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Metal Theft (Prevention)

Volume 535: debated on Tuesday 15 November 2011

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to introduce a licensing scheme for scrap metal dealers; to enable magistrates’ courts to add restrictions to licences to deal in scrap metal; to require that financial transactions in trade in scrap metals be restricted to cashless payments; to give police officers powers to search properties owned by scrap metal dealerships; to provide that scrap metal proven to have been obtained through theft may be classified as criminal assets; to introduce criminal charges for theft of scrap metal which take into account aspects of the crime other than the value of the scrap metal stolen; and for connected purposes.

The crime of metal theft is reaching a crisis point in this country. According to the Energy Networks Association, metal theft from electricity networks rose by some 700% between June 2009 and June 2011. Organised crime has been involved in scaling the tallest electricity pylons and cutting down heavy tensile cable from the top of 275,000 V towers. The Association of Chief Police Officers has conservatively put the national cost of metal theft at £770 million. Figures from the British Transport police show that theft of overhead power cables has risen by 70% over the last year, with 2,712 cable-theft-related crimes registered in 2010-11. There are eight thefts or attempted thefts of railway cable every day, which has so far caused 240,000 minutes of delays to rail passengers this year and cost Network Rail £43 million over the last two years.

Yesterday, representatives of South West Trains told me of an incident involving a train travelling at peak hours from London. Metal thieves cut and removed a signalling cable and then, while Network Rail repaired it, cut a further section. The live shock could have seriously injured or killed Network Rail staff, while packed commuter trains were left at a standstill. Delayed and besieged passengers began exiting trains by climbing the embankments, crossing the live third rail. The result was an even greater section of the rail network having to be switched off for safety reasons—and this seven months before the Olympic games. In Burnley last week, something as simple as the theft of seven £75 brass padlocks left electricity substations exposed to inquisitive children. The past year has also seen six fatalities and 50 serious injuries, and I am sure that everyone in the House has been shocked by the increasingly numerous stories of thefts from war memorials. War memorials are being stolen, sold and scrapped because the regulatory framework surrounding metal recycling is so ineffective. In combination with the soaring international price of metal, there are effectively incentives to steal.

Metal recycling is a valuable industry. It is a sustainable means of reusing an important and increasingly expensive commodity. However, the soft regulatory framework undermines that logic by encouraging thieves to take materials that are still in use. The problem lies precisely in the fact that it is stolen metal that is being recycled. My Bill will go some way to removing the incentives to steal created by weak regulation in the industry. This is not red tape; the intention is to reduce the costs to businesses and the public purse incurred through damage to the nation’s infrastructure. Such regulation would allow legitimate, law-abiding and socially responsible scrap metal dealers to flourish. Indeed, a few scrap metal dealers already perform much of the requirements of the Bill in best practice.

Yesterday I met with representatives of SITA UK, a company that recently entered the metal recycling industry. They told me that they were shocked and appalled by the level of malpractice in the sector. The chief executive of SITA UK gave his full backing for the six elements of the Bill. So far, there has been no opposition from the affected industries to any of my six proposals. In fact, quite the reverse: they have received almost universal backing, with the concern now being that if we do not go far enough now, the problem will continue to escalate. The consensus in the industry is that the six measures in my Bill are vital if anything is to be done to stop the escalating crime. I now turn to those six provisions.

First, the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 must be amended so that the current registration regime can be replaced by a robust licensing regime that is funded by a licence fee paid by scrap metal dealers. That is the first step towards something resembling a regulated industry. Secondly, property obtained through theft should be regarded as criminal assets. Classifying stolen metal as criminal assets would allow the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to apply. Crucially, that will impact on those who think that they can evade any regulatory regime. Thirdly, police authorities should be given the power to search and investigate all premises owned and operated by scrap metal dealers suspected of dealing in stolen property, as well as the power to close scrap metal dealers where criminally obtained metals are discovered.

Fourthly—there is a great deal of consensus in the affected industries on this point—trade in scrap metals must be restricted to cashless payments, with a concurrent requirement that scrap metal not be sold or processed until payments have cleared. Ministers may think that onerous, but such a system has been successfully implemented in France, Belgium and much of the United States. Alongside that, dealers should operate CCTV and require photo identification of sellers. Those measures would remove the anonymity of the seller and require honesty of the dealer. I have been informed by the industry that scrap metal is a £5 billion industry, with an incredible £1 billion estimated to be exchanged in cash payments. That amount of cash usage is unseen in any comparable, legitimate industry, and should also interest the Serious Organised Crime Agency and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, if for no other reason than to verify its legality.

Fifthly, magistrates should be given the power to add restrictions to licences to deal in scrap metal, should they feel it necessary. Local knowledge is indispensible in addressing such crimes. Finally, the Theft Act 1968 should be amended so that sentencing is proportionate to the consequences of the crime, not the value of the metal stolen. A tougher sanctions regime is central to combating metal theft. That is important, because there has to be a realisation that we cannot police Britain’s metal estate. We have to accept the reality that there will always be an opportunity to steal metal and get away with it. We must adjust the deterrent sentence accordingly. The tariff must also reflect the fact that the theft of scrap metal worth £20 may cause £500,000 of damage or risk lives.

There is widespread support for the Bill in its current form. Yesterday I held a meeting in Parliament attended by representatives of BT, Network Rail, the Energy Networks Association, the Local Government Association, South West Trains, E.ON, Arqiva, Ecclesiastical Insurance and SITA UK, among others. They fully support the Bill in its entirety. In addition, I have received vocal support from the Country Land and Business Association and Lancashire constabulary. It is now time for the UK to prevent this epidemic plague. Supporting the Bill is an important step in demonstrating that this House not only takes seriously the theft of our heritage, public art and vital infrastructure, and the protection of churches and war memorials against desecration, but is willing to support tough measures. Therefore, I commend this Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Graham Jones, Margot James, Mr John Spellar, Steve Rotheram, Mr Tom Watson, Bill Esterson, Pat Glass, Mr Alan Campbell, Martin Caton, Chris Kelly, Kate Green and Andrew Percy present the Bill.

Graham Jones accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 January, and to be printed (Bill 249).