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Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Alun Michael: The prime purpose of the reply to an Adjournment debate is to reply to the hon. Member who initiated the debate. Once I have dealt with the points made by the hon. Member for Wantage, I shall be happy to give way.

The Home Office has provided extra funding—in the sparsity grant, which is specifically related to rural areas—to Thames Valley police specifically to improve policing. More than £1.5 million has been provided since April 2000 specifically to deal with the needs of rural areas. Police have therefore been able to set themselves a number of challenging objectives, including to deter illegal hare coursing and to prosecute such cases when the evidence can be found.

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I listened with great interest to the comments of the hon. Member for Wantage on the problems of using Victorian legislation to tackle present-day crime. However, I hope that my remarks have demonstrated how that original legislation has been complemented by modern legislation and modern police methods to ensure that the powers exist for police and the countryside community to tackle effectively what the hon. Gentleman rightly described as a pernicious activity.

Mr. Brown: Does my right hon. Friend agree that allowing hare coursing as the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) has described it to remain a legal activity makes it much more difficult to detect illegal hare coursing? Furthermore, is not the reduction in the number of brown hares in particular a consequence of hares being brought into areas such as mine for the fun, as some might call it, of legal coursing?

Alun Michael: This debate is not about the rights and wrongs of activities that are currently legal; it is about the pernicious activity of illegal hare coursing. I certainly understand the point that my hon. Friend is making; there may well be some activities connected with legal hare coursing that many in the House would deplore, and which come close to the illegal activities that are the subject of the debate. None the less, they are beyond the subject of the debate. What we can agree across the Chamber is that illegal hare coursing is a pernicious activity, but that there are ways of dealing with it, that those methods should be used whenever it causes a nuisance either in depleting the hare population—if that is the case—or through the other damage that it does to rural communities, which the hon. Member for Wantage outlined effectively in introducing the debate.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): What aspects of legal hare coursing come close to those of illegal hare coursing?

Alun Michael: Many of the activities—my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) referred to the artificial creation of activity—may be open to question and debate, but my point was that now is not the time to debate them. There may be a place and a time for such discussion, but this debate is not suitable because it is specifically about illegal activity.

Mr. Banks: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Alun Michael: There are many ways in which illegal hare coursing, about which the hon. Member for Wantage complained, can be dealt with by the law, and by the police methods already available.

Mr. Banks rose

Alun Michael: I want to deal with the final point that the hon. Member for Wantage raised—his specific suggestions about strengthening the law. Obviously, in considering any changes to the law, thought must be given to whether they will be effective in tackling the particular

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problem they seek to address, or whether they would simply move that problem elsewhere. I do not intend to comment further on those proposals today, but I will consider them further and seek the views of ministerial colleagues in the Home Office. Both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Home Office keep an open mind on such issues—

Mr. Banks: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Alun Michael: —but at the moment my impression is that targeted use of existing legislation, and police action in partnership with the rural community, are most likely to achieve the end sought.

Mr. Banks: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Alun Michael: I give way to my hon. Friend, but I wish that he would allow me to complete a sentence before I do so.

Mr. Banks: I am sorry; I was getting a bit edgy because I felt that my right hon. Friend was reaching his peroration, and that I would find myself with no Minister to reply to a very simple question. The hares—allow me, if I may, Mr. Speaker, to represent them in this House—know of no distinction between illegal and legal hare coursing. Would it not solve the problems of the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), and those of my hon. Friends and myself, if all hare coursing were declared illegal? Surely that would deal with the problem on both sides.

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend, with his usual ingenuity, takes us into areas that are not the subject of the debate. He may or may not be correct in his argument, but I am seeking to address the illegal activity. The hare may not know which is legal and which is illegal activity, but many of the people involved in illegal activity know full well that it is illegal, and that they are acting without regard to the interests of the local community—or to those of the hare, which obviously causes my hon. Friend great concern.

I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Wantage for the welfare both of the hare population and of the rural community, whose members are frequently damaged by illegal hare coursing. I hope that what I have said will have satisfied him about our concern to address the problem of illegal hare coursing, that the legislation is in place, and that a healthy partnership between the local police and the local community can combat the threat.

I recommend again that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, and those who have expressed concern to him, enter actively into the partnership with the police and the local authority that was put in place by the 1998 Act. There could not be a better time than now, when the audit has been undertaken and strategies are being put into place for the future. I am sure that Thames Valley police would welcome his participation, and that of those who have contacted him with their concerns about the issue.

Question put and agreed to.

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