Scrappy do

Rosser4x3.jpgRichard Rosser on the need for real legislation to tackle the scourge of metal theft

With the rise of global metal prices, incidents of metal theft have seen a significant increase in recent years.  Such theft is estimated to cost the UK economy some £220-260m each year, although the total costs could be up to a staggering £800m. Cable theft on the rail network has caused an average nearly 5,500 hours of delays per year since 2008. 

It is not however, just about the hundreds of millions of pounds that metal theft is costing the economy. 

It is also about the dangers to life and limb to those who could be injured or killed as a result, for example where lineside and other equipment crucial to the safety of the rail network can be damaged. 

It is about the wanton desecration of war memorials, which mean so much to so many. 

It is about damage to our churches, which are part of our heritage as well as places of worship and centres of communities. 2011 saw an increase in the number of metal theft incidents affecting Church of England buildings of 48% on the previous year. 

It is about the premeditated heartlessness of those who plan and commit these crimes, which are certainly not spur of the moment acts. In the area where I live, a group dressed up to look like workmen were stripping the roof of a town hall in broad daylight.  

Scrap metal dealers are already subject to controls under the 1964 Scrap Metal Dealers Act and the 1990 Environmental Protection Act. The recently passed 2012 Legal Aid Act introduced further regulatory changes including creating a new offence of buying for cash which ensures dealers must not pay for scrap metal except by cheque or electronic transfer. 

These important, if inadequate, steps began to close the door on transactions being undertaken that left no audit trail to help identify those involved. But a number of issues remain to be addressed, including the limited powers of councils to inspect unregistered scrap metal dealer sites, inadequate record keeping, the inability of councils to revoke or vary licences granted to dealers and the fact that the ban on them paying for metal with cash did not extend to all those that deal with scrap metal.

These issues are addressed in the Private Members’ Bill being debated in the Lords today, which seeks to replace the 1964 Act. In particular, it seeks to require all metal sellers to provide personal identification at point of sale, which is then recorded by the dealer and gives councils the power to revoke or vary a licence where appropriate, as well as the power to turn down unsuitable applicants. 

The government’s handling of this issue has been one of ineptitude, delay and indecision and they could and should have acted earlier. Labour has been calling for these measures for over twelve months, yet with the active support of the government front bench in the Commons last year a similar Bill introduced by Labour MP Graham Jones was blocked. 

Either way, the new Private Members Bill is also lacking in some respects. The exclusion of second hand domestic appliances from the definition of scrap creates a significant loophole, because it will not be easy to distinguish whether an old appliance is scrap metal or a second hand item to be considered for repair. Gold and silver have also been excluded from the definition. We have all seen the high street traders offering cash for gold and under this Bill they will continue to be able to do so. This will provide unfair competition for more orthodox operators as well as continuing to provide a potential outlet for converting stolen metal into cash. 

Instead, we need a Bill that seeks to stop these transactions and stop the thieves getting away with it.

Lord Richard Rosser is a frontbench Labour Peer in the House of Lords

Published 30th November 2012

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