Mrs Kemi Badenoch (Saffron Walden) (Con)
6 Jun 2018, 6:11 p.m.
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.