Richard Fuller (North East Bedfordshire) (Con)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I start by welcoming the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) to her place. I know that she has been racing around the country with her departmental responsibilities this week. It is a great pleasure to me that she has made it back, and I anticipate that she will be able to update the House with some progress on this topic, following her discussions with the Secretaries of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office. I also extend a welcome to the shadow spokesperson, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), my fellow MP from the eastern region, who I know has taken a diligent and careful interest in this topic and other rural matters.
What is hare coursing? It is the pursuit of hares by greyhounds or other sight dogs. The dogs compete and are judged as they chase the hare, as it tries to escape to, essentially, save its own life. The dogs are then evaluated when they catch and kill the hare. It involves dogs being bred as competitive animals, and quite substantial amounts of gambling are often involved. Hare coursing is already illegal in the United Kingdom, yet it is a commonplace crime in many areas of the country. That is the reason and purpose of my Bill.
Although hares are not, thankfully, an endangered species in England and Wales, their numbers have declined markedly from being counted in the four or five millions to a level of 800,000 or 600,000 today. I am grateful to the Government that brown hares are listed as a priority in the UK’s biodiversity action plan. There are strong arguments to make further legislative changes to reduce harm and protect our hares on animal welfare grounds, but also on the grounds of providing reassurance to our rural communities that the seriousness of this crime is fully appreciated and laws will be enforced appropriately.
There are lots of options for hon. Members when they are selected in the ballot for private Member’s Bills. My reason for selecting this Bill came, first and foremost, from the experience of meeting many constituents in North East Bedfordshire.
Bedfordshire is a small but mighty county. Notwithstanding its relatively small area, it is hard, if not impossible, for the police to provide the same level of response in rural areas as they can in the town. I have had the great privilege to be the Member of Parliament both for the town of Bedford and now for the much more rural area of North East Bedfordshire. I must admit that when I was Member of Parliament for Bedford I was not too familiar with the extent of hare coursing or the concerns raised about it in the county.
As I spoke to my constituents, I was struck by an analogy. It may not be a fair or appropriate analogy, but I am going to say it anyway, because it has stuck with me. In towns, for families, when they worry about whether the police are there, the main issue is drug dealing—seeing that someone is on the street corner peddling drugs and worrying for their kids about what may happen. They want it stopped and they know the police cannot stop it every time it occurs, but they are never asked to go and intervene to try to stop it. In rural areas, families on farms and in other isolated communities see hare coursing going on. They want it stopped—they do not want to see what comes along with it—but they are scared about intervening because they are scared of what may come along later. I worry that the legislative framework too often focuses on an expectation that the police will be there to help someone in the first example—drug dealing, where we would never anticipate anyone intervening—and yet is a little bit too casual in the second example, with the expectation, certainly as the legislation sits now, that the issue will somehow sort itself out locally and the police and courts do not need to get involved.
This Bill seeks to level the playing field between the two issues. Families feel isolated and intimidated, and often, sadly, there is no effective police presence available there in the moment.
After I had selected this Bill, in October there was graphic representation in my constituency of the harm caused by hare coursing, arranged around a funeral. A hundred or so people involved themselves in some form of tribute to the deceased person through a mass hare coursing event, trampling through private land, killing hares and then grotesquely parading through the town of Bedford, holding up dead hares on the fronts of their vehicles and honking their horns as they drove through the town. Bedfordshire is not the only county that suffers from this. As I know the Minister understands, this issue covers wide stretches of the country. It is time for a change.
In brief—I will return to this if time allows, Madam Deputy Speaker—my Bill seeks to recognise that hare coursing involves acts of animal cruelty to both hares and dogs, criminal damage to crops and other items, intimidation and sometimes violence from those involved in hare coursing, and stress for families living in isolated communities, with severe effects on mental health and wellbeing. I am advised that it is increasingly connected to organised crime, drug dealing and online gambling. The problem the Bill seeks to address is that a police response in rural areas can, understandably, take time or may not be possible as the crime is being committed, but the law is inadequate at present to empower the police to bring forward charges, even when the evidence is compelling.
The penalties are laughably low, certainly in comparison with the financial gains that can be made and the suffering involved. The Minister may confirm this, but I think the fines are usually in the range of £200 to £800. Often, when people are caught, £10,000 or £20,000 is found in their vehicle, so those fines are clearly not appropriate.
In brief, my Bill will broaden police powers to include a new offence of going equipped for hare coursing, introduce a power for the police to seize dogs used in hare coursing, require offenders to pay the kennelling costs, increase the level of fines for successful prosecution and, for the first time, introduce a penalty of imprisonment for hare coursing.
Despite my best efforts to ask the Clerk to include a closed season in the Bill, I was advised that that was out of scope. Therefore, I will be limited on what I say about the issue, other than to mention that if hon. Members cast their eye down the order paper they will see the Hares (Closed Season) Bill. That could, depending on what the Minister may say today, permit us some leeway to bring the issue back on another day.
My efforts have come about because of my election as Member of Parliament for North East Bedfordshire and because of my opportunity to introduce a private Member’s Bill, but as the Minister and shadow Minister know, efforts to achieve these changes have been going on for a long period. It is entirely appropriate that I should mention those involved, most importantly the hare coursing coalition. Its wide base of support indicates the level of feeling among rural communities on this issue. It involves the National Farmers Union, the Countryside Alliance, the Country Land and Business Association, the Tenant Farmers Association, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Kennel Club and the National Rural Crime Network. All of these organisations, with their disparate interests but shared concern for our natural habitats and rural communities, are speaking with one voice and asking the Government for change.
It is also the case that a Member of Parliament does not stand alone on this issue. First and foremost, I thank my fellow Bedfordshire MP, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). Not only does he have a deep understanding of policing issues, from his time as a Minister and as the senior Member in Bedfordshire, but he has been a resolute supporter of the victims of crime. I am very grateful to him for his advice and counsel as I have prepared this Bill. His focus has been very much to say that this crime should not be seen as a rare event and that for some people in some areas it is an everyday potential occurrence, having a devastating effect on families and isolated communities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) led the last Westminster Hall debate on this issue in December 2020. I spoke to him and he impressed on me that the current levels of fine are derisory and essentially can be laughed away by anyone involved in this criminal activity. He hopes we will be able to achieve some change on that.
I have a hunch that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will be raised in the Minister’s speech. My recently knighted—I do not know whether the right term is “ennobled”—colleague my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill) moved amendments to the Bill which were withdrawn. Subsequently, and perhaps drawing on an even higher authority than a knight of the realm, the right reverend prelate the Lord Bishop of St Albans—interestingly, the head of my own bishopric covering Bedfordshire—mirrored those efforts in the House of Lords. It is entirely appropriate and right that I should pay tribute to both of them for their efforts.
The police have been taking strong action to reassure rural communities, particularly in the last five years. Operation Galileo has been the front organisation for this, co-ordinating police activity across a number of police authorities under the inspiring leadership of Chief Inspector Phil Vickers of Lincolnshire Police. This co-ordinated approach has enabled the police to share crucial information to identify where hare coursing is moving from one county to another, so the police force in Bedfordshire can respond to activities that have occurred in Cambridgeshire, for instance. It has enabled co-ordination around particular days—co-ordinated action days—to catch offenders, and, most importantly, has enabled letting constituents know that the police are doing the best they can with the powers they have. I am seeking to improve those powers.
This is not a small issue. One of the people convicted for hare coursing is now serving a 13-year jail sentence not to do with hare coursing but to do with drugs and gambling, and another is doing 10 years for similar offences. So there is a strong, established connection between hare coursing and much more serious crime involving things that can obviously then lead to intimidation to those who may wish to intervene.
My police and crime commissioner, Festus Akinbusoye, has led the charge, given the constructive initiative by this Government to increase the number of police officers around the country, to bring extra focus to providing policing support in rural areas, and I am very supportive of, and grateful to, him and the chief constable for their actions. The Government say in their “Action plan for animal welfare”:
“We will also bring in legislation to crack down on the illegal practice of hare coursing. Although hare coursing is prohibited under the Hunting Act, it remains a serious problem. As well as being an important animal welfare issue, its continued practice causes serious harm in rural communities through associated criminality.”
So the Government recognise this, and of course I will be looking to the Minister responding to the debate to comment.
I now turn briefly to the detail of the Bill. Clause 1(3) amends the Game Laws (Amendment) Act 1960 to insert the principle that the police are able to seize animals as well as equipment. It also provides that if a person is found guilty of offences under the Act the courts have the ability to say that a dog should not be returned to its owner, and if it is returned to the owner the full costs of kennelling must be reimbursed before any return can occur. That is important because dogs can be the most valuable assets and are the basis upon which gambling can take place. At the moment, kennelling costs are incurred by the police, not the person involved in criminal activity. That can act as a deterrent to taking action for some police forces. It seems to me that requiring full reimbursement would be a proportionate response.
Clause 1 would introduce, for the first time, a liability on conviction of imprisonment of up to six months for those involved in hare coursing. That is quite a significant change. I have mentioned before in the context of greedy bankers and the problems in 2008 that it does not matter how much a banker is fined—it is probably a small fraction of his or her income. What was much more important was making them do the perp walk in handcuffs and taking them off to jail. It would change the risk profile for hare coursing, and I want to hear from the Minister whether she supports that change—I hope that she will.
Clause 2 would expand the understanding of the offence of hare coursing to include “going equipped”, again with the possibility of imprisonment for up to six months. That recognises how difficult it will be for the police to get to a location, often in an isolated area of the countryside, while the activity is taking place. By expanding the offence to include going equipped, it would empower the police to take more effective action.
Clause 3 provides more detail on the circumstances in which police may seize and detain a dog that has been used in hare coursing. Again, that is because most of the legislation is somewhat generic, dates back to the 1800s and is unclear. The Bill would clarify the position.
I am aware that several colleagues wish to speak, so I will end with three questions for the Minister. If we make progress through the Bill or other measures, can she give some guidance on how the Home Office will communicate with and train local police forces? Getting the message out is important, to ensure that the police know that they now have those powers. Will the Crown Prosecution Service provide guidance and advice to magistrates about the increased penalties, because that will be important, and communicate why Parliament has decided that the penalties should be increased? Will any changes be in place before the start of the new season for hare coursing at the end of the summer?
It is a tremendous honour to be selected to introduce a private Member’s Bill. It is a particular honour to be able to introduce a private Member’s Bill on an issue that affects a large number of one’s own constituents as well as many others elsewhere. I appreciate the actions to date of the Secretary of State, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about the Bill.