The Bishop of St Albans: Government must do much more to tackle rural crime affecting farmers and businesses
The Bishop of St Albans writes ahead of a question in the House of Lords on 'Impact of rural crime on farming communities'.
Living and working in a shire county close to London, I often meet people who have moved out of the capital in search of the rural idyll. Whilst the countryside is a great place to live, they are surprised at the level of rural crime, especially affecting the farming community. Many people who live in rural areas think they are disadvantaged when it comes to their right to justice and protection under the law.
This week in the House of Lords I will be asking the Government about the impact of crime on farming communities and other rural businesses. I want to highlight the significant levels of frustration of those who feel that the police do not have the resources to investigate and deal with rural crime, in the same way that they do in urban areas.
Just last year, it was revealed that 69% of business owners in rural areas had been victims of a crime. When I was giving evidence recently to the Select Committee on the Rural Economy I pointed out that residents tell me that ringing the police in remote areas may involve waiting for them to make a journey of 20 miles or more, which in the countryside can take 30 minutes or longer.
The perception that rural communities lack equal access to police services and criminal justice is not dispelled by conversations with politicians, Police and Crime Commissioners or Chief Constables. When I ask about rural-specific crime I am left feeling there is a lack of priority in how they deal with this aspect of law-breaking.
This is not just about my perception as the facts speak for themselves. For example, two-thirds of all farmers are affected by fly-tipping. This can have a serious economic and emotional impact. It is shocking that 95% of cases that do come to court are dismissed with fines of less than £1000. Small change to gangs making illegal profits from this crime.
Farmers must be heard when they say this crime is being taken less seriously by the courts, and the Government should work with the Magistrates Association to ensure this weak response does not remain the standard. Rural communities are often suffering in silence, and their plight needs to be listened to.
Recently I met with a small group of farmers from the Hertfordshire Branch of the National Farmers’ Union. A major problem they face is hare-coursing. This increasingly common problem, which involves the use of dogs to hunt hares illegally on private property, is often linked to international gambling and other forms of criminality.
Farmers tell me they are left vulnerable and threatened when gangs arrive on their property. By the time the police arrive on the scene the criminals have already run their races, made their money and fled in different directions.
When I asked the Government about this crime, I was left unconvinced they had a grip on the scale of the problem. The low figures for the rate of conviction for this crime may give those farmers affected in the future cause for concern.
Last month’s ‘Time for a Rural Strategy’ report, published by the Rural Economy Select Committee, was right to highlight multifaceted causes of problems in policing rural areas, including poor mental health provision in these communities.
The Government should take this report, and the concerns of farmers and rural businesses seriously. We should now use the last few months of this Parliament as an opportunity to turn the tide on a worrying perception amongst a large demographic of the public that they are overlooked by the criminal justice system.