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Metal Theft

Volume 519: debated on Wednesday 1 December 2010

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. You remain the fastest voter I have ever seen, so if there is another Division I will attempt to keep up with you.

I am here to talk about

“the second biggest threat to our infrastructure after terrorism”.

Those are the words that Paul Crowther, of the British Transport police, used to describe the growing problem of metal theft in the UK. It is my contention that, if al-Qaeda or militant student demonstrators perpetrated some of the attacks to critical UK infrastructure on the scale and frequency that we are currently seeing, the Home Office would be taking this matter far more seriously than it currently appears to be taking it.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

Whether it is copper from the side of a railway line, broadband cable, a drain gully or lead flashing from a school roof, not a day goes by when metal theft does not feature in the daily crime roster for police in the UK’s towns and cities. I seek to make the case to the Minister that metal theft is a national problem needing urgent attention. It is eroding our critical infrastructure and therefore the economic capacity of the nation. After outlining the issues, I will make the case for the need to collect more accurate data on metal theft incidents, for amending the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 and for protecting uniformed British Transport police. I will also make the case for new regulations to deal with the rise of unscrupulous dealers in precious metals.

The Minister has gained a reputation for being hard-working and fair-minded. I hope to convince him to focus in the coming months on the increasing problem of metal theft. Many businesses and police officers to whom I have spoken are frustrated with the progress made in the past, including—dare I say?—under my own Government. Six months into the coalition Government, I hope that he has found his feet and will be able to move up a gear in that policy area.

The Home Office line appears to be that the police have the necessary tools and powers to tackle metal theft: I will make the case that they do not. The problem is great for two important reasons: soaring commodity prices and the ineffectiveness of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964. In the past two years, for example, the price of refined copper has more than doubled on international markets. Part of the problem faced by the Minister is that his Department has found it difficult to understand the scale of the problem because it has not collected the appropriate data.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, I have undertaken a comprehensive assessment into the effects of metal theft in local authorities up and down the country in 2007, 2008 and 2009. It is not an exact picture, but it provides a more comprehensive view of the scale of misery caused by metal theft throughout the country. The results are shocking, but since a number of authorities have not responded to my FOI request, I fear that my newly compiled figures are just the tip of the iceberg.

We found 1,873 reported instances of schools being targeted by metal thieves, predominantly for the lead from their roofs. We know that 185 leisure centres and 156 community centres have been targeted, as have—shockingly—71 cemeteries and crematoriums. Thirty-three local authorities told me that metal theft has cost them more than £100,000 in insurance claims and repair costs. My borough of Sandwell has suffered the highest losses of any authority—more than £720,000. It is closely followed by Leicester, which lost £530,000, and Greenwich, which lost more than £470,000.

Last October alone, Sandwell council lost £20,000. Such thefts have cost Sandwell, and councils in Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Walsall, nearly £1.6 million over the past three years. The scale is huge and it is getting bigger. It is not taking place just in the country’s metal-bashing heartlands: the London boroughs of Greenwich, Sutton, Bexley, Bromley, Barking, Dagenham, Enfield, Havering and Redbridge estimate that between them, they have lost £1.9 million as a result of metal theft.

Anything can go. Three stainless steel slides were stolen from Birmingham, and the city also lost £30,000- worth of goal posts. Durham council raised 97 repair orders for its schools, and admitted that that may not even begin to dig into the problem. Sheffield lost a swimming pool roof that cost £200,000, and Thurrock council lost the eternal flame from the East Tilbury war memorial. The cost of replacement was so great that a fibreglass replica had to be made.

More worryingly, I have uncovered an increasing problem of thieves targeting our key infrastructure networks. The most recent police estimate of the cost of such thefts to communication, energy, transport and water industries is £770 million per annum. This year alone has seen more than 5,000 reported thefts from the railway, gas and electricity networks. Such thefts have resulted not only in the loss of services to vulnerable customers, but have included attacks on 999 services and communication services that are provided to the various police forces and military establishments.

In the past six months, BT has seen more than 900 attacks on its network, which has affected more than 100,000 customers. It has lost more than £5 million in the past year, and on current trends, it looks as if it will lose £6 million in the current financial year. In one attack in Scotland last week, 32 tonnes of copper cable were stolen in a single night. Energy company E.ON faces similar problems. Last year, substation theft cost the company £1.3 million, and by the end of May it had already seen 175 reported incidents. The figures speak for themselves. It is not just the monetary cost that is worrying, but the danger in which the thieves are putting both themselves and the engineers who work for companies such as BT and E.ON, through their illegal activities.

Today, Gwent police superintendent Harry Gamlin, head of the taskforce that deals with metal theft in Wales, said that the problem is now so bad that it threatens to “fracture social cohesion.” He added:

“There is a common perception of metal thieves being loveable rogues, old-man-Steptoe-type characters...People need to wake up to the fact that they are in fact highly organised and skilled gangs of criminals who more than likely have links to other forms of serious and organised crime.”

The taskforce in Wales is a welcome step, but tougher laws are needed.

It is not just the seasonal “wrong type of snow” and leaves on the track that are holding up our train network: commuters now have to contend with the regular misery of year-round signalling thefts. Network Rail tells me that commuters and operators have lost 19,417 hours in delays since 2006-07. Overall, it estimates that it has spent £35 million since then on metal theft-related crime. That includes £25 million of schedule 8 costs. That is £25 million that could have been spent on improving the railway network that has been diverted to essential maintenance because of metal theft alone.

I travel to Westminster from Sandwell and Dudley station every week. Between September 2009 and this October there have been five serious incidents of cable theft in the Tipton area alone and I have been late for meetings and nearly missed votes. These incidents in Tipton caused £485,000 worth of damage to the rail network causing hundreds of hours of delays for commuters. I find these figures staggering. Across the whole of the west midlands in the last 18 months there have been 52 cable thefts on the railway causing 1,500 trains to be cancelled. I am told by Network Rail that the route between London and Scotland up the east coast is by the far the worst affected, especially in Yorkshire and the north-east. That route has recorded days on which up to 40 thefts have taken place. Commuters and British business are the people who are really losing out as metal theft soars.

I have unearthed other examples that are shocking in their scale and audacity. There are the thieves who cut a heavy copper cable used to link an MRI scanner to the main electricity supply in Northamptonshire. Thieves stole cable twice in a week meaning 70 patients had to have their diagnostic appointments rearranged. Lives could have been lost. I have been told of the sick thieves who stole two brass plaques listing the names of the Blackley men who fell during the first world war in Manchester. The community had to unite to make sure that the 215 war heroes could be honoured on Remembrance Sunday.

Just as sickening was Linda Smith’s story. Linda contacted me to tell me about the theft of metal containers for holding flowers from graves from Abney park in Stoke Newington. The Minister may not be aware that the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, the leading church insurers, report that they have received more than 7,000 claims for metal theft since the start of 2007 at an estimated total cost of £23 million.

Councillor David Sheard of Kirklees council has been in touch. He told me about the £18,000 worth of litter bins that had been stolen from the council in a single week. The case of Tom Berge who escaped a jail sentence for stealing lead worth £100,000 from some of the most historic properties in Sutton in Croydon has also been brought to my attention. He used Google Earth to identify listed buildings, churches and schools that he could target. In Sandwell, two people have already lost their lives trying to steal cabling from a disused factory after an explosion.

Five-year-old Keanu Jones of Dudley road in Tipton could so nearly have been the third life lost last week. He fell down an exposed drain when out with his mum. The cover had been stolen. It left him shaken and covered in bruises. Keanu’s case is important. It highlights the fact that thieves do not just target high-value, precious and commodity metals. The resale value of what can be stolen can often be minimal. To quote Tony Glover, spokesman of the Energy Networks Association:

“It is pathetic, quite frankly. As a crime it is sometimes as little as £5, £10 or £20… But its impact is enormous—it’s almost like an act of vandalism. Some of our equipment is oil-insulated and a £5 brass valve—that’s all they stole— resulted in 30,000 litres of oil coming out of some equipment.”

Just to illustrate the point, this week I was visited by my constituent Ravi Kumar who told me that thieves had stolen his old, rusty metal table from his front garden. Ravi had put the table out for collection by Sandwell council. Thieves looking to make a quick cash return made off with the table before the council van arrived. There is a black market price list for this stuff—£10 for Ravi’s table, £20 for a stolen manhole cover, £80 for a catalytic converter. These items are being stolen because they are easy prey to thieves to sell on to rogue scrap metal dealers.

More worryingly, West Midlands police and the Black Country chamber of commerce continue to alert me to the rise in the number of burglary dwelling offences across the country in which the offenders are stealing the victim’s gold or silver jewellery. There is currently no legislation covering the buying and selling of gold and silver by independent retailers, which are becoming increasingly common in most towns and cities. Despite some franchises still following good practice, in which no transaction can take place without a series of identity checks, some of the rogues are beginning to make an impact on communities.

I would like to see two minor changes to the law to tackle the problems that I have outlined. One change would deal with commodity metals such as copper, lead and brass, and the second change would deal with precious metals such as gold and silver. The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 needs to be made fit for the modern age. It is outdated; it is not well understood, and, in its current form, it simply fails in its purpose.

Many hon. Members may not be aware of the legislation to which I refer. As it stands, the Act requires dealers to keep a simple book detailing all scrap metal received at the place of purchase. The book must also show that all scrap metal is either processed at or dispatched from that place. That is inadequate.

In the Sandwell area, and across the country, I repeatedly hear stories of some unscrupulous scrap metal dealers opening as early as 5 am. Cash in hand is given to the seller, and it is not unusual for them to turn up with a wheelie bin full of manhole covers. The unscrupulous scrap metal dealer, who does not check too closely where the metal has come from or who the seller is, then sells it on to legitimate dealers, who have no idea that they are buying stolen metal. In some cases, the metal is exported to the far east due to global demand. Some dealers will let sellers get away with giving their name as Joe Bloggs or Mr Smith. Scrap metal is big business, and the record keeping among rogue dealers can be very poor or even non-existent. One police force has told me that records kept by metal merchants do not always provide them with a good enough audit trail to track back such thieves, and I know police forces across the country feel the same.

Although I appreciate that recent dialogue between the British Metals Recycling Association and ACPO has resulted in the development of a code of practice, which includes measures that go beyond those prescribed by the 1964 Act—including requesting proof of identity, limits on cash payments and guidance on best practice for deploying CCTV—I have real doubts that those go far enough. Unscrupulous metal dealers have already made it clear that they are unwilling to abide by good practice, and a voluntary code is extremely unlikely to change the mindsets of those people in the industry. My preferred option would be to make scrap metal dealers operate under a cashless system. If thieves cannot make a quick profit, the incentive to steal in the first place would be dramatically reduced. I draw the Minister’s attention to the state of Oregon, which did that in 2009. All the signs from Oregon suggest that the beefed-up regulations have caused a drop in the number of people looking to sell stolen materials. Many police forces are also seeking powers to close down suspected rogue dealers on the spot, and they want metal users to consider embossing their metal to make it less attractive to steal. I hope that the Minister will seek ways to make that happen.

It strikes me that there is a need for precious metals, such as gold and silver, to be brought within the scope of the 1964 Act. We cannot allow the situation to continue in which there is no legislation covering the buying and selling of such metals. The Black Country chamber of commerce tells me that it would like precious metal dealers to register their business with the local authority every three years; it would like to see registered dealers required to keep a written record at each precious metal store of all items received, processed and dispatched from that store; and it would like deeper proof of identity from those who sell precious metals. I support the Black Country chamber of commerce in its call, and I hope that the Minister will take its suggestions seriously.

Based on new figures that I have made public today, I believe that the Government should arrange for data on metal theft to be better collected and to be presented in a clearer format. The failures of local authorities and police forces to accurately chronicle every incident make contributions to public policy and finding solutions on this subject more difficult for Ministers and stakeholders. It is time for the courts to get tough. The Home Office should ask the Ministry of Justice to issue specific guidance on metal theft to magistrates, as the Ministry of Justice did with home repossessions.

Analysts tell me that they expect a 62% rise in copper prices over the next few years. Coupled with the Government’s announced cuts to policing budgets and the fact that the future budget of the British Transport police is in doubt, that could see a further rise in metal thefts. If the UK adopted a cashless approach to scrap metal sales, I am certain that thieves would be deterred. There would simply be no quick cash incentive for them to steal commodity metals and there would be a proper audit trail. I hope that the Minister will look seriously at the proposals of the Black Country chamber of commerce on precious metals. Metal thieves erode UK resilience. They undermine communities and threaten businesses. They have to be stopped.

Order. This is a short Adjournment debate. Does the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), have the permission of the Minister and the hon. Gentleman to speak?

I sought the permission of everyone, Mr Leigh, including Mr Speaker. The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) has done the House an enormous service and what he has had to say is truly shocking. I am grateful to him and to the Minister for allowing me to intervene briefly in this debate. I do so in my capacity as the Second Church Estates Commissioner.

Lead theft is one of the most serious threats at present to the Church of England’s 1,600 churches, many of them grade I listed buildings. Indeed, 45% of all grade I listed buildings are churches, and other faiths have similar concerns. Night after night, lead is being stolen from church roofs, and thieves now use Google Earth to identify targets, including church roofs.

Since 2007, the main insurer of ecclesiastical churches has received 8,000 claims for lead theft, at a cost of about £23 million. That represents only the insurance claims; the total cost, including damage to churches, is much greater. In many instances, churches that have replaced their roofs at considerable expense have been repeatedly targeted—14 times, in the case of one church. Of course, if they have had the lead stripped from their roofs, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to get re-insured. As hon. Members can imagine, the effect on the morale of parishioners and communities is devastating.

In spite of that, there have been very few prosecutions. Congregations feel that the police regard metal theft as a victimless crime and that they are reluctant to investigate or take action, even when there is an established pattern of theft taking place on consecutive nights. I understand that the Home Office does not even record the theft of lead as a separate offence. Although some of the thefts may be opportunistic, there is growing evidence that organised gangs are involved, and the graph of the incidence of theft mirrors, with remarkable consistency, the price of lead on the world metal markets. The higher the price of lead, the more churches are stripped of it.

A number of things need to be done. Scrap metal yards need to be more regularly spot-checked by local authorities and the police. Local authorities have a responsibility to inspect the registers of scrap metal yards. The hon. Gentleman’s suggestion of a cashless transaction is interesting, and I hope that the Minister will take it seriously. This is a crime that has to be taken seriously. I am sure that Home Office Ministers take it seriously and that they will ensure that it is consistently taken seriously by police forces and local authorities throughout the country.

The Church of England’s Church Buildings Council, chaired by Anne Sloman, has set up a working group to address the problem urgently. It is taking evidence from police, scrap metal merchants, the legal profession and other interested parties. When it reports early next year, I hope that the Government will consider its conclusions carefully and endorse what it has to say as a way forward.

May I thank you, Mr Leigh, for ensuring that this debate started promptly despite all of this afternoon’s Divisions? May I also congratulate the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) on securing this Adjournment debate about the important subject of preventing and tackling metal theft, and on the measured and detailed way in which he has rightly highlighted the issues? I am sure that the House will appreciate the information that the hon. Gentleman has advanced. I assure him that I regard the issue as serious. I take a personal interest in it because of my own experiences as a constituency MP. I know the impact that metal thefts can have.

May I also thank the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), for his speech on churches and the challenges facing the Church community? I hope that I will be able to comment on that in the time remaining.

Metal theft is an issue about which I am concerned, and I give the assurance that the Government take it seriously. The need to reduce this crime is important, and I thank hon. Members for raising the issue. Let me be clear: we recognise the serious consequences of metal theft. It is not a victimless crime. We have seen the significant disruption that metal theft causes to critical national infrastructure throughout the United Kingdom. That includes power and transport networks, with the stealing of live copper cable, which has resulted in death and serious injury for people involved.

In addition, as hon. Members highlighted, a number of historic buildings, including churches, are being targeted for their lead roofs and damaged. Many other examples were given, but the time available means that I must try to deal with the relevant points that have been highlighted this afternoon.

I recognise that the constituency of the hon. Member for West Bromwich East has a specific issue. I was recently in Sandwell, talking to the community safety partnership and the police. They underlined to me the importance that they place on dealing with and responding to metal theft. I congratulate them on the work that they are doing in dealing with the problem.

The police, other law enforcement agencies and industry are making efforts to tackle metal theft, providing a strong foundation on which to build a future partnership approach. There are excellent examples of effective multi-agency partnerships that have come together in affected areas to tackle their local metal theft problem. I am keen to ensure that the practical impact of that work, which shows how much difference can be made by motivated and committed partnerships that take the problem seriously, is shared more widely. We need to build on it. Many scrap metal dealers are doing excellent work in supporting law enforcement activity and reporting suspicious behaviour. We need to support their efforts, while bearing down on those who operate outside the law.

At national level, the Association of Chief Police Officers metal theft working group, chaired by Deputy Chief Constable Paul Crowther, provides leadership to police forces and a forum in which industry and the police can share information and good practice, which is extremely valuable work. I welcome the recent distribution of the ACPO tactical guidance to police forces. That provides, in clear detail, examples of effective practice in tackling metal theft.

The nature of metal theft means that joint working is just as important at national level as at local level. That is why the recent work by the telecommunications and utilities industries, in working on joint enforcement operations with local police forces, is so important.

I particularly welcome the efforts of industry in designing out this crime. For example, BT has been working to improve the protection of metal assets through improved security at storage sites. There are other examples of industry partners reviewing and tightening up their planned disposal of waste metal through the use of approved contractors and scrap metal dealers.

On the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing to the House’s attention the issue regarding the effectiveness of the existing legislation. The Act contains a number of requirements relating to the regulation of the scrap metal dealer industry—namely, the requirement for each dealer to register with their local authority; the fact that all seller details are to be recorded; and the fact that metal cannot be accepted for sale from the under-16s. We have seen excellent examples in Avon and Somerset and elsewhere of how the existing legislation can be used.

I note and welcome the British Metals Recycling Association code of practice, which it has recently issued to its members and to which the hon. Gentleman referred. However, although we welcome such attempts at self-regulation, we are also seeking to join up the existing regulatory framework better by contributing to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs review of waste policies—due to report in the summer of next year—to see what changes, if any, need to be made to legislation in this area.

Environmental and waste regulations cover the operation of the scrap metal dealer industry, as well as the transportation and storage of waste materials. Those regulations are mostly enforced by the Environment Agency. Therefore, it is vital that the police and the Environment Agency continue to work together to ensure that all the existing legislation is used effectively.

The hon. Gentleman will no doubt appreciate that the lead on funding for the British Transport police is the Department for Transport, rather than the Home Office. I know that Westminster Hall debates are not the arena in which to make party political points about the economic situation, but I note what the hon. Gentleman said and I am sure that colleagues at the Department for Transport will note it when they refer to the report of the debate.

As the Minister responsible for crime prevention, I am determined to develop a joint plan of working with law enforcement agencies, Departments and industry to tackle metal theft at every stage, from theft to disposal. Because joint working is so important, I want the plan to be jointly owned by the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers multi-agency metal theft working group. We also need to consider the intelligence arena. We are looking at how regional intelligence units can share intelligence effectively on the more serious organised thefts of metal. That is an important subject that needs further examination.

On the cashless model, I share the concern that criminals are able to turn up at scrap-metal yards and walk away with unlimited sums of cash in exchange for metal. We will examine that in developing our work plan in this arena, including establishing a cashless model. As part of a review of the industry standards, it requires further examination.

I believe that the Church Buildings Council is producing a report on metal theft, and I would welcome sight of the report once it is complete. I hope that we will be able to incorporate its recommendations, when appropriate, in our forthcoming work plan.

I apologise that my comments have been so brief, but I reiterate the importance that I place on this matter. We are committed to preventing and tackling metal theft. I am certain that we have a real opportunity to tackle this crime by working together in partnership with law enforcement agencies and the industry. By working together and having a joint working plan, I am sure that we will be able to tackle all aspects of metal theft and provide the catalyst for a concerted effort by all agencies to reduce this crime.