Rural Britain’s crime wave is being fuelled by organised gangs who are propping up terrorists and risking the spread of diseases such as foot and mouth, MPs have heard.
The Government stands accused of failing to adequately fund policing in the countryside and ignoring the “fear of crime” among isolated and elderly communities.
MPs told Parliament there is “no recognition” that the rise of livestock rustling and tractors stolen-to-order is linked to “serious criminal activity” as illegal acts such as poaching are framed as “quaint and slightly bucolic”.
The issue, raised in a Westminster Hall debate, comes as a Westcountry-based organisation seeks Government funding to form a “rural crime network” to crackdown on crime in the countryside.
It is backed by police commissioners for Devon and Cornwall, Avon and Somerset and Dorset.
Last year, NFU Mutual found that “agri-crime” in the Westcountry cost around £5.6 million in 2012.
The Commons debate was brought by Kent Conservative MP Gordon Henderson who warned “rural areas will continue to take second place” in the fight for police budgets.
He said: “People in rural areas often feel that they are last in line for services. They feel isolated, and that isolation increases their fear of crime.”
The Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP said organised gangs are “increasingly targeting high-value tractors ... stealing them to order and shipping them overseas”.
Mr Henderson spoke of “large amounts” of stolen ammonium nitrate-based fertiliser, which have been a “component of some of the most devastating terrorist bomb blasts in the world”.
He continued: “In isolation, rural crimes appear to be one-off, unrelated events; in fact, they are often inter-related and funded by the activities of criminal gangs and terrorist organisations.”
He warned poaching is “too often seen by the public, and some times the police, as being almost romantic — ‘one for the pot’ — like boys scrumping”, and that livestock rustling was so rampant that 60,000 sheep were stolen in 2011 alone.
“Once animals are stolen, they are no longer tracked by the movement databases in place, increasing the risk of another foot-and-mouth epidemic,” he said. “In addition, meat entering the food chain through livestock theft cannot be traced from farm to fork.”
He said rural dwellers “rarely see” a police officer in their community and “feel forgotten by the Government, local authorities and the police”.
Former Environment Minister Richard Benyon, Tory MP for Newbury, said rural crime “does not accord with the quaint and slightly bucolic view that some might have about historic areas of rural crime, such as how poaching may have happened for the pot in past years”.
“This is a very serious area of criminality,” he added. “It is often about the widespread stealing of plant and machinery; it can be about people trafficking; firearms can be involved; and there many cases in which intimidation is used, not only of the victims or potential victims of crime, but to make people commit crimes.”
Home Office Minister Damian Green conceded central government funding for the police will be reduced by 3.3% in cash terms in 2014-15, but that the cuts are “manageable” and allocations take account of “specific needs faced by rural forces”.
The Devon-based Rural Services Network is setting up a forum to give a voice to tackling rural crime, and has the backing of 25 Police and Crime Commissioners across the country.
Nick Payne from the not-for-profit group said: “While rural crime might not be as numerous its impact can be just as great. Rural areas can also face a higher fear of crime because populations are more elderly and isolated. Police budgets are under strain and not likely to get any better any time soon, so we want to assist the police where we can.”
Tony Hogg, police and crime commissioner for Devon and Cornwall, said on joining the network: “Rural crime is very often organised by gangs of criminals who do not work to county boundaries and Devon and Cornwall has an excellent track record of liaising with neighbouring forces in Dorset and Avon and Somerset to stop this cross border trade.”