take that, but the Minister has it in his gift to address those issues and I hope he will seriously consider doing so today.
Order. If everyone takes around seven minutes, everyone who wishes to speak will have an opportunity to do so. If they do not, I will have to impose a time limit. Let us try to be co-operational.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I might even try to take less time, in the spirit of charity.
As attested to not least by the number of Lincolnshire MPs in the Chamber today, the Lincolnshire police force is a remarkable force. Lincolnshire is a vast rural county—the second biggest in the country, after Yorkshire—yet, although the average level of funding per head in the UK is £104.50, it gets by on £77.90 per head. That is a huge difference. I say gently to the Opposition that it is surprising that their contention is that it costs more to police a rural area than a metropolitan area in some ways. Lincolnshire does not want to take money away from metropolitan areas, but I think we all realise that a fairer share of the cake is important. In that context, though, I think we all also realise that the Metropolitan police’s work on counter-terrorism has a nationwide benefit and that rural police forces benefit from the integrated way in which modern police forces work.
Let me say two things on that matter. First, Lincolnshire is not only rural but sparse, and the sparse nature of the population creates real problems in terms of the police responding to events of the kind that have been described. Secondly, the Metropolitan police’s reach, which my hon. Friend describes, does not mean that Lincolnshire police do not have to be alive to those kind of threats and trained to prepare for them, which is costly, too.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for summarising the rest of my speech. He is absolutely right that, although we of course benefit from money that goes to the Metropolitan police and to other police forces, in a county that is a vast place in terms of travelling time as much as distance, the nature of policing is fundamentally different.
We have talked about hare coursing at some length and I do not wish to add much to the excellent contributions we have heard, but let me say two things. First, this is absolutely about the sense of safety that people feel in their own homes and properties. It is a profoundly serious crime that has never had the attention that it deserves in terms of sentencing in the courts. Its victims have struggled to articulate quite how damaging and limiting for their lives it has been not to feel safe in their own homes, knowing how distant they are from anyone else. If nothing else, this debate has been an important contribution on that issue.
Secondly, when I have raised hare coursing in this House and elsewhere, one of my frustrations has been that even people in urban areas in my constituency often accuse those who seek to better fund action on rural crime and hare coursing of not focusing on what they would say are more important urban crimes. We have a job of work to do to explain the damage done by rural crime and hare coursing in particular, not only to our colleagues in the House but even to those who live in market towns just a few miles from where it happens. I absolutely commend the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) and the all-party group on rural crime, particularly on hare coursing, but there is plenty more to do on that front.
Next, I wish to talk about the roads, and particularly the cost to Lincolnshire police of the investigation of accidents and collisions. According to Lincolnshire police, on average, it costs £2 million overall to investigate a collision and £1.84 million per casualty. It is of course a tragedy when anyone dies on our roads, but it is also a huge amount of money for our public services, so we are right to consider what we can do to get the incidence of road fatalities down, not solely for the sake of the families of those in our constituencies but for all taxpayers.
Thankfully, Lincolnshire has seen a significant reduction in the number of road deaths and collisions compared with 10 or 15 years ago, but there is still a huge amount of work to do. We have to bear in mind that the work of special constables in particular has been a very practical way for Lincolnshire to deal with the number of crimes and the number of road safety partnership schemes has increased. That should be commended and it is just one example of Lincolnshire police being creative with that £77.90 per head of population, which, as I said earlier, is some £25 per head below the average for the country.
The police force has worked with the private sector. Lincolnshire colleagues will no doubt be familiar with the imperfection of G4S, shall we say, when it comes to its relationship with the police force, but I would argue that ultimately it has done far more good than harm in terms of value for the taxpayer. When it works, it works very well, so I commend it.
I also commend the use of WhatsApp groups to deal with hare coursing, the use of drones and a whole host of schemes. I commend the work of the police with North Sea Camp prison on fly-tipping, allowing inmates to return, to some extent, to the world of work through the genuine public service of helping to deal with fly-tipping, which in our vast rural county is a real struggle and hard to deal with. It is also the right thing to do for the future life chances of criminals in a category D, so-called open, prison, where it is important they adjust to the future world of work.
I will talk briefly about the issues that have come to the urban areas of my constituency, thanks to the many benefits of being a rural area. Large numbers of people have come to Boston in particular thanks to our agricultural economy and the availability of work. That has, however, caused some social tensions and a number of issues around translation for the police, which cost a great deal of money. Dealing with new communities within a rural constituency often falls to the police. Lincolnshire police do a remarkable job in very challenging circumstances. I commend the work of Marc Jones, the police and crime commissioner, and Bill Skelly.
More than anything, what we have seen from all my Lincolnshire colleagues—and from the Minister on the Front Bench—is an argument that a fairer share of the funding cake is only right for rural constituencies. I hope that the next time we debate the police funding formula, those on the Labour Benches will acknowledge that it would be in all our interests to slice that funding cake, however big it is, more fairly than it is at the moment.
I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), my constituency neighbour, on his promotion to the Front Bench. I promise to try to be a little more deferential—I can’t commit to it—on the platform of Macclesfield station as we travel down together.
As the Minister will know, rural crime is the same as crime in any other area. In my very rural constituency, we have burglaries, shop thefts, car thefts, domestic abuse, antisocial behaviour, and, most recently, a serious increase in violent crime with the coming of county lines criminals to our isolated towns. The difference between rural crime and urban crime is that there is more isolation: there is more isolation among communities. There are fewer police and they are more isolated, too.
I recently met shop owners in New Mills, a small town in my constituency, who see gangs of youths committing antisocial behaviour, trying to rob stores and present fake money. Those shopkeepers are often solitary, working on their own in their shops. They tell me that they are frightened by the lack of police presence on their streets. In Chapel-en-le-Frith, the capital of the Peak, a beautiful little village nestled in the valleys just down the road from where I live, there are people posting on social media that they are too scared to set foot outside their doors because they are worried about the criminals patrolling the area looking for burglary opportunities. In Derbyshire, we have lost more than 400 police officers in the last seven years, as well as two police stations, one in New Mills and one in Chapel-en-le-Frith, and while the Minister can question the impact of those losses, people in those communities certainly feel less safe.
We have had an increase in our precept of £1 a month for every resident across Derbyshire, which will allow us another 25 officers, but that will in no way make up for the more than 400 we have lost. High Peak is an area of over 200 square miles and 91,000 people. We used to have more than 100 police officers across our four police stations; now there is just half that number. We have seen not only a 26% cut in police funding but huge extra demands on our police forces, particularly from specialist crime, cyber-crime, sexual exploitation, domestic abuse and modern slavery.
Now we have just 50 police officers across two police stations. I pay enormous tribute to Inspector Phil Booth of High Peak police and his team, who work incredibly hard over a wide area—and singlehandedly now that there are not enough of them to cover the whole area with two officers at a time. At most, we have 10 officers patrolling at once, even at the busiest times—the thin blue line is very thin! I saw this when I spent a 12-hour shift with them on a Friday night, driving huge distances, searching for missing persons, dealing with antisocial behaviour, domestic incidents and violence.
Officers often have to attend dangerous incidents singlehanded. Last month, one of our officers responded to a burglar alarm at a warehouse—a fairly common incident. He went out on his own in a police car as usual, but when he got there, three cars sped out of the warehouse straight at him and rammed his police car, deliberately injuring him. Fortunately, after that, they left, but we are seeing increased violence by offenders, because they know our police are on their own.
When I was sitting in the police station with the police officers, a young constable told me that she often had to attend on her own incidents where gangs of youths taunted her and claimed she had no back-up on the way. She has to claim she has support around the corner while knowing from her radio that she does not, that her colleagues might be miles away and that she has to hold the line on her own, and it is scary. Our police officers should not be put in those situations. It happens more in rural areas because the police are so isolated and covering such a wide area. There is a limit to what individual officers can put up with, and unfortunately more are leaving the service from stress and strain. They should not be in danger because of cuts.
On top of all this, we have recently seen county lines criminals come to our quiet area of Derbyshire, bringing violence, cuckooing, the kidnapping of vulnerable people, hard drugs and serious weapons. They come out from Manchester, take over a house in Buxton, Chapel or New Mills and hold inhabitants captive while they supply hard drugs in the area. When our police receive intelligence that a drug supplier is present, they have to request an armed response unit from Ripley, which is over an hour away. If they do not get that intelligence and have to raid the property themselves, they can be faced with knives, guns and—in the latest incident—machetes. They are putting their own safety on the line for us.
Rural crime might be similar to that in urban areas, but rural areas have fewer resources to deal with it. We could have a debate about the reason for that, as the Minister tried to do earlier, but I would rather make some practical suggestions, and I hope that Ministers will take heed. Our local court was closed two years ago, so now offenders have to be transported over an hour away to Manchester or Chesterfield, which ties up police time and resources.
Order. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady, and we look forward to the elucidation of her arguments, but I was a tad nervous when she talked about the subjects she wanted to go on to discuss, because a number of other Members also wish to contribute, and we must get on to the winding-up speeches as well. I am sure she will treat of these matters in a legendary fashion but also very succinctly.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Absolutely.
I am sure that the Home Office will be asking Justice Ministers to look into the impact of the next round of court closures on police and Home Office resources.
It takes six months for people in my area to receive drugs treatment. That means not only that those people are suffering, but that the criminals who come out for county lines have a ready-made market. Although hardened drug users are apparently begging for treatment, they cannot get it for six months, and that needs to be looked at.
Finally, our police tell me that they have a serious problem with forensic testing. It takes six months for an illegal substance to be tested. The police can hold suspects on pre-charge bail for a maximum of three months, so they have to let them go and cannot place conditions on them. Those people are then free to intimidate victims and witnesses, thus endangering their trials and the ability to commit them for sentencing.
I look forward to the Minister’s addressing those issues. We all want our police to have the support they need in every area, so that they can do their job of protecting us all.
Well! That was extremely succinct. I thank the hon. Lady.
Saffron Walden is the largest and most rural constituency in Essex, with almost 400 square miles of beautiful countryside. However, its size means that my constituents face challenges in accessing public services, and in that regard the vast majority of the correspondence that I receive relates to tackling rural crime. Rural crime needs special attention, because it is markedly different from other offences. In some respects our area needs more, not less, policing than other areas. That is because crimes are often committed by certain groups in isolated areas where police response times are inevitably slower.
The Conservatives are the party of law and order, and the Government have done some very positive things, which I acknowledge. In April the Minister for Housing, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), announced a review of the powers to deal with unauthorised caravan sites. Similarly, after lobbying efforts by me and a number of colleagues—including my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling), who is present—the Essex police precept was increased. The increase will deliver 150 more officers.
I supported that measure wholeheartedly, but it was a short-term solution, and local people cannot always be asked to pay more. Taxpayers are already burdened with the cost of clearing up rural crime—for instance, in the village of Great Canfield, where my constituent Allison Ward wrote to me about fly-tipping, explaining that it had blocked roads and that it could take two or three days for the rubbish to be removed. I have regularly been in contact with farmers who have been threatened, businesses that have been stolen from, shop owners in the market towns who have been burgled, and the many constituents whose lives are blighted by illegal Traveller sites. My constituents Kate Mitchell and Jenny Askew wrote to let me know that, even as we speak, an illegal site is disrupting pupils in the middle of their important exams at Helena Romanes School.
I am speaking today on behalf of all those people, and asking the Government for a fresh look at rural crime with more innovative solutions. For instance, Uttlesford community safety partnership has brilliant outreach schemes. By building networks among farmers, it has enabled them to message one another when an incident requires a rapid response. The partnership is currently lobbying for automatic number plate recognition cameras along an Ml1 link road, the B1383, which would help to trigger alerts when suspected hare coursers enter the area. We would be pleased if that received Government support.
I spent my Easter recess gaining work experience with local police. It was an opportunity for me to engage with what they are seeing on the frontline. I was able to look more closely at how cases are handled on the Athena system and how the police work with Uttlesford Council, and to take part in local and community policing ride-alongs. One day we even had an urgent 999 call—about a naked man running around Saffron Walden. I am only half glad that we did not catch him, as he would have had to sit in the back of the patrol car with me!
What I learned from being with the police is that they feel they spend too much time driving across the area and not enough time policing. They also have concerns that population does not account for as wide an area as Braintree and Uttlesford, so we need more officers because the per capita statistics are not reflective when need is assessed. That is why constituents such as David Kerr wrote to me, quite rightly, to say that police presence is lacking and that is why some criminals feel they can act with impunity.
When I was out on a patrol with PCSO James Graham, whom I pay tribute to for his tireless community engagement, we met farmers who had been affected by hare coursing. Their families had previously been threatened by the coursers. As law-abiding citizens, they have liberty to lose, but those who challenge them on their own land do not. My constituent Tony Rea has often written to me about ways in which the Irish model, where trespass is a criminal and not a civil offence, can be used to stop Travellers trespassing on private land.
What was striking is that due to the major roads and airport infrastructure in the constituency, we suffer from high rates of transient crime, as hare coursers come from outside the county. I have also been told of the bizarre instance of criminals from as far away as Chile coming in via Stansted airport and fleeing before their crimes could be properly investigated.
On my last day with the police, I took part in a multi-agency operation on the Felsted Traveller site to find some wanted individuals. I helped the police patrol the perimeter to ensure that suspects did not successfully flee, and joined the dog unit to microchip the Travellers’ dogs. Shockingly, we uncovered a cannabis factory. This illegal activity on a sanctioned site only fuels drug use in the area and Travellers’ own gambling habits for hare coursing. Despite this, I also heard stories of remarkable bravery, notably where Sergeant Geoff Edwards—only just returning to full duty—challenged seven hare coursers on his own.
I pay tribute to Essex Police and in particular Chief Constable Stephen Kavanagh, who recently announced his retirement. The police need more support from us in this House. We can help them by looking again at a strategic view of how best to fight rural crime and introducing innovations as they protect our constituents. I would be most grateful if the Minister shared with the House in this debate, or in the near future, any new proposals or innovations the Government have in this area.
By participating in this very necessary debate today I wish to put on record my willingness to speak up for the rural communities and farm businesses that this Government have neglected.
I went to Moor farm in my constituency to meet a number of farmers and members of the National Farmers Union. Farmers in my constituency have said that they are unable to sleep peacefully and are having to constantly dig trenches, replace locks and build gates and barriers to barricade themselves in their own farms. Gangs of hare coursers have threatened their families with violence and intimidation; hare coursing itself has become an almost daily and expected occurrence and damages crops, property and the welfare of livestock.
I ask Members to imagine if the context of a criminal episode was changed and it was shown to be one of us smashing through garden fences, driving across flowerbeds, shouting and gesticulating and gesturing abuse, intimidating and threatening witnesses and even actually assaulting someone. Would we be permitted to continue in that way unimpeded time after time? I think not; we all know the answer would be no.
Those who live, work and enjoy the countryside should feel safe, but these crimes result in deep anxiety. These communities are suffering from a chronic lack of investment in public services. Last year, there were 184 incidents of hare coursing in Peterborough and rural theft cost Cambridgeshire £1,732,174. Organised crime gangs steal diesel and tractors and relentlessly target quad bikes. The theft of high-value machinery that cannot be replaced swiftly puts timely agricultural operations at risk.
My constabulary works tirelessly to prevent the intimidation of landowners, walkers and people trying to enjoy the countryside, but cuts have affected the ability of rural forces to provide time-honoured community policing. Fly-tipping and illegal waste dumping are costing farmers tens of thousands of pounds to clear up. What impact does the Minister believe these unprecedented cuts to local authorities are having on the levels of rural fly-tipping? I would be interested to know whether he recognises the connection between his Government’s relentless austerity agenda and the increases in fly-tipping and littering in our countryside. As a result of these cuts to our councils, the cost of clearing fly-tips is increasingly being borne by landowners and farmers.
The situation is totally out of control, and on the rare occasions when criminals are apprehended, it is felt that their acts of criminality are not being dealt with appropriately. When I speak to farmers, they advise me that even when the police are called, they are unable to respond in a timely fashion. Also, as we have heard today, the police can be intimidated by these criminals. They often have to attend a reported crime by themselves without any support, and that has to be looked into. It is inappropriate for them to be alone without support. They need better support, and the victims of crime should not have to pay. Farms are having to become fortresses, as farmers feel as though they are under siege. There has been a blatant failure to address the real issues, and the situation has now reached breaking point. I ask the Minister to look seriously at what can be done to address the issue of rural crime, in order to make those whom we serve feel safe.
I would like to start by commending my police and crime commissioner, Peter McCall, and the Cumbria constabulary, which has recently been graded as “good” by Her Majesty’s inspectorate. My very rural constituency covers an area of around 500 square miles and has a population of 80,000 people. This brings two challenges. The huge geographical area of Cumbria, with the Lake District mountain range in the middle, means that it takes far longer than one might expect to travel the length and breadth of the county. It also means that we are less able than more densely populated rural areas to generate funds by increasing the precept.
My hon. Friend describes her rural area, and of course, west Oxfordshire is also rural. We too are afflicted by the horrors of hare coursing, as well as by rural thefts and, more recently, by some well-publicised violent ATM thefts. It occurs to me that, although this is rural crime, it may be committed by people who are coming from elsewhere and that there could therefore be an element of urban crime exporting itself to rural areas. Does she agree that we need not only to encourage police forces to work together, which they will do, but to consider these issues holistically?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. In that context, I also want to commend the Cumbria constabulary for its work on bringing together the Copeland hub, which is a first in the county. It is a multi-agency hub that brings together neighbourhood policing, the council and housing.
The election of police and crime commissioners has given communities, including those in rural areas, a strong voice in determining how police resources should be allocated in order to tackle the crimes that matter most to our communities. However, this is dependent on having a strong economy and a large population to contribute towards the precept. It is true that people living and working in rural areas are less likely to become victims of crime than those in urban areas, but let us not discount the fact that rural crime is estimated to have cost the UK economy more than £39 million since 2016.
The crime and community safety strategic assessment for Cumbria published in November 2017 reports that more than half the residents in Cumbria live rurally. That compares with about 18% across England and Wales. Offences typically include the theft of livestock, quad bikes, machinery and small and mid-sized tractors, as well as older tractors, which are now being stolen to feed the market for spares. Fly-tipping and illegal waste dumping cost landowners tens of thousands of pounds to clear up, and this is becoming an increasing problem for local authorities and the police, as well as for our communities, who take so much pride in where they live.
Cumbria’s economy depends on tourism, which is worth around £2.5 billion. Having secured UNESCO world heritage status for our cultural heritage and stunning scenery, it is surely more important than ever to clamp down on illegal fly-tipping, to safeguard the environment and, of course, to protect farmers and landowners—the very people who created our globally celebrated landscape. Without farmers, we would have nothing. I visit a farm in my constituency each month, and I am increasingly aware of their contribution to our countryside and economy.
I commend Alan Anderson, a Cumbrian shepherd who works closely with the community and police, for raising awareness of sheep rustling, resulting in an overall reduction of 22% in that particular rural crime. I also commend the CLA action plan for combating hare coursing. Despite being illegal, hare coursing is increasing, fuelled by black market gambling. Introducing specific sentencing, ensuring adequate resources for the National Wildlife Crime Unit—I welcome the £301,000 of funding—and allowing police to reclaim the costs of kennelling dogs from offenders will all help. The confiscating of dogs has already resulted in a reduction of lamping in my area, which is of course welcome, but these horrific crimes still go on. Criminals come out at night, trespassing on landowners’ fields, scanning the area with high-powered lamps, allowing their lurchers to outrun the deer and drag them down by the throat. They often return some days later to collect the fatally wounded animal, alleging that they found it. Such people are the thugs of the countryside.
NFU Mutual’s claims data reports that the annual cost of rural crime to Cumbria is around £614,000. That is a decrease of 16.5% compared with the previous year, which is good news, but I urge the Government, and the Home Office in particular, not to be blindsided by this seemingly encouraging statistic. Apathy is all too common in our communities, with too many people failing to report crime or lacking faith in the criminal justice system. The financial cost to Cumbria is less than in many other counties, but the impact on Copeland’s rural communities is significant.
Only last weekend, my uncle was the victim of a rural crime, part of a spate of many vehicles being broken into through the night. The thieves got away with a Hilti hammer drill, a battery drill, a Makita planer and a Makita circular saw. That was not just a theft; it will affect his livelihood as a joiner. While the cost of those tools may run into the thousands of pounds, the impact on his business and livelihood and the subsequent delays to the projects he is working on is considerable. Highly skilled, hard-working, honest people in my community are being blighted by the crimes of low-lifes, which must not go un-investigated and unprosecuted. The perpetrators of these rural crimes must be brought to justice.
I would like to draw to the attention of the House how perpetrators are going about committing such crimes. It is appalling that skeleton keys used to break into transit vans easily can still be purchased online even after a national newspaper slammed an online marketplace for selling them. I fail to see how insurers can adequately protect owners while such keys are so readily available, and I urge Government to act.
In conclusion, I am pleased that crime is on the decrease and that an extra £460 million will be invested through the police and crime commissioners’ precept. The contribution of rural businesses, farmers and tourism plays an enormous role in our economy, and I hope that we ensure that they are protected.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) in this important debate. As a district councillor and long-time resident of Tendring, I know that rural crime is all too common in the Tendring District Council area. To demonstrate that point further, only today I received a telephone call and an email from a couple of local residents who have both recently been the victims of rural crime. In the first incident, a constituent contacted me to report fly-tipping. I hear similar concerns on a weekly basis in my area, and fly-tipping is the most significant rural crime we face locally. It is estimated that my local authority spent over £74,000 last year alone on tackling this issue, which is £74,000 that should have been spent on improving public services for local taxpayers. That is an outrage: taxes should not have to be spent in this way.
Moreover, if the council is spending £74,000, unfortunate private landowners are probably spending much more. I say probably because we have no way of telling how much it costs them to clear up the mess. I am told by my local Essex police district commander, the excellent Paul Wells, that, on the whole, private landowners just get on with it and clear up the mess, so the actual cost to them and to the public is far higher than the headline figures suggest.
We must also consider the potential health risks of fly-tipping, because some people—some builders, et cetera—will just dump stuff that may contain hazardous waste, such as asbestos and the like. Consequently, we must continue to tackle this issue very strongly, and I agree with the Country Land and Business Association that greater penalties are needed. We need to punish offenders, and we need to make sure we use all opportunities for enforcement. Unfortunately, it appears that is not currently happening.
According to figures from the CLA, there were 1,132 incidents of fly-tipping in Tendring in 2016-17, yet no fines were given out, no vehicles were seized and nobody was prosecuted. To put it another way, 1,170 incidents were investigated, at a cost of £38,000 to the public purse, nobody was punished, and no costs were recouped.
Moving away from fly-tipping, an equally important local crime in our rural areas is dog theft, which has not been mentioned this afternoon. I am regularly contacted about this issue. I have previously raised the concerns of local residents in a Westminster Hall debate on the sale of puppies, and I would be grateful for more information from the Minister on what the Government plan to do about that issue.
According to Missing Pets Bureau, as many as 38% of all animals reported lost have been stolen, and as many as 60% of stolen dogs are tragically never recovered. I agree with the 93,557 individuals, and counting, who have signed a petition calling for the theft of a pet to be reclassified as a specific crime in its own right.
Rural crime in Tendring is not all doom and gloom. Our police are doing great work locally, and I thank our long-time rural and heritage crime officer Andy Long and all his Essex police colleagues for their hard work. Thanks to their efforts, the cost of rural crime has fallen by £10 million since 2010, meaning that the true cost of rural crime is now around £39.2 million—that is £39.2 million too much—which shows how effective our local police forces can be and demonstrates that things are moving in the right direction.
That brings me to my final point, because this debate, however focused on rural communities, comes back to a common word used in many debates in this House: enforcement. From knife crime to rural crime, we need bobbies on the beat to act, which is why I am delighted that the campaign I launched last year with fellow Essex MPs, as mentioned earlier, to get more flexibility in the police precept was successful.
Police and crime commissioners are now able to raise precept contributions by up to £1 a month. Together, this will mean force budgets can increase by up to £450 million nationally this year. There will be a welcome boost of £8.8 million across Essex to pay for around 150 new officers. These men and women, while enjoying the rural beauty of our fantastic sunshine coast of Clacton, will find their work cut out for them, yet I am pleased they will have the Government’s support.
I am also pleased that we have 150 extra officers in Essex, because I have just been informed on my mobile device that the police are currently out in my area looking for an escaped ostrich.
It is always useful to have a bit of additional information. We are deeply obliged to the hon. Gentleman.
Follow that, as they say. We have had a wide-ranging, comprehensive debate, and I wish to thank all colleagues, from both sides of the House, for taking part and bringing their helpful contributions to the Floor. I also wish to thank the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) for mentioning the all-party group on rural crime, as it is useful for colleagues to know what else is happening in the House that they can take part in when they have an interest in a particular subject. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) for raising the important issue of speeding on rural roads. Any of us in a rural community knows that it is a serious issue, particularly in some of our villages. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) drew a vivid picture of the challenges faced by the police in her constituency.
What we have heard today can leave us in no doubt that the Tory Government have simply neglected Britain’s rural communities and have taken so many of our rural constituencies for granted. I represent the Cumbrian seat of Workington, and I join the hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) in supporting the important work that our constabulary and PCC do. I thank her for raising that. The constituency I live in covers a huge rural area of the northern Lake district, including the national park, which is now a world heritage site, and the Solway Plain area of outstanding natural beauty. So I am acutely aware of the issues facing people in our small towns, villages and hamlets—I am one of those people.
Anyone with a rural constituency, and anyone who lives in one, knows just how difficult the delivery of high-quality public services is in our communities and how much more expensive they are to deliver. Our local authorities are under intense funding pressures. My local authority, Cumbria County Council, is set to have to make a colossal £33 million in savings over the next 12 months, because of the widespread uncertainty it is facing over its funding for the future. That is £33 million of cuts to vital public services that the authority is being forced into, and we know that that is because funding from central Government has been slashed. Expecting a county such as Cumbria to get its funding from business rates is simply not realistic, as we do not have the necessary level of business or population. It is really important that rural communities have proper funding and that the Government understand that not all formulas work for all areas.
The people set to suffer the most from the cuts to local services are our young people, our elderly, adults who are more vulnerable—those with disabilities—and the people who live in our most rural areas. That is because of the extra cost of delivering to those communities. Unfortunately, it seems that things are set to get even more difficult in Cumbria, as the council also has to find a way to save £70 million by 2022, and that is in addition to the £214 million it has reduced spending by since 2011.
In February, the Government announced an extra £150 million for adult social care, with about £1.5 million of that for Cumbria, but that was described by the council leadership as “crumbs from the table”, and they are absolutely right. As I said, councils need proper funding in place for the requirements they have to deliver and they should not have to rely on ad-hoc tiny handouts from Whitehall to try to keep crucial social services afloat. The County Councils Network estimates that Cumbrian residents will receive £161 of core funding per head this year. As has been mentioned, rural constituents get less money per head. London residents are going to receive £459 per head, which illustrates clearly the problem that we face.
Obviously, the county council has the option to raise council tax. We have heard about precepts being raised and council tax being raised, but what that means is that people who live in rural communities end up paying more per head again and this will continue to build and build. I do not believe that any Minister would consider that this is a fair situation.
I will now turn to the issue of rural crime. It is clear that the Government are failing properly to tackle wildlife crime, rural fly-tipping, sheep worrying and rustling and farm machinery thefts. A recent NFU report, “Combatting Rural Crime”, said that there is, in fact, no proper co-ordinated response from the Government. My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) talked about the really serious issue of sheep worrying. Figures obtained by Farmers Weekly on sheep worrying attacks reveal that the problem is endemic. We know that there is a huge number of attacks on sheep and that, on average, one dog is shot every single week. The investigation suggests that there is significant under-reporting by farmers, so we know that this is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. More dog attacks on sheep were recorded in Cumbria last year than in any other English county, so this is an issue that is acutely felt by many of my own constituents. I urge the Minister to listen to what my right hon. Friend has said and take action on this issue.
We have heard that fly-tipping is on the increase, and an increasing amount is being tipped on farmland and in woodland. Farmers are being left to clean up the mess and cover the costs. For example, a Shropshire farmer had a clean-up bill recently of £18,000. Another in Staffordshire, a bill of £6,000, and we have heard of cases where ambulances cannot get through to farms owing to blocked lanes.
On wildlife crime, the latest bird crime report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds shows that, in 2016, there were no prosecutions at all in the UK for raptor persecution. That was for the first time in more than 30 years, despite the fact that there were 81 recorded instances of persecution. It is simply not good enough. Hen harrier populations are now down by 27%.
There is also concern that the badger cull is fuelling organised badger baiting. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) that badgers are now worth £500 to £700 on the black market. Criminal gangs sell on these badgers for fighting with dogs, an absolutely abhorrent practice that we really need to get on top of and stamp out urgently.
Despite Labour’s 2004 fox hunting ban, we have heard again today about concerns that thousands of animals are being targeted and killed every year by hunts. Campaigners believe trail hunting is being used to cover up the indiscriminate killing of foxes, hares and deer. We have also heard much this afternoon about the problem of hare coursing and the need to clamp down on it. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya) painted a particularly vivid picture of this.
The National Wildlife Crime Unit was set to be shut down by the Government in 2016, but was awarded four years’ worth of funding at the last minute, and I thank them for that. However, can the Minister confirm whether the unit will continue to receive adequate funding after 2020? The removal of this funding would have serious implications for the detection and accountability of those committing wildlife crimes, such as badger baiting and raptor persecution.
A recent wildlife charity study found a “worrying lack” of prosecutions for wildlife crimes. Almost 1,300 incidents were recorded in just one year, but the records show that there were only 22 prosecutions or convictions. Worryingly, the report also says that the charities’ data is believed to be more comprehensive than Home Office crime statistics, but is still likely to be only the “tip of the iceberg”. It calls on the Government to follow Scotland’s lead. I understand that, in Scotland, there are specific police recording codes that the police use for wildlife crime. As one Member mentioned, it needs to become a reportable offence. The problem at the moment is that if something is recorded as miscellaneous, it is very difficult to build a really clear picture of the extent of the problem. If we want to monitor the situation properly to take the correct action, this is an important step that the Government could take. I ask the Minister to commit to that; if he will not commit to it today, perhaps he could commit to look at whether this is something that could feasibly be done.
I am so pleased that this debate is on the Floor of the House because we need to talk about the real issues that affect rural communities on a daily basis. At the last general election the Conservatives offered nothing for rural voters in Britain, concentrating their efforts on reopening the debate on bringing back foxhunting, instead of improving rural transport, halting bank closures, properly funding local schools, stopping the centralisation of beds away from community hospitals that play such an important role in our communities and, as we have discussed today, resolving the problem of rural crime.
The Labour party would put proper investment into Britain’s public services and infrastructure. This has never been more relevant than it is today to the millions of people living in rural communities across the country, who become so isolated when that infrastructure breaks down. In our 2017 election manifesto, Labour pledged to rural-proof all of our policies, alongside proper investment in rural housing, transport, public services and local authorities, so that they are able to deliver services in areas such as mine, where it costs so much more to do so. We also have policies such as widening of the scope of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, reinstating the seasonal agricultural workers scheme and introducing an agricultural wages board in order to boost the rural economy. The rural economy needs boosting through investment in infrastructure, transport and people such as farmers and food producers. By taking those steps, we can support that economy and, through that, support British farming.
A Labour Government will invest in rural communities and deliver prosperity for towns and villages, because they deserve and need it. Everyone who lives, works and enjoys the countryside has the right to feel safe, understood and secure.
The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), opened the debate by talking about the beauty of the Lincolnshire Wolds. Without wanting to sound competitive in any way, I would like to remind colleagues of the wonders of the Cheshire Peak district—right next door to High Peak, of course—and Cheshire’s beautiful plain. I am grateful to Members on both sides of the House for setting out their views on rural crimes and public services, and I thank the Opposition for securing this important debate.
As the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) said, this has been a wide-ranging debate with contributions from across the United Kingdom, including from Scotland through the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), and from Wales with speeches from the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) and the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson). However, I must confess that I do believe that this debate was over-represented by Members from Lincolnshire, although we recognise that that is another great county.
The Government are committed to bringing sustainable growth to the rural economy, and to supporting and strengthening communities. We have talked a lot about crime. To reassure the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George), my DEFRA responsibilities are purely for a short-term period until my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) returns to her place.
Around 12 million people—19% of the UK population—live in rural areas. Despite some of the challenges we have talked about today, statistics show that most people feel that our rural towns and villages are great places in which to live and work. The fundamental features of rural areas—being more geographically dispersed and more sparsely populated than urban areas—are the key attractions of the UK’s rural towns and villages. We recognise, however, that distance, sparsity and demography can affect the delivery of important services. Rural areas are further away from the main economic centres and can suffer from poorer access to services and facilities that are commonplace in urban areas.
That is why the Government have made a commitment to rural-proof all policies. Much of what Government do has an impact on rural areas. We want these policies and programmes to take account of the specific challenges—and opportunities—for rural businesses and communities. To support this, DEFRA published updated rural-proofing guidance in March 2017. My ministerial colleagues, including Lord Gardiner, have represented the rural voice on taskforces on childcare, housing, and digital. The rural voice is being heard more loudly across Government, as it should be.
As I said, much of this debate has focused on rural crime. I would like to acknowledge the excellent work of our police—in particular, the North Yorkshire and Lincolnshire forces and PCCs who lead nationally on rural crime issues. That said, there have been incredible contributions from Members praising the North Wales and Derbyshire forces, for example. I would like to add my voice in paying tribute to the great work that Cheshire police do on these issues as well. DEFRA and the Home Office work closely with the National Police Chiefs Council’s wildlife crime network and the National Rural Crime Network. I recently went on patrol with Cheshire’s rural and wildlife crime team to see their work at first hand in the Macclesfield area.
It is important to recall that, although crime has a regrettable impact on victims wherever they are based, crime rates in rural areas are generally lower than in urban areas. For example, there were 3.9 vehicle offences per 1,000 population in rural areas compared with 8.5 vehicle offences per 1,000 population in urban areas. However, as we have heard, remoteness and isolation can increase the sense of vulnerability in those rural areas. There are types of crime such as hare coursing, fly-tipping and sheep-worrying that are a particular problem for rural communities, as has been well expressed today.
I recently heard from the Macclesfield branch of the NFU in Cheshire about how distressing livestock-worrying is for farmers and animals, and about how serious the financial repercussions can be for local farmers. I thank the NFU for producing its illuminating and constructive report, “Combatting Rural Crime”. That is an important contribution to this debate, as I think we will all agree on both sides of the House. Earlier this year, DEFRA wrote to all police forces and local authorities to explain the powers and initiatives available to help to tackle irresponsible dog ownership, including in relation to attacks on livestock. This is a real concern to the right hon. Member for Delyn, who made some excellent points. I encourage him to write to me, particularly on recording crimes, and I will follow up on them. We will listen to the points that he made—absolutely.
Hare coursing was raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), by my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), and by many other Members. It is another issue raised by the NFU in its excellent report. The Government recognise the problems that hare coursing causes for rural communities—not just around the activity itself but, as we have heard, the associated violence, damage, and sense of intimidation. The Hunting Act 2004 bans all hare coursing in England and Wales. Anyone found guilty of hare coursing under the Act can receive an unlimited fine. My hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) and the hon. Member for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya), among others, raised important points about what can be done further to improve the response to this heinous crime. Again, I ask Members to raise those with me in writing and we can follow them up. Whether it is about recording or other issues, we do need to address this with greater vigour.
The Government recognise the costs that landowners face in dealing with fly-tipping. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) made an important contribution on this, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mrs Badenoch) and the hon. Member for Peterborough. We are committed to tackling this problem. We have given local authorities the power to issue fixed penalty notices for small-scale fly-tipping and strengthened their powers to seize and crush vehicles of suspected fly-tippers. We will set out further measures to tackle all elements of fly-tipping in our strategic approach to waste crime as part of the resource and waste strategy that DEFRA will publish in the autumn.
DEFRA and the Home Office jointly fund the National Wildlife Crime Unit as part of efforts to prevent and detect wildlife crime. We have provided £301,000 of funding per annum for the next two years. That supports the unit’s important work in intelligence gathering and analysis of wildlife crimes, including some of the crimes mentioned earlier, such as hare coursing, rural poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. We heard more about that important work on Second Reading of the Ivory Bill on Monday.
This debate, however, has not just been about rural crime. It has also touched on public services in rural areas, which I will come on to later, because we must not miss those issues. It is vital that we address other points raised in the debate, including antisocial behaviour in some of our smaller communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) talked about antisocial behaviour in Saltburn. I promise faithfully that my family were not responsible for contributing to that when we went body-boarding there during the recess—in the North sea fog, I hasten to add.
County lines challenges were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), the right hon. Member for Delyn and my neighbour, the hon. Member for High Peak. This is a truly worrying and concerning development. The Home Secretary is co-ordinating a response to this scourge by overseeing a county lines working group with other Government Departments and law enforcement agencies to improve the response to drug dealing, the violent crime associated with it and the exploitation of vulnerable people, which includes those in a rural setting.
The hon. Member for Clwyd South and others raised concerns about speeding. It is true that we have some of the safest roads in the world, but we need to do more, and we need to innovate to find ways to reduce speed on these often very difficult roads. We found ways to do that on one of the most notorious roads, the Cat and Fiddle road going from Macclesfield to Buxton, where we significantly reduced traffic accidents as a result. We need to promote more actively the Government’s important THINK! campaign, particularly among younger people.
Much has been said about police funding. That has been dealt with well by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley for the Opposition and by my hon. Friend the Minister. The 2015 spending review protected overall police funding in real terms. We recognise that we need to respond to changing demands on the police. That is why new flexibility has been given to police and crime commissioners so they can raise the income required to tackle specific local challenges. I am pleased that we have increased the overall investment in policing from £11.9 billion in 2015-16 to £13 billion in this financial year.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), who is also from Lincolnshire, reminded us, we should not always be too gloomy about the challenges we face. Of course they are very real, but we need a greater understanding of and ability to respond to new technology. He talked about the use of drones. We need to be innovative in our approach. In Poynton, a village to the north of Macclesfield, we have an excellent emergency services hub where we bring together fire, ambulance and police services. We can get better at taking forward action by looking at innovation.
This is not just about the crime or policing element. We want to ensure that our public services and rural businesses thrive, to support rural communities and those who live in the countryside. We want this experience to be an opportunity, not a challenge, as we may have painted it today. Britain is blessed with beautiful and iconic countryside, which can provide a good quality of life, but we recognise too the challenges of rural life. We will look to support and encourage innovative solutions in the crime arena and also in other areas, such as community hubs in villages to host libraries, surgeries and outreach services.
DEFRA Ministers will continue to champion the interests of rural communities, working with other Departments, including the Home Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on issues such as broadband and mobile reception, to ensure that rural communities can thrive and realise the very real opportunities that lie ahead.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House is concerned that the level of rural crime remains high; notes research by the National Famers’ Union that rural crime cost the UK economy £42.5 million in 2015; recognises that delivering public services across large, sparsely populated geographical areas can be more costly and challenging than in urban areas; agrees with the National Rural Crime Network that it is vital that the voice of the countryside is heard; calls on the Government to ensure that the personal, social and economic costs of crime and anti-social behaviour in rural areas are fully understood and acted upon; and further calls on the Government to ensure that rural communities are not disadvantaged in the delivery or quality of public services.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I seek permission to raise a matter arising from comments made by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) during Prime Minister’s Question Time earlier today. I have advised the hon. Gentleman of my intention to raise a point of order this evening.
During Question Time, the hon. Gentleman stated that Scottish National party Members of the European Parliament had
“voted to back the European Parliament in an attempt…to keep the UK inside the common fisheries policy”.
The records of the European Parliament Committee on Fisheries and of the plenary session show that on both occasions the SNP’s representatives voted against the proposal mentioned. I also have a letter from Ian Hudghton MEP confirming that on both occasions the vote of SNP Members was contrary to the way described by the hon. Gentleman today.
I absolutely accept that the hon. Gentleman acted in good faith, but given that it is now clearly established that his comments were mistaken, I seek your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker, about how the record may be corrected.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Chair has no responsibility for what any Member says in the Chamber. He has taken the opportunity to raise what appears to be a genuine mistake on the part of another legislature, in keeping its records, and I am glad that he has informed the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid), who has unwittingly made a mistake in giving a certain piece of information to the House.
The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) asks me how he might put the record straight. I would say that he has been wise and clever in using the device of a point of order to make sure that those on the Treasury Bench, the Hansard reporters, everyone else in the Chamber and those paying attention to these proceedings are aware that an error has occurred, and he has now taken this opportunity to put the record straight.