David Rutley debates with Home Office

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Wed 6th June 2018 Rural Crime and Public Services 7 interactions (1,926 words)

Rural Crime and Public Services

David Rutley Excerpts
Wednesday 6th June 2018

(2 years, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Home Office
Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins - Hansard
6 Jun 2018, 4:49 p.m.

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—

David Rutley Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Rutley) - Hansard
6 Jun 2018, 4:47 p.m.

Don’t forget Cheshire.

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins - Hansard
6 Jun 2018, 4:47 p.m.

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.

Break in Debate

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Sue Hayman (Workington) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
6 Jun 2018, 6:34 p.m.

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.

David Rutley Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Rutley) - Hansard
6 Jun 2018, 6:47 p.m.

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.

Resolved,

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.

Peter Grant Portrait Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP) - Hansard
6 Jun 2018, 6:59 p.m.

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.