Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness) (Con)
It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth). I would like to compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) on being so lucky in the ballot and congratulate him on bringing forward this Bill, which is very important indeed.
My constituency is largely focused around Barrow, which is an industrial town, but drive for 10 minutes in any direction—well, someone driving south or west will end up in the Irish sea with very wet feet, but driving in the other directions leads to very rural communities. We have the Lickle and Duddon valleys, with farms up and down those communities heading into the Lake district. When I travel around those communities with my NFU rep, the excellent James Airey, I hear time and again that this is the No. 1 issue that my constituents are concerned about. It is a pervasive issue; even if it has not happened to a particular farm, village or community, they will know someone it has happened to, and they are deeply concerned about it.
It is worth looking at some of the statistics that sit behind these crimes. The Countryside Alliance runs an excellent annual survey asking its respondents about their impressions of crime. In 2021, 43% of respondents reported that they had had a crime committed against them in the past year, with 32% of respondents having experienced agricultural machinery theft, which was the third most reported crime. In the 2020 rural crime survey, agricultural machinery theft was the top priority for police to tackle. Again, that is what I hear from my constituents and my farmers. It is something that deeply worries them.
According to NFU Mutual’s 2022 rural crime report, 50% of surveyed members of rural communities said that they were concerned by rural crime, with a third saying it is a major concern. Quad and ATV thefts reported to NFU Mutual cost £2.2 million in 2021. I am sure John Longmire, an excellent farmer in my constituency, will not mind me mentioning that it is a problem that bedevils him and his neighbours.
This issue is not about farmers not looking after their kit or being reckless with it. This is high-demand equipment—it is difficult for people to get their hands on it these days. Shipping delays, the effects of covid and the snarling up of supply chains have contributed to significant demand for both new and second-hand machinery. That lack of availability is driving this problem and driving the activity of the criminal gangs that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham talked about so well. The lack of availability of ATVs has resulted in it taking up to six months to replace a stolen vehicle, and the cost to replace these vehicles has risen dramatically. We see this in the car market, as well—people simply cannot get their hands on the tools and equipment needed to build these things, let alone sell them on the market. Criminal gangs are taking every opportunity they can to step in where there is that need.
As waiting lists grow and market values soar, thieves see quads and ATVs as expensive and easily portable hot-ticket items with a ready resale market in this country and abroad. Thefts are hitting farmers twice as hard: they lose their piece of kit and cannot replace it easily because it is more expensive to do so. That exacerbates their rapidly rising feed costs—which knock on into our economy in the cost of food and living—and their higher energy costs.
Any hon. Member representing a rural area will recognise reports of criminal gangs moving around. We see them in our papers and read about them on Facebook. They suddenly move into an area, and will sweep through a valley picking up absolutely everything they possibly can and moving it out of the area as quickly as possible. Quads and other high-value pieces of kits are their target, but as hon. Members on both sides of the House have mentioned, so are tools of lower value. The Bill’s provisions on the scope of items to be included in future will be important to our constituents.
The Bill does a couple of simple things. I will not rehash what has been said before beyond picking up on a couple of points. Preventing the theft and resale of stolen equipment is absolutely at the heart of the Bill. Stopping that trade—stopping what allows criminals to pick up and easily re-sell items—is what we need to do. Like all good private Members’ Bills, the Bill is simple enough that it absolutely hits the right note, and I hope that it will sail through the next stages as it progresses through Parliament. It gives us the ability to alter and amend it in future. As I have mentioned, it also gives the Secretary of State the power to consider immobilisers, forensic markings and putting owners’ details on vehicles—that is absolutely key. As my hon. Friend mentioned, putting those details on an electronic database means that, if a business goes under or is acquired by someone else, that record is kept, is transferable and exists in the ether for the future.
My experience before I came to this place—to steer slightly off topic—was in fraud and financial crime. We long stood by the view that we could not simply arrest our way out of such high-value, high-volume crimes. Three or four years ago, we were seeing 300,000 reports of fraud a year. We simply do not have the skilled police resource for that, so we relied on other tools. My hon. Friend mentioned that prevention is better than cure, and that was the approach we took. We worked with industry, with Government and with law enforcement to share data to understand the motivators driving those crimes, and to use that data intelligently to track, pursue and, eventually, go after those responsible.
Rural communities feel crime; they feel exposed. When I walk around Barrow, my constituents tell me that they do not see enough police, even though there are an awful lot of police around.