A debate was secured in the House of Commons about rural policing and hare coursing. I was grateful to members who took the time to be at the debate and highlighted the genuine importance of ensuring that we are able to police and protect our rural communities properly.
The Hunting Act 2004 came into effect on 18 February 2005. Under that Act, an individual who is found guilty of illegal hunting or hare coursing can be liable for an unlimited fine. I was asked about the level of the fines that are issued by magistrates courts, and I gave an assurance that I will liaise with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to establish what guidance is given to the courts and the Sentencing Council about the use of that power. Criminals who behave in this way should be sent the message that such behaviour will not be tolerated.
Section 30 of the Game Act 1831 gives the police the power to seize and detain vehicles taking part in hare coursing until a court hearing takes place. The police also have powers to deal with other criminal offences. When I visited Lincolnshire recently there was clear evidence of the ability to deal with all the crimes being committed. During the debate, I heard that hare coursing is an offence in itself, but other offences are potentially committed within it, such as aggravated trespass, abuse, intimidation, harassment and criminal damage. All those offences are prosecutable in their own right. As one of my officials pointed out when we were in Lincolnshire, the police may not be able to catch someone in the act of hare coursing because of the speed that is involved. However, through CCTV and other means, they often discover number plates of vehicles that are not taxed or MOT-ed. They can act on the basis of such an incident in itself, without necessarily catching someone in the act or putting farmers in a position where they have reason to be fearful. I emphasise that the police have a range of options enabling us to be smart about prosecution and cracking down on this behaviour.
I also appreciate that there are complaints from communities that the police are not always doing enough to deal with the criminals involved in this activity. We need to make sure that local police forces use all the tools at their disposal to deal with criminal behaviour, including any challenge about the speed with which people move. Those tools might include trespass and the way they deal with cars. There is a clear and powerful message about the potential seizure of vehicles and the dogs themselves. That sends a powerful message to the criminals because the dogs are valuable to the people who own them—they are worth tens of thousands of pounds. That is a very clear message that the Government and the police can send.