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10.25 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): We certainly take seriously the need to address rural concerns. I thank the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) for raising this problem and for being so clear about his purpose in seeking the debate, both in advance—and I am grateful to him for his courtesy in spelling out his intentions—and in his well-judged speech.

The hon. Gentleman has rightly drawn our attention to the unpleasantness of illegal coursing. It raises the issues of trespass on farmland, damage to crops and property and the killing of scores of hares. Illegal coursing, however, also provides an opportunity for unpleasant and

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often violent characters to travel around the country and intimidate rural communities. The police rightly fear that it will provide the criminal element with an ideal opportunity to "case" isolated rural properties. It is also believed that it can be an organised and lucrative business. The hon. Gentleman, who gave specific figures, clearly knows more about it than I do, but betting on dogs often results in thousands of pounds changing hands. Moreover, illegal coursing is in itself an unsavoury activity, which many country people abhor.

I want to say something about the victims of that illegal activity. I stress that I share the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the conservation and status of the brown hare. It is a widespread and conspicuous farmland species in Britain, which was formerly considered abundant but appears to have undergone a substantial decline in numbers since the early 1960s. The most recent major survey is "The National Hare Survey 1997–99", undertaken by Bristol university. It estimated that the current population was about 750,000.

The survey concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that there had been a significant change in the population of brown hares nationally since the first survey of 1991 to 1993, although there had been a decline in some arable areas. That suggests that after a decline lasting several decades, populations have shown a degree of stability in recent years, albeit at a lower level than formerly.

Owing to concerns about the decline in numbers, the Government have drawn up a biodiversity species action plan to maintain and enhance its conservation status. The plan assesses the main threats to the species, and sets out a framework to maintain and expand existing populations. The three main factors identified in the plan as causing the decline are changing agricultural practices such as conversion of grassland to arable land, loss of habitat diversity and cropping regimes. Those are the threats that the plan seeks to address.

My Department and the Home Office are very alive to the need to tackle illegal coursing. I welcome the opportunity to tell Members about the legislation, and also about some recent initiatives that are available to help the police and the courts.

I understand that Thames Valley police have said they are experiencing difficulties because of legislation dating back to 1828. In fact, although old, the laws relating to illegal coursing of hares remain relevant and effective: they are still being used today. The real issue is that in some rural areas there may be difficulties in ensuring a rapid police response to illegal hare-coursing incidents.

The Night Poaching Act 1828, as amended by the Night Poaching Act 1844, makes it an offence for any person unlawfully to take or destroy any hares or other game at night. It is also an offence to enter or to be on any land with any instrument for the purpose of taking or destroying game. The Act also creates an aggravated form of the latter offence when the offender is armed with any offensive weapon, or is in a group of three or more poachers. Illegal coursing during the daytime, the real mischief, is dealt with by the Game Act 1831, which criminalises any trespass in search or pursuit of game. Aggravated offences occur if five or more people together commit the offence.

In addition to owners, occupiers and gamekeepers, the police are also able to deal with illegal coursing, having been granted wide powers of entry, stop, search and arrest

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under the Acts. For a poacher to be convicted, it is not necessary to prove that game has actually been taken. Nor is it necessary to prove by direct evidence either the specific land where poaching has taken place or, in the case where game is found, the unlawful means used to take it. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to stress that the prosecution must satisfy the court by either direct or circumstantial evidence, not merely by speculation that the defendant has been poaching.

The original legislation has been well tried and tested, but that is not all the police have to work with. For example, section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 provides the power to order removal of face coverings, including balaclavas. The trigger for that authorisation under section 61 is a reasonable belief that incidents of serious violence may take place in the locality and that it is expedient to give an authorisation to prevent their occurrence.

Legislation has been passed in more recent years to help the police and the courts to deal more effectively with modern-day illegal coursing. As well as the serious offences of violent disorder and affray, section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986 created an offence of using

which causes a person to believe that immediate violence would be used against him, or which may provoke violence. Under the section, it is an offence intentionally to behave in a way which is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress. Section 5 similarly prohibits such behaviour, or disorderly behaviour which is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress, even when no intent is involved.

Other powers are as follows. A power of arrest granted by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 empowers police officers to arrest where any offence has been committed and the offender's name and address is either not given, believed to be false or insufficient to allow for the service of a summons.

Under the Game Laws (Amendment) Act 1960, courts have the power to cancel game licences and forfeit any game found on an offender. If the offence committed is one of the aggravated forms under the Game Acts, a court may under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act also order the forfeiture of any vehicle used for the purpose of committing the offence.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that a recent case, known as the Tilly case, has undermined the legislation and that the decision in that case created a loophole in requiring the presence of the landowner in order for there to be an illegal act of aggravated trespass under section 68 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. He went on to ask for a review, but it is not yet clear whether there is a loophole to be remedied. I understand that the Crown Prosecution Service has sought leave to appeal the matter to the House of Lords. It would be inappropriate to say any more about that until the matter has been resolved, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take my point that one cannot firmly say that there is a loophole.

I hope that what I have said has shown the powers that are available to combat the evil of illegal coursing, but that is not the only way to address the issue. Partnership is the really effective weapon in cutting crime in rural areas. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 introduced a new

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statutory framework within which crime reduction activity will be carried out—the crime and disorder reduction partnerships. That means that partnerships, comprising the police, the local authority, the probation service, the health service and many others, can work together to reduce crime in their area.

I understand that the crime and disorder audits should now have been completed in each area of the country and that draft strategies will be completed shortly and submitted to the regional crime directors. To the extent that illegal hare coursing is a problem in any area, it should be reflected in the local strategy.

The hon. Gentleman remarked on the number of people particularly in the Thames valley area which is relevant to his constituency, who have commented on the issue. They should be providing that information to police and ensuring that the issue of hare coursing is dealt with properly in the crime and disorder reduction strategy that is currently being completed. I suggest that he speaks specifically to the chief executive officer of the district council and the local superintendent in his area who have joint legal responsibility for the development of that strategy.

There are also examples in which police powers have been used successfully using the laws to which I have referred. Cambridgeshire police, for example, have tackled hare coursing in Huntingdon and the fenland where it was identified as being a major and serious problem. Operation Sparrow ran from September 2000 to March 2001, building on experience in previous years. It involved police, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Countryside Watch and Customs and Excise. Farmers from Countryside Watch helped the campaign by acting as the eyes and ears of the rural community, gathering information on any suspicious vehicles in the area, which they passed on to officers.

The operation was successful because 560 farmers and rural residents became members of the Cambridgeshire Countryside Watch. I am told that that organisation was established specifically to combat illegal hare coursing in the area, but I am sure that such a strong partnership has many other benefits. Clearly it is having the desired effect. The latest figures show that the number of reports of illegal hare coursing were cut from 357 to 164, which is an all-time low. I understand also that Thames Valley police are now talking to Cambridgeshire police, which is a good example of sharing good practice between police forces and a direct outcome of the hon. Gentleman's raising the issue as the subject of this debate.

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