[Relevant document: the Fourteenth Report from the Transport Committee, Cable theft on the railway, HC 1609.]
Before we start this debate, may I inform the House that 20 Members have asked to speak in it and we are going to start with a time limit of five minutes? May I ask Mr Graham Jones, who is going to introduce the debate, to speak for no longer than 10 minutes?
I beg to move,
That this House notes that metal theft is becoming a serious issue for the UK; welcomes the Government’s announcement on introducing a cashless system and higher penalties; is concerned that the comprehensive package of measures which is needed to address this issue is not being introduced at the same time; believes that to effectively stamp out metal theft there needs to be a radical change in how the scrap metal industry is regulated; and calls on the Government to introduce a number of additional measures as a matter of urgency, including a robust licensing scheme for scrap metal dealers to replace the present registration scheme, a licence fee to fund the regulation of the licence, greater police powers to close unscrupulous scrap metal dealers in line with alcohol licensing, police authority to search and investigate all premises owned and operated by scrap metal dealers, use of photo identification and CCTV to identify sellers of scrap metal, and their vehicles, vehicle badging for mobile scrap metal dealers, and magistrates’ powers to add licence restrictions and prevent closed yards from re-opening.
First, may I express my thanks to the hon. Members for Dudley South (Chris Kelly) and for Worcester (Mr Walker) for co-sponsoring this topical Back-Bench debate and to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing Members of this House to debate this issue tonight? I also wish to mention my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), who first raised this issue back in 2010. I understand that just last night, in the other place, metal theft was once again the subject of much discussion.
Metal theft is at epidemic levels. Industry is being hard hit by daily thefts and the general public are not only horrified at the escalation and cost, but disgusted at the theft of Britain’s heritage; reports of war memorials being desecrated have shocked the nation. We have seen lifeboat stations without communications, and last month Llandough hospital in Wales had to cancel 80 operations because of cable theft. Remote rural broadband services across Britain are too frequently knocked out. The Energy Networks Association claims that there has been a 700% increase in theft from the energy networks between 2009 and 2011. The Association of Chief Police Officers conservatively puts the cost at £770 million. I believe that a lack of accurate reporting—there is no specific crime code—probably means that the true cost is higher, but Deloitte puts the figure more conservatively at between £260 million and £600 million.
Is not one of the key factors the disproportionate relationship between the value of the metal being sold and the cost of replacing it? For example, manhole covers are being sold for a few quid but the cost to Sandwell council of replacing them is £400, and it is losing 40 or 50 of them a month. A similar comparison can be made between the price of the cable that is being stolen and the disruption to travel. Should not the penalties reflect that cost rather than the value of the metal?
I would like to make some progress, if possible.
The British Transport police state that there are eight attacks on the transport system each day, and that is of grave concern. Ecclesiastical Insurance reported that in 2011 there were 2,500 lead thefts from church roofs. Perhaps most shockingly, the War Memorials Trust estimates that one memorial is vandalised every week in the UK, and for only a very small amount of metal. Today’s debate is a reminder of the urgent need to tackle this scourge and of the importance of doing so; with the Olympics around the corner, it reminds us of the threat to essential services. Paul Crowther of the British Transport police described metal theft as
“the second biggest threat to our infrastructure after terrorism”.
Nigel Martin, the head of supply at Wessex Water, has said:
“Any one of these cable thefts can turn into a civil emergency.”
The Government’s response so far has been unclear. My comprehensive Bill was rejected, despite its forensic drafting by the Public Bill Office—I wish to thank the people there. The announcement of a ban on cash trade and the introduction of unlimited fines for those trading in stolen metal are welcome steps. However, the Government’s announcement misses key elements that underpin the success of a cashless payments system. First, a robust licensing system is required to overhaul the inadequate and flawed Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964. Secondly, and as importantly, we need a UK wide taskforce to gather best practice and to bring together the key partners: the United Kingdom Border Agency; Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs; the Environment Agency; local government, the National Crime Agency; banking; local police forces; and, importantly, industry. Those bodies need to come together in a positive way to tackle this scourge.
I am aware of that, and it appears that that figure is falling as a result of the escalation in lead thefts from church roofs. That is of some concern, especially as insurance is very hard to come by for some of the churches that have suffered.
The measures in this motion were agreed by the affected industries and, importantly, by members of the all-party group on combating metal theft. However, the Government’s two announcements somewhat sit in isolation, and that is where the concern lies. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill is an unsuitable legislative vehicle, so we need to move beyond it. It appears to be have been commandeered at the 11th hour and, unfortunately, no other measures have been allowed to be added to it. The Bill passed through this House only last November and notably absent were any measures to tackle metal theft. That raises further questions about this House’s ability to scrutinise last-minute amendments from the Lords.
In November, the Chancellor announced a £5 million pilot which has been started in the north-east—Operation Tornado. However, it will not report back until July, when the Olympics begin and Parliament starts its summer recess. I am concerned about that, as the approach being taken all seems a little disjointed, and I appeal to the Minister to bring coherence to the Government’s strategy.
Metal theft is a very particular type of crime. That is because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) said, its effects are disproportionate to the impact it has on other people; stealing £20-worth of metal can cause £100,000-worth of damage. Such a theft can remove a war memorial or result in the loss of life, and it cannot be calculated in financial terms in some cases. A theft in the Dartford tunnel area caused £29 million-worth of damage and a recent metal theft in Glasgow caused a further £14 million-worth of damage, including the part closure of a hospital.
Metal theft is also a very particular type of crime because the effectiveness of policing it is limited; the nation’s metal estate is so vast that there is not a police solution. The Government must look more intelligently and co-operatively if we are to “design out” the problem. We are talking about a failure of regulation and of joined-up working, not of policing.
I have only 10 minutes available and I would like to make some progress.
In 2010, only 21 people were proceeded against under the 1964 Act, and only 18 were found guilty and sentenced. Of these 18, 10 received a fine and eight were given a conditional discharge. The average fine was £379, and only once was the maximum of £1,000 used. I welcome the response by the Home Secretary on sentencing and the comments of Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, who recently said that the Crown Prosecution Service would be taking a “firm stand” against metal thieves and would spell out the level of public disgust to judges.
Unfortunately, I am never shocked by the scale of criminal activity in the scrap metal industry. Cash is king for one reason and HMRC needs to wake up to that, as the Treasury is losing millions in revenue. A sting article in the Daily Mail last week exposed the size of the problem in the industry, as 40% of the dealers approached accepted metal that the undercover journalist told them was stolen. Shockingly, none of them reported this alleged crime to the police, and this is simply not good enough.
Two previous sting operations by BBC London and The Daily Telegraph have shown that those cases are not isolated. The measures called for in the motion will support honest dealers who play by the rules. Without those changes, the dishonest and the criminal will have a commercial advantage. I welcome the story of a south London scrap metal dealer, Stuart Nebbett, who is donating £21,000 to replace stolen plaques from war memorials in south London.
The industry needs reform. Last night, in the other place, the Minister stated that a robust licensing scheme would be brought in “as soon as possible”, but I should like to know when and how. I do not want to see any drift on this matter or any relaxation of tough regulation. The way to deal effectively with this crime is to choke it off at the point at which it enters the system, before war memorials can be laundered through apparently legitimate metal dealers and before all traceability is lost. Legitimate dealers are being infected through actions at entry-level points in scrap metal trading. The public need a commitment from the Government that they will introduce a full licensing scheme funded by a licence fee. That is the first step towards fully legitimising the scrap metal industry and is a prerequisite to the introduction of cashless payments, as it would provide a robust legal framework with traceability at the heart of the process, particularly by giving magistrates the power to add licensing restrictions.
There is also a need for increased powers for police to enter, search and close the premises of those suspected of dealing in illegally obtained scrap metal. At the moment, they require a warrant to enter premises that are not registered by the local authority. It is important in identifying stolen metal entry points that the Environment Agency waste carrier notices are enforced and that other agencies and, crucially, the public can identify itinerant traders and, at the other end of the scale, illegal containerisation with the introduction of vehicle badging.
The robust measures called for in the motion are one half of the solution, but good practice is the other half and I am concerned that we might turn a blind eye to good practice should we regulate the industry. Together, those two kinds of action will free up scarce resources to deal with displacement of the crime and to allow the agencies involved to shift resources to the hardcore criminals who will seek to divert their criminal activities away from regulated scrap metal dealers.
I conclude by affirming that the House wants to know what the Government are going to do and when they are going to do it. Lord Henley said last night in the other place that
“as soon as possible…by whatever legislative means is appropriate, we will bring forward the further amendments that need to be made, particularly to the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964.”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 February 2012; Vol. 735, c. 54.]
I welcome those comments. If the Government do have a clear strategy, I hope that the Minister will be able to make that clear and provide a road map and timetable for regulation. At the moment, it appears to the industry and those outside it that this might be policy on the hoof.
My interest in this vital subject was sparked by the near-nightly chronicling of metal thefts in the black country by the excellent six-nights-a-week Express and Star newspaper, which is the most widely read regional paper in the country. As the global price of metals such as lead and copper has climbed higher due to surging demand in emerging economies such as China, so the number of reports of metal thefts in local newspapers in my constituency has increased. Having studied the impact of this particular crime, and having set up with my friend the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) the all-party group on combating metal theft, it is my belief that most stolen metal is laundered within a few miles of where it is stolen. The most obvious reason for this is that the opportunist, unprofessional thief does not have the means, inclination or transportation to move several tonnes of stolen metal. Therefore, a car, pick-up truck or van-load of metal is usually weighed in at the nearest scrap yard that is known to pay cash with no questions asked.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. There is certainly a loss to the Exchequer and one often finds that the vehicles are uninsured and have no MOT. There is often criminality at all levels in this area.
I have a number of scrap yards in my constituency and there are many in the Dudley borough, the majority of which are run by law-abiding people who would not dream of laundering stolen metal for cash. I have visited one such dealer, Hudsons of Dudley in Brierley Hill, to see how the legitimate side of the trade operates. However, I suspect that the concentration of metal dealers in the Dudley borough and the black country has made my constituency and neighbouring constituencies a metal theft hot spot.
Legitimate metal dealers have told me that yards they know of are regularly visited by youths carrying bags—often sports bags or even supermarket carrier bags—containing copper wire that is promptly weighed in for cash. I have even been told of a metal dealer’s customer record book containing the name Mickey Mouse and the address Disneyland, Paris. That reinforces my view that metal is usually sold within a few miles of where it has been stolen. A youth carrying copper wire in a plastic bag to a scrap yard clearly is not a professional, licensed or regulated commodity dealer who is monitoring the market, moving stock and options around, buying when the price falls, selling when the price rises and transporting metal between supplier and customer in liveried, professional fleets of vans and trucks. That is not to say that everybody who sells small quantities of metal for cash on a regular basis is handling stolen goods, but it is clear from police reports, infrastructure, energy and transport networks and insurance company records that much of it is stolen.
The problem of metal theft was becoming so acute in my community that last February I arranged for the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), to meet a delegation of metal dealers and business people from the black country. They came down to the House to meet the Minister and his officials to discuss measures to combat metal theft, and Mr Hudson of the aforementioned Hudsons of Dudley was one of the business men present. One of the problems we discussed with the Minister was that a legitimate metal dealer cannot compete with the cash-in-hand payment of a dealer who is prepared to launder stolen metal. A legitimate dealer paying the market price and declaring everything to the tax authorities cannot compete with a dealer who is prepared to pay cash and who does not declare all that he or she should to the relevant authorities.
It seems to me that there are only two reasons for wanting cash payments in business. The first is that one is prepared to launder stolen goods, with the cash rendering the seller untraceable, and the second is that one wishes to avoid the all-seeing eyes of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. In some cases, it may be both. I know from my time in business that the use of cash is actively discouraged today. There are sensible but quite onerous reporting requirements in place to prevent money laundering and tax evasion by companies. There is also a massive security risk while the cash is on the company’s premises—typically an ordinary office and not a bank-like building with all the necessary security features—and while the cash is being transported in the footwell or boot of, say, a company car and then on foot from the parking bay to the local high street bank to be paid in. It is high time that this industry was modernised and properly regulated. I am a natural deregulator, but this is one industry for which, as the Home Secretary said in her written statement last week:
“Cash transactions…are often completed without any proof of personal identification or proof that the individual legitimately owns the metal being sold. This leads to anonymous, low-risk transactions for those individuals who steal metal. In addition, the widespread use of cash facilitates poor record keeping by the metal recycling industry and can support tax evasion activity.”—[Official Report, 26 January 2012; Vol. 539, c. 26WS.]
Having spoken out several times about metal theft, I have received representations from the British Metals Recycling Association, which appears to make the sole argument that eliminating cash from the metal trade will drive the illegal trade underground. First, I would hope that no members of an organisation such as the BMRA would knowingly be involved in laundering metal above ground. Once stolen metal enters the chain of supply it is hard, if not impossible, to trace, and once it has been melted down it is virtually impossible to trace. That is why it must be prevented from entering in the first place through measures such as those we are calling for in the motion. Large metal recyclers cannot verify the source of every ounce of metal they process, and stolen material is undoubtedly laundered lower down the chain, ending up in domestic use or being exported to fast-emerging markets abroad.
Secondly, there will always be a small minority of rogue traders willing to launder stolen metal. The Government’s recent actions will not completely eliminate metal theft—hence the need to go further and faster, as we have called for in our motion—but I confidently predict that outlawing the use of cash will do much to reduce dramatically instances of this particular crime.
May I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on the way he introduced the debate and on the lead he has shown on this important issue? I congratulate also the other authors of the excellent motion we are debating. This is an important time for tackling this issue.
I start my brief remarks by congratulating the Government and agreeing with them on some of what they are doing. I agreed with the Home Secretary when she said last month that people who deal in stolen metal are criminals “pure and simple.” Yes, they are. I also agree with the crime prevention Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) when he said last year that metal theft is not “a victimless crime.” No, it is not.
My constituents would agree with both those statements, particularly if they use the east coast rail line, where cable theft seriously disrupts services at least once a week. Tynemouth residents would agree too, because they are angry when war memorials are vandalised or cowardly thieves steal commemorative plaques from seafront benches. They ask why it is taking such a long time to get to the right place on the matter.
The Government sometimes stand accused, particularly by Opposition Members, of going too far, too fast, but on this issue they are not going far or fast enough. For example, when the pilot scheme to tackle metal theft in the north-east was announced—Operation Tornado—I sincerely welcomed and supported it, but there was an earlier pilot, Operation Fragment, in 2009, and when I asked the Home Office in a parliamentary question whether any evaluation of that pilot had taken place since the election, the Government said that they were learning from previous operations.
The Home Office then announced a metal theft taskforce, which sounds very much like the metal theft unit in the Home Office that was disbanded. Yesterday in another place, the Government announced that they are considering legislative changes, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn said, he has introduced a private Member’s Bill that is fit for purpose, so the Government need consider no further.
It is baffling. Why has it taken so long to act? Was it because after the general election Home Office officials were told to disregard everything that had gone before and start a year zero policy? Has the Home Office, like the Justice Secretary, been convinced of the view that in a recession crime will inevitably go up? It did not go up during the 2008 recession and it does not have to be inevitable now. Alternatively, did the Home Office fail to see the link between commodity prices and theft and thus what was coming?
What can be done? Certainly cashless sales and increased fines will help, but the answer is not reform of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964, but its replacement. The police need real powers to enter scrap yards and to close premises if necessary.
I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech immensely. I am sure that, like me, he goes on operations with his local police force, and if he has not done so, he should. I have sat outside a scrap yard in my constituency with police officers, observing the arrival of vehicle after vehicle that was known to the police. They know the criminals are there, but they are powerless to do anything. Does my hon. Friend share that view?
Yes. It is important that we give the police powers to do something about that situation. If I was sitting outside a scrap yard in the circumstances my hon. Friend describes, I hope I should not just be there with police officers. I hope I would be there with people from the Department for Transport and the tax office. If people are breaking the law by illegally selling and buying scrap metal, they will be breaking other laws. It is important that officials work together in what used to be known as the Al Capone approach—if we cannot get them for scrap metal sales, get them for something else.
We need to license scrap yards, which is important not simply to crack down on illegitimate dealers, but to protect legitimate businesses, because as we have heard, they are being dragged down by some of the practices elsewhere. Criminals must pay for their crime, not just through increased fines but by our making sure that when they are convicted, their assets are seized.
The Government need to act quickly to get a grip on the problem. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn said, they cannot even give a proper estimate of the cost to the public purse and to the community of metal theft. Figures vary from Deloitte’s estimate of £220 million to £770 million. That is a big gap and I am not sure even those figures give a proper view of the scale of what is going on. Nor can the Government say in how many cases assets are seized after conviction of the perpetrators.
I shall be genuinely interested in hearing the Minister’s response. She is the fifth Minister in this Government to deal with the matter, so I hope she will bring focus and action. The answer is in the motion. I hope the Government accept the motion and that they implement it as soon as possible. They could make a good start by indicating this evening that they intend to take up the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn.
Metal theft has been a major issue in Derbyshire. Since October alone, more than 800 crimes have been reported. Fortunately, Derbyshire police have taken the issue to their heart. Operation Calanthia has led to 63 arrests and I am delighted to say that people have been arrested for the metal thefts in Smisby and Melbourne.
However, it is not just my beloved Derbyshire that is suffering; the picture is much bigger, as we have already heard. The most interesting question is what we should do with metal dealers who make cash payments and say that they have robust recording arrangements. We really need to discuss what sort of licensing agreements there should be.
We have good metal dealers in South Derbyshire. They run robust premises.
As a former councillor, my hon. Friend will know that local authorities, which license alcohol and gambling, are perfectly set up to undertake licensing. I commend to her what is going on in north Lincolnshire where the police and the local council have been working together on a voluntary licensing scheme, which has considerably reduced metal theft over the last six months.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. There are voluntary agreements, but the difficulty is when cables have been stolen, or great big metal electricity boxes—substations. I do not know how on earth people manage to steal these things without anybody noticing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) mentioned Lincolnshire, where I too have been a victim of metal theft. My whole home was trashed because thieves stole the boiler without turning off the water. Ordinary people are suffering and we demand that the Government take urgent action. People are fed up. There has been too much prevarication for too long.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but how do we have a robust licensing process that is not too onerous and expensive? Local authorities are the obvious people to do it, falling in line with alcohol licensing. That would fit really well. I do not want good professional firms to be penalised by more red tape and more cost, but they have to step up to the plate—no pun intended—and say that we need to clean up the whole process. It is not acceptable for everybody to turn a blind eye to the rogue dealers in all our areas.
My hon. Friend talked about boiler theft. It is a most amazing new theft and I keep hearing about it. People are encouraged to put in new eco-boilers that are very green and efficient. Three months’ later their houses are burgled and the boilers are taken. I suggested to the police that we ought to put identification numbers on boilers, but it would be a huge piece of new bureaucracy, so my good police came up with the suggestion of using SmartWater. It is a very good system, but will we really be putting SmartWater on every church roof? Will we put it on memorials? The situation is quite incredible. [Interruption.] We shall to buy need shares in SmartWater.
St Mary’s Church in Erdington has been robbed four times of the lead on its roof. Does the hon. Lady agree with a parishioner of that fine church who said that it is not until such time as the police have power to put out of business rogue scrap metal merchants that we shall see an end to this scandalous trade?
Absolutely right. One of the most robust statements by the Home Secretary was about her stance on this policy. We have had a green light to say that we have had enough. Our communities are up in arms, and people are suffering enormously. The cost to the taxpayer and communities is beyond the pale. I am delighted that this Back-Bench motion has been tabled, and I look forward to the Minister’s reply. South Derbyshire will be a better place when we finally get this sorted out.
I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) for securing the debate; I am grateful to colleagues from the West Midlands and West Mercia police areas for signing the motion. As Members will know, the iron bridge is in my constituency, so it is appropriate that I should speak. When I left yesterday, it was still there, I am pleased to say. People sometimes call my constituency the birthplace of global warming—I do not know whether that is a tribute or not.
I follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn in saying that metal theft has reached epidemic proportions. It is not a new problem, let us face it: it has been going on for many years. Households face repeated problems, including power cuts. Commuters face delays on their way to work; metal is being stolen from churches, schools, factories, private homes and public buildings.
One of my constituents recently faced a ridiculous situation. They cleaned their fridge-freezer, put it out by the back door, washed it down and went inside for a cup of coffee. When they came out, they found that it had gone. Does my hon. Friend agree that theft is happening at all sorts of levels?
I do, and I shall come on to the gangs who travel round estates taking property from people, often from their premises. Those gangs may do a good job clearing up material that would otherwise be fly-tipped, but they need to do it with permission, and they should be regulated.
I have been contacted by the chairman of my police authority in West Mercia, who told me that there has been an alarming increase in the number of recorded metal theft offences. An additional 131 offences were recorded when comparing April to December 2011 to April to December 2010—a 12% rise—and those figures exclude the figures for the theft of catalytic converters, which have risen by 152%, and of lead flashings, which have shown a 92% rise.
My hon. Friend mentioned catalytic converters, which reminds me of a case in Darlington. The owners of Bathroom World—bathroom fitters—had the catalytic converter stolen from their van, resulting in their being unable to fulfil orders and spending £3,000 to replace a piece of metal that was worth just a couple of hundred pounds. There are often consequences beyond the missing piece of equipment itself.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to discuss the knock-on effects on businesses and on the wider economy this evening. She makes a valuable contribution.
I understand that in West Mercia, recent offences have been committed at telephone base stations and national grid substations. The view of the police in our area is that the amount of metal being stolen shows that these crimes are being perpetrated by organised criminal gangs who are diverting their activity from other criminal arenas. They are using the cash environment for metal theft to fund other crime, which is extremely worrying. Cash generated by metal theft can be diverted into other crime, including organised crime. Those arrested often have previous history for distraction burglary and rogue trader offences. That organised component of criminal activity is significant.
We have heard that the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 is no longer adequate for the modern day, and we need a licensing regime, as Members have said. I shall come on to that. Metal theft is dangerous. The British Transport police report a significant increase in cable theft, and say that from April 2010 to 31 March 2011 there was a 70% increase in such theft. It is one of the biggest crimes that the railway industry has to deal with. It puts people’s lives at risk, and it costs the economy a fortune. In the Wales and Western BTP area, thefts, including attempted theft and malicious damage, rose from 369 in 2009 to 549 in 2010.
As I said earlier, public buildings are being targeted, and we have all heard stories of churches and chapels being targeted for metal theft. I was listening to Radio 4 as I travelled down from Telford yesterday, and I heard about the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) raised in an intervention. The loss that ecclesiastical insurers are willing to cover is £5,000 on a church building—£10,000 if an alarm is fitted to the roof. The problem, however, is that the scale of metal theft is enormous, and it costs tens of thousands of pounds to replace the metal stolen from church buildings. It is impossible to secure an entire building with an alarm system, so there is a serious problem.
I find it disheartening that people would want to steal from religious buildings, but it does not stop there. Some metal thieves really know how to plumb the depths. I said earlier that metal theft is not a new phenomenon, and my family has experience of that. A number of years ago, thieves stole a commemorative plaque relating to my wife’s parents from the crematorium in Shrewsbury. How low can someone go? They have to stoop pretty low to do that kind of thing, but some people are trying to stoop even lower. As we have heard, they are stealing metal from war memorials that commemorate people who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. [Interruption.] I will not give way again, because I am running out of time.
I am pleased that steps have been taken to protect war memorials. SmartWater, which has been mentioned, is based in my constituency. The company is working to ensure that memorials are protected by using a water product to place a chemical signature on them. It is invisible to the naked eye, but it can be traced. However, as we have heard, it cannot be put on everything. It can be put on certain artefacts, and it can be used internally in buildings. People can also buy it to use in their home.
We have to get rid of the cash environment for metal. We have to make sure that people process sales through cheques, BACS or other credit systems, and we need a more robust licensing regime. Banning cash transactions on its own will not be enough. We need better licensing arrangements to tackle metal theft. We need tougher police powers. The police need the capacity to go into scrap metal dealers’ yards, inspect the premises under the licensing regime, and tally off sales, matching what has been spent with payments to people coming in. It is really important, and the Government need to act.
Order. A large number of Members wish to speak, as can be seen from looking around the Chamber. I know that everyone wants to try to speak in this important debate, so I am reducing the time limit for speeches to four minutes. Will Members please remember that interventions add time to those four minutes? They help the person on their feet; they do not help the Member who is still waiting make a speech.
I would like to start by congratulating the hon. Members for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), for Dudley South (Chris Kelly), for Worcester (Mr Walker) and for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing this Backbench Business debate on a subject that undoubtedly has an impact on constituents of every Member of the House. The scale of metal theft has rocketed in recent years as the price of scrap metal has risen. For example, the price of copper has risen by more than 200% since the end of 2008, and by more than 400% since 1997, so the incentive to steal it has increased significantly over the past 15 years.
The problem is most acute on the railways. In 2010-11, 35,000 rail services were either cancelled or delayed as a result, at a cost of over £16 million. Theft has cost Network Rail £43 million in the past three years, and the Association of Train Operating Companies estimates that the knock-on effects cost the wider economy between £16 million to £20 million. However, the problem is certainly not confined to the railways. Churches, other religious buildings and monuments have become easy targets for thieves. Metal theft has cost churches in Manchester over £1 million in the past five years, including in my own constituency, where the lead was stolen off the roof of one of the church buildings in Southern cemetery twice in one month. Since 2007 there have been 480 claims from the Anglican diocese, and Ecclesiastical Insurance, which covers the insurance of churches, paid out more than £8.5 million in 2010.
Local authorities and water companies fare no better. Thames Water estimates that metal theft costs it £1.2 million each year, and Wessex Water claims that it has cost it £1 million since 2010. Manhole cover theft costs North Somerset council £40,000 a year and Newham council £60,000 a year. In Manchester we have a particular problem with the theft of drain gully tops, so much so that they are now replaced by a non-metallic alternative. In fairness, the local council is quick to respond to reports of missing gully tops, but their theft is a real hazard to the safety of cyclists, pedestrians and motorists, as gaping holes are created on the road next to the pavement.
In November last year the Transport Committee undertook an inquiry into cable theft on the railways. Its conclusions were not altogether surprising:
“A key factor to the increase in cable theft is the ease with which illegally obtained copper cable can be sold on and laundered into the legitimate trade. The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 is inadequate to regulate the modern industry and reform of this legislation is necessary.”
Clearly the scrap metal trade is the weak link in efforts to combat metal theft crime. The Committee’s recommendations were not dissimilar to those put forward in the motion, and ultimately these additional steps might be required finally to bring about a reduction in scrap metal theft.
However, there has already been a swift response from the Government. In November they provided £5 million to establish a dedicated metal theft taskforce that will improve law enforcement on the illegal sale of scrap metals. Moreover, the Home Secretary laid a ministerial statement before Parliament only four days after the Transport Committee’s report was published. The statement proposed amending legislation and creating a new criminal offence to prohibit cash payments for the purchase of scrap metal and to significantly increase the fines for all offences under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964, which regulates the scrap metal industry. That will be done by amending the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill—
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and other hon. Members on their work to secure this important debate on the epidemic of metal theft. In the short time available, I would like to concentrate on the work of the Transport Committee on its recent report on cable theft on the railways, to which the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) has already referred.
Cable theft on the railways is an escalating problem of increasing importance. First, there is the disruption. Last year alone over 35,000 national rail services were cancelled or delayed, which meant 3.8 million passenger journeys thwarted. Secondly, it costs the public purse a great deal of money. Network Rail estimates that it has paid £43 million out directly over the past three years, and there has perhaps been an additional £20 million cost to the economy. Thirdly, lives are at risk. The British Transport police have said that 10 people lost their lives last year because of cable theft, and the problem is escalating.
What is the solution? The solution lies in a package of measures. First, more preventative action is needed. Network Rail can do more to prevent theft by having better surveillance, burying cables, using alternative materials and using traceable technology marking such as RedWeb. There should be stricter licensing and regulation of scrap metal dealers and stronger enforcement of the conditions of that licensing; proof of identity for those selling metals at scrap metal dealers should be made compulsory; there should be better surveillance, including CCTV, when transactions take place; there should be records of those transactions; and cashless trading should be trialled.
Much of that work can be done in conjunction with the police and local councils. The Localism Act 2011 gave new powers to those councils that are prepared to go the extra mile and implement procedures for some of that work, so some councils, such as Central Bedfordshire, are already doing some of that work. I accept that more needs to be done, but councils can go some way already.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and recognise what she says, but the Committee advocates a compulsory system of registration, stronger licensing and enforcement, too.
There must also be an increase in police powers to enter sites and to search them. There should be new offences, such as aggravated trespass on the railways, to make the theft of metal on the railway something for which thieves consider they will be apprehended. That requires more funding—more funding for British Transport police and for other authorities. Operation Tornado, which is being undertaken in the north-east of England, is to be welcomed, but it is a limited and voluntary scheme.
This problem is not a new one. Back in 2008 the National Audit Office warned about the problem of metal theft, and during our inquiry we were told that the industry thought it was better to keep quiet about it. None of us will keep quiet about it any longer.
I note and applaud the Government’s response following the publication of the Committee’s report, and some actions have now been taken, with others promised, but the full package of recommendations has not been adopted, so I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government intend to enact the full package of measures that the Committee proposed. We addressed the theft of cables on the railway, but our recommendations apply to the epidemic of metal theft wherever it may occur.
I, too, congratulate those hon. Members who have managed to secure this debate. It is an incredibly important issue and, as many Members have said, a big scourge throughout the country.
I also voice my gratitude to the Home Secretary for announcing a couple of weeks ago the end of cash payments in scrap metal yards. It is testament to how seriously the Government take the issue that they are doing something fairly constitutionally important, which is to introduce a law that prevents an entire section of society using legal tender. This is a very welcome move, but we should not forget that important point.
Last week I met the Wyre Forest Safety Partnership, which includes the police, and talked about how we can best help them. It is worth bearing in mind that there are plenty of laws available to prevent the scourge; it is just a question of helping the police to gather more evidence in order to implement the law and to effect more prosecutions.
In South Staffordshire my local district council has worked closely with the police to crack down on those who collect scrap metal, and it has found an exceptionally large number of vehicles that are not MOT’d, not insured and should not be allowed on the road at all. Is that something on which other district councils need to follow suit?
I am grateful for that intervention. Not only are a lot of dealers not insured, but many are not even licensed, and one suggestion from the police in order to deal with the problem is to license those scrap metal merchants who used to be the rag and bone men with whom we will be familiar thanks to “Steptoe and Son”, but who are now more technically minded and have flatbed trucks. So licensing is another measure that could be helpful.
In our talks, the police came up with a number of ideas, and they have been successful locally in Wyre Forest. After seeing 60 offences last March, they managed to get the number down to 17 in November, but I shall give the House a flavour of the anomalies that they mentioned, and discuss some of the ways in which we can help them to gather evidence in order to effect prosecutions.
An anomaly that I found surprising is that the police are allowed to visit licensed scrap metal yards, but need a warrant to visit unlicensed yards. I was not aware that there were unlicensed yards, but apparently there are. That situation favours the unlicensed premises, which is ridiculous. We definitely need to do something about that.
The police would like an absolute offence of possession. One problem is that a scrap yard might have a pile of manhole covers, but the owner can say, “A lorry came in, weighed in, unloaded and weighed out, and I paid them for the scrap difference, not having seen the manhole covers that were hidden at the bottom of the lorry.” That is a reasonable defence, apparently. The police would like the law to be changed so that the possession of stolen goods—clearly, manhole covers will probably be stolen—is an offence in itself. That would put the onus on the scrap metal merchant to explore the contents of the load, rather than just check its weight. That is incredibly important.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Chris Kelly), who I think has slipped off to get a cup of coffee, mentioned the walk-in trade. It is one thing to be able to photograph vans and their licence plates when they come in. It is another thing when youngsters come in, perhaps saying that they are apprentice electricians, with bags of copper wire, because there will be no record. A ban on walk-in trade would be incredibly important.
Finally, there is the concept of specialisation. There are two sides to this argument. The first, which the British Metals Recycling Association pointed out when I met it a couple of weeks ago, is that some large companies that have a lot of scrap metal, such as utility companies and Network Rail, deal with 500 or 600 organisations to dispose of their scrap. If they were to limit that to just a handful of organisations, we would know, if rail track were found in a yard that was not a specialist rail disposal yard, that it was stolen. Similarly, the police suggest that some yards might want to specialise in certain areas, so that people know that they will deal only in cable, for example. That is an idea. I am not sure that it is workable, but I certainly think that it should be considered.
Clearly, this is a big problem and a lot of people are keen to sort it out. The sooner we deal with it, the better.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on securing this debate and on his tenacious approach to this issue from the outset. I was a sponsor of his ten-minute rule Bill in November; he has not rested on his laurels since.
As colleagues have said in this debate and in previous exchanges, there has been a huge increase in the theft of cable and other metals. The exponential rise in thefts requires an equally robust legislative response, which the Government should be pushing through, but instead they are trying to catch up with the momentum given to this issue by Opposition Members. Although legislation will not stop all such crime—it never does—it would make it more difficult for criminals to profit from their ill-gotten gains and make it easier to track and prosecute those responsible. Nobody should be in any doubt that the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 needs to be updated. We did not have things such as CCTV and SmartWater technology back then.
As we have heard, metal theft is not simply a matter of the illegal sale of stolen scrap; its consequences can have profound knock-on effects. Without a tougher regulatory framework, trains will continue to face disruption because of missing signalling gears and cables, electricity supplies will be interrupted because of the theft of power lines, and our heritage will be poorer because of the vandalism of plaques and war memorials.
No, I will make some progress.
Even some of our churches have been hit by metal thieves. The stripping of a few hundred quid’s worth of lead has resulted in many thousands of pounds’ worth of damage to the building’s structure. Some churches have actually closed.
This is a serious crime that requires Members to produce a serious and viable solution that increases police power but safeguards legitimate, socially responsible scrap metal firms from financial restriction. We must do all in our power to clamp down on rogue dealers and metal laundering. Unless the Government agree to introduce a form of licensing for metal dealers and insist that anyone producing scrap metal must produce photographic identification, their limited response to a growing problem will be seen as no more than a sop. They need to grant the police and magistrates powers, which must be combined with vehicle badging for mobile scrap metal dealers. Trends suggest that without those necessary safeguards, the problem will continue to grow.
As the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) said, not every dealer in the scrap metal industry is a Steptoe and Son-esque, turn-a-blind-eye fly-by-night. The industry provides a service that is both environmentally friendly in recycling terms and economically beneficial to UK plc. It is estimated that it contributes £5 billion a year to the UK economy, with much of that figure coming from small firms. Our plans would restore confidence and make it a better-regulated business. I firmly believe that there has to be a stronger law enforcement mechanism and regulatory framework in place, so I urge colleagues of all parties to support the motion.
I am pleased to be able to speak in this timely debate about a problem that has become endemic, and I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for finding time for it to be held so quickly. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Chris Kelly) and the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), and to the noble Lord Faulkner of Worcester, who has done much to advance the cause of better regulation of the sector. It is good that we have been able to work together on a cross-party basis, and in keeping with that approach I echo the praise we have heard from throughout the House for the Government’s swift action to ban cash payments. However, I wish to make it clear that Members feel that we need to see more.
I need not list the endless disruptions, expenses and outrages that we have seen across the country, because other Members have already done a very good job of doing so. I merely point out a few local examples to add to that catalogue. Last year saw a brazen attempt to steal metal in daylight from the roof of Worcester cathedral, at the very heart of my constituency; a number of long delays on the train lines that link us to London and Birmingham; and, as the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) pointed out, a huge rise in metal theft reported to West Mercia police. Only today there are reports from the north of the county, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), of major flooding caused by metal theft after thieves broke into a building and stole just £6-worth of copper piping but left a trail of destruction in their wake. That is a fine example of how the costs of the crime can far outweigh its returns.
No area has been safe from this crime. In a quiet residential square at the heart of Worcester, Britannia square, where for many years my grandmother lived in a nursing home, every front door was attacked and every door knocker removed in an opportunistic bout of metal theft.
One category of theft that has not been mentioned so far in the debate is the theft of gold. That is a particular problem for the Asian community in Leicester and the Bangladeshi community in my constituency of Loughborough. It backs up the point that metal theft is not a victimless crime, because people are having their homes broken into and precious items stolen which cannot be replaced.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is not a victimless crime.
The many utilities, train companies, councils and other organisations that have given evidence to the all-party group have all been clear that they do what they can to improve security and mark their property, but there is simply no way to secure all the metal at risk from theft and police every part of the network of which it forms part. Likewise, residents and constituents who might have taken every effort to secure their home and its contents cannot secure the metal fittings on the outside of their home or the lead on their roof in the same way. That is why it was so vital for the Government to act fast to ban cash payments, and I welcome the move to do so through amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.
I am particularly grateful that the noble Lord Henley has agreed to meet the all-party group, and it is positive that even ahead of doing so he has taken action on one of our main points. Quite apart from the main benefit of closing down the prime channel for metal thieves to dispose of their goods easily, as the hon. Member for Hyndburn pointed out, there is also potential for huge savings to the Treasury by closing down one of the main ways in which some scrap metal dealers have avoided paying VAT.
However, there is considerable concern that a straight ban on cash payments, in the absence of better regulation of the industry, could lead to an increase in black market metal recycling. The industry bodies have made it clear that they feel a proper licensing regime is needed, as have local legitimate scrap metal dealers who have spoken to me. That would protect the good businesses that go to great lengths to check that the source of their metal is legitimate, and ensure that those who failed to do so were put out of business.
It is right, too, that metal theft should be made a specific crime in its own right and it is reasonable, given the many additional problems that it can cause—not least danger of death—that there should be a significantly higher penalty for metal theft than for other thefts. Energy companies have provided a number of examples to the all-party group of power exchanges being attacked, and in Worcestershire gas heating systems for swimming pools were attacked, and had that not been swiftly discovered and repaired it could have resulted in horrific or deadly injuries to innocent passers by. The group estimates that the number of deaths already caused by metal theft stood at around six last year, but the total number could be much higher. This is a crime that, quite apart from its enormous economic costs, has literally been killing people.
I am therefore grateful to the hon. Member for Hyndburn for setting out in the motion a comprehensive list of measures to deal with the issue. They speak for themselves as a comprehensive, common-sense approach to regulating the industry. Having discussed them with police officers, councillors and scrap metal businesses, I am confident that they can be implemented in a way that works.
It would be wrong to pretend that the police have no powers to deal with metal theft already and I pay tribute to the excellent work of West Mercia police in Worcester in targeting this crime and recognise that they have succeeded in a number of instances, most recently making arrests, seizing stolen goods and £3,000 in cash while closing down an illegal scrap metal merchant in a targeted operation last week.
Today’s debate is urgent as we can do more on this issue. It is an example of Parliament working as it should, addressing an urgent problem through cross-party action and a co-ordinated effort through representatives in both Chambers. I congratulate the hon. Members who have contributed to the debate so far and welcome the decisive action that the Government have already taken, but I urge the Minister to consider carefully the well-researched and detailed recommendations in today’s motion as well as the support for them from so many in industry, in transport and in the vital utilities that keep our country going. The economics of metal theft have changed, making it more attractive for people to take a risk and break the law. It is up to this House and this Government to change the equation and put an end to the rise of this crime.
I support today’s motion, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and the hon. Members for Dudley South (Chris Kelly), for Worcester (Mr Walker) and for Peterborough (Mr Jackson). It acknowledges that the comprehensive package of measures needed to address the issue is not being introduced at the same time.
Those measures, documented in the motion, are many. It is clear from the motion that Back Benchers in the House do not believe that the Government are doing anywhere near enough to deal with this issue. Metal theft is reaching all-time new heights. In my constituency, as reported in Coastal View and the Evening Gazette, St Leonard’s Church of England parish church in Loftus has had lead stolen from its roof recently, and St Agnes’s Church of England parish church in the Easterside area of Middlesbrough has suffered a similar fate, with copper foil being lifted only this weekend. In 2010-11, the Church of England estate alone suffered £4.5 million-worth of theft and vandalism. In St Agnes’s case, the cost of replacing the copper stolen from the church roof could cost as much as £100,000.
Cable theft is also hampering our infrastructure capability. Since 2009-10, when there were 1,593 incidents of cable theft, there has been a huge increase to 2,712 incidents. In the north-east, cable theft has almost doubled from 593 incidents in 2009-10 to 1,087 in 2010-11. Although the Government’s proposals to end cash payments and increase the fines are welcome, they are only part of what is required. On its own, the ending of cash payments only displaces the problem. In fact the Government can rightly be accused of having good intentions while the breeding ground for further black market activity increases because proper follow-through is not delivered through other measures.
Without other measures, such as those proposed in the motion, yards can simply continue to trade in illegally acquired metals. Without adequate legislation for police entry on site, police force numbers, UK Border Agency funding and staff, vehicle badging and a proper national taskforce, the black market activity in metal theft will persist. Unfortunately, that already happens with vehicles and allows the mobile black market industry to thrive in industrial estates and car parks. Meanwhile, churches, war memorials, rail track, communication cable and industry are picking up the costs. I ask the Minister, is this a question of cost? For me, the real cost of increasing crime, with its consequences for my constituents, is the fact that they will continue to incur higher costs.
More importantly, we need to support legitimate businesses that deal in surplus metals. By not acting, the Government are undermining legitimate businesses. Power cuts, commuter delays, industrial delays and church war memorial desecration are not acceptable and it is now time for the Government to govern, rather than passing the buck, before it is too late.
I welcome today’s debate and commend the Members who were responsible for securing it. I want to highlight the scale of the problem in Pendle, where losses from metal theft have risen sharply in recent years. The impact of metal theft, as many Members have said, is not restricted just to the railways, although they are the main victims of the crime. In my area of East Lancashire, in particular, it is having a real and acute effect on smaller businesses.
In Pendle, metal theft has become a major concern of the local council and police. They have both told me that it is now one of their top priorities. The leader of the borough council, Councillor Mike Blomeley, wrote to the Secretary of State in November to describe the problems that we were having in Pendle and call for a ban on cash payments. I am pleased that the Government have announced that that will happen. Councillor Blomeley wants the criminal justice system to focus on the impact of the crimes on individuals and communities, not the value of the metal stolen. I am sure that many other hon. Members would agree that that is the most appropriate approach, particularly given how all our communities have suffered due to metal theft. We have heard from several Members about theft from war memorials and other sites of particular interest.
While my hon. Friend is discussing war memorials, I want to place on record the fact that last July in Hull, East Yorkshire, we lost a 6-foot bronze statue, a memorial to dead fishermen—trawlermen who lost their lives at sea—given by the people of Vik in Iceland. Does he share my disgust at that and similar thefts?
I share my hon. Friend’s disgust. It is a classic example of some of the disgraceful incidents that have happened.
In Pendle, historic churches such as St Mary’s in Kelbrook have been stripped of lead. Boilers, pipes and outside taps have been ripped from both occupied and unoccupied homes. Some businesses that have been targeted are now struggling to cope, putting many jobs at risk. The head teacher of Barrowford primary school told me just today that it cost more than £60,000 to repair the damage caused by lead theft from the school roof. Another example is the town of Colne, where I live. The theft of metal grate covers from back streets has been so great that the Colne area committee has had to allocate a special budget of £5,000 to replace them.
According to figures made available to me by Lancashire police, there were about 2,228 metal theft crimes in Lancashire in 2010 and about 3,400 last year, representing a 50% year-on-year increase. In the whole of 2006, there were only 508 offences. That is a fivefold increase in five years. Lancashire police think that £7 million is a conservative estimate of the value of metal stolen since 2006 and tell me that currently only 13% of offences are detected. Lancashire constabulary confirms that the rise in offending is consistent with the rise in metal prices, especially copper. Officers who have spoken to me feel hampered in identifying stolen metal and frustrated by the light sentences received by offenders who are caught.
An ongoing police operation, Operation Starling, is addressing metal theft in Lancashire. However, the problem is now so significant that it is having a big effect on local crime statistics. Despite a good record on most fronts, the huge increase in metal thefts in East Lancashire makes it look as though the police force are actually doing badly. That is not the case. They are doing a great job, but they need Government support to tackle metal theft.
I will briefly highlight the case of one of my constituents, a local businessman in Colne who has been the victim of metal theft in the past two years. He estimates the losses to his business in the past 24 months at around £100,000. He has been targeted repeatedly. Everything from lead on the roofs to electric cabling inside properties has been stolen. One gang, spotting a “for sale” sign, hit one of his buildings over a bank holiday weekend, taking so much metal that the building, with 80,000 square feet of commercial space, will now have to be demolished.
My constituent attributes the crimes to the increase in metal prices, which we all know are expected to rise even higher in the coming months. He supports the Government’s ban on cash payments and the other steps that we are taking, and thinks that we should consider other measures. I pass to the Minister his suggestion that the Government consider the old 715 vouchers that we used in construction, where tax was paid up front but receipted so traders could claim it back. He feels that a similar scheme should be introduced for scrap metal dealers. The Minister might wish to consider my constituent’s suggestion along with the others that the Government are considering. I urge the Government to continue doing everything they can to support the police and councils in their efforts to tackle the problem.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on securing this debate.
I am sure that many legitimate yards and dealers take care to ensure that their supplies come from legal sources, but others are not so scrupulous and purchase from less-than-honest individuals. Dishonest scrap dealers encourage theft and provide an easy and quick way for thieves to dispose of stolen metal. It beggars belief that no checks are made and no proof of ownership requested. I believe that these dealers create the market for dishonestly obtained metal.
Nowhere is safe. We have heard about war memorials, church plaques and pieces of metal around and about buildings. They are stolen regularly and monotonously, causing much grief and anger. Many people will recall a news story in the Swansea area where every brass instrument of a well-known local brass brand was stolen. Within hours, each instrument had been paid for and processed by a local dealer. It was all caught on CCTV and had been done from the back of the thieves’ van. What did the poor brass band get back? They got a big lump of squashed metal. Where did the dealer think that this metal had come from? Cable theft has become a big problem in my constituency.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a massive problem with cable theft from the Welsh train service? In my constituency, on the Ebbw Vale to Cardiff railway line, there have been terrible delays for commuters. We need to stop this expensive crime, which has such a corrosive effect and prevents people from getting to work.
Certainly. I will refer to that later.
Cable theft has grown. My own office was struck twice just before Christmas, which was of great inconvenience to me and my constituents. Those who have faced the disruption and reality of cable theft are aware of what people are going through. Last weekend, Morriston hospital, a large hospital in my constituency providing services to people from across south Wales, experienced a breakdown in communication connectivity, resulting in a delay in transmitting essential information that I believe could even have put lives at risk.
Every power outage has a severe effect on our communities: ever-increasing numbers of households experiencing cuts in power, more travel delays, and community and recreational establishments unable to open to the public. Both Virgin Media and Network Rail, two of the best-known organisations in the UK, have experienced considerable disruption from cable theft in and around my constituency. In December alone, there were more than 50 metal thefts affecting cable services in Swansea East. Virgin Media has provided me with these figures, and they show a distinct pattern. Thefts took place every other week, with constituents along Neath road, which is a major thoroughfare that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, will know quite well and which is a key access route into the city, experiencing severe disruption and inconvenience to their media and telephone services with monotonous regularity.
Similarly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) alluded to, Network Rail has experienced huge levels of theft. This year alone, there have been 46 incidents, causing more than 22,000 minutes of delay, more inconvenience for travellers and businesses in the Swansea area and more costs for the company. On a UK level, metal and cable theft has caused more than 16,000 hours of passenger delays and cost the rail industry £43 million in the past three years.
It is clear to me and others that we need a much tougher licensing regime for dealers. We have to end this buying-at-the-back-door-mentality and require that anyone selling materials to scrap metal dealers prove their identity and provide documentation on where and when the metal was sourced. Local police are ever vigilant, and they are doing a fantastic job and are working within our communities to tackle this scourge. They have successfully prosecuted people, but I support calls to give them greater powers to investigate and prosecute. Enough is enough. This is an illegal practice that affects us all, and it cannot be allowed to continue. Action is needed and I appeal to the Government: it is needed sooner rather than later.
I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on securing this debate, and colleagues from all sides of the House on pushing this issue forward. We have heard many examples of what a terrible crime metal theft can be. I know that my constituents, among others, will be completely taken aback by how bad it can be, and by the mentality of someone who can steal a war memorial or a memorial from a park bench. One has to be a certain type of person to be able to commit such a crime. There are also examples of the crime that put the public at risk. They involve the theft of railway lines, telecommunications lines or electrical supply equipment.
Another example, in agricultural areas, is where metal thieves nick gates, which is not only inconvenient, but has the knock-on effect of allowing cattle and horses to get out and cause damage. That costs money, the insurance premiums go up and it all causes massive disturbance.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. One cannot underestimate the potentially disastrous consequences of a herd of cattle wandering on to a railway line. Indeed, rural areas can find themselves particularly targeted. He mentioned agriculture, but rural churches have also been targeted, because they are so isolated and are not overlooked by other properties. Edwinstowe church in my constituency has had the lead removed from its roof seven times, which is simply outrageous.
One way of dealing with the problem would be to improve the legislation. However, I would also encourage English Heritage to consider alternatives. English Heritage forces churches to replace the lead, but if we could find a fibreglass replacement that looks like lead, that would solve the problem and deter the thieves, because the value of fibreglass is zero. Indeed, not only have churches in my constituency been affected, but Newstead abbey, the home of Lord Byron, has been targeted, with its gutters and downrights stolen. Again, we are talking about an historic building, owned by the city council, which has taken the decision not to replace the gutters and downrights because it cannot protect the property in the short term. The council will have to leave that historic building in a poorer state of repair, which is an absolute tragedy.
I am therefore happy to support the motion. I hope that the Government will take the firmest and strongest action. Not only do normal members of the public support that, but the scrap dealers I have talked to—the legitimate businesses—also want us to take action. I pay tribute to my constituent Edward Donnington, a local trader who has been constantly lobbying me to try to improve the way in which such trades are recorded. He is a registered scrap dealer who welcomes the Government’s intervention to try to resolve the issue, because his business has also been targeted. He has had people breaking into his yard to steal his lorry and take scrap from his premises. The legitimate scrap dealers are looking to us to take firm action and clamp down on those involved. The only way we can do that is to stop cash transactions and also to have photographic evidence of those who undertake transactions, so that they can be clearly identified at a later date if something goes wrong.
Before I finish, I want to mention what has been happening in Nottinghamshire. I pay tribute to Nottinghamshire county council trading standards and Nottinghamshire police, as they have taken the issue very seriously. They have put together a local group of all the relevant authorities, to take action and, more importantly, to inform each other about what is correct and what is not, because a normal bobby on the beat might not be aware of some of the relevant issues in those scrap yards. For instance, there is only one registered scrap dealer in Nottinghamshire who can deal in, as it were, railway steel, and only one who is registered to deal in telecommunications cable from British Telecom. If such cable is found in any scrap yard other than the one that is registered, it is clearly in the wrong place and a crime has been committed. It is all about informing those authorities so that there is cross-information, as it were, and ensuring that when someone sees something out of line, they take firm action.
I hope that this debate is a step in the right direction, and that the Government grab this issue and drive the frankly terrible people involved out of the industry.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), the hon. Members for Dudley South (Chris Kelly) and for Worcester (Mr Walker) and others on securing this debate. In the few minutes that I have, I should like to concentrate on one line in the motion, which calls for
“a radical change in how the scrap metal industry is regulated”.
We have heard a lot about the behaviour of the scrap metal man who goes round in his van, hawking and trying to get bits of scrap metal, and who is, as I mentioned in an earlier intervention, not averse to lifting anything that is not nailed down. Indeed, sometimes he goes so far as to rob roofs and memorials, and to commit other shameful acts.
I want to focus on the scrap metal yards, and on one in particular. I would like to be able to say that it is dear to my heart, but it is quite the opposite. It epitomises the worst aspects of the industry, which we need to stamp out if we are to start to regulate it properly. The people who bought the yard put up two buildings in it, for which they had no planning permission. They built them 15 months ago, irrespective of any rules or regulations, to service the end-of-life processing of vehicles. They also put up CCTV columns. The yard abuts a large housing development; it is right behind people’s houses, and the 360 CCTV cameras can look into those homes. The owners also put up lighting columns that illuminate the yard late into the evening, seven days a week. This, too, was done without planning permission.
The owners also built a wall. Regardless of the fact that the existing planning permission for the area allowed for a 2-metre high fence, they built a wall that was higher than that, so that they could pile the scrap higher. Such a fence was banned under the previous planning permission, which they have ignored. They have also built supports for the wall on council land that they do not even own.
The most incredible thing that those people have done is quite recent. Residents in the area have understandably expressed concerns about the noise, dust and vibration pollution that they have to put up with. The noise is terrible; the crashing can be heard from a mile away. To get round the problem, the owners came up with a great wheeze. They constructed a wall of shipping containers, piled three high and welded together. And, yes, this was done without planning permission. Thankfully, the council managed to act quickly, and it issued a stop order that has another week to run.
My hon. Friend is painting an appalling picture of one particular rogue operator. In South Yorkshire, we have the fourth highest incidence of metal theft in the country, and in Sheffield it rose by 46% last year. The acting chief constable has raised the issue with me, and he told me that it is the issue on which we in the House could do the most to support what he is trying to do to crack down on crime. Does my hon. Friend agree that we therefore need to give the police greater powers, particularly powers of entry and the power to shut down rogue dealers of the kind that he is describing?
I agree with my hon. Friend. We need a complete review of everything relating to the scrap metal trade. We also need to bring in a really robust set of proposals quickly, if we are to eliminate these problems.
The problem is one of identifying the rogue traders. The company in my constituency, European Metal Recycling, says that it is the biggest scrap metal firm in Europe. What a recommendation that is, if it behaves in such a way in my constituency and treats with shameful disdain anyone who lives within earshot of the site. The council got wind of the plan to put up the wall of shipping containers when the company started to prune some of the trees. When council officers went to the site to ask why that was happening, they were told, “It’s just a bit of routine pruning”—but, hey presto, a few days later, up went the shipping containers.
Unfortunately, sorting out the rogues from the good guys is very difficult. We need a robust, detailed system that will cover all metal dealers: the folk who drive round our estates at all hours of the day and night calling for scrap metal; those who walk around with carrier bags full of metal that they have liberated from somewhere; and the supposedly large concerns that trade internationally in the metal that they process. We need a system that will do a proper job of clamping down to ensure that our communities are no longer blighted by this menace.
I, too, congratulate the Members who have initiated this debate, which, as we can tell by the turnout in the House, is on a hugely important issue. Metal theft will not go away easily. Why? Because it is so worth doing. Some of the figures are quite staggering. While BT’s stock-market value is about £15 billion, the estimated current value of the metal in its cables is £50 billion. There are billions and billions of pounds’ worth of metal in our country, in some cases literally lying around—in the railways, for example. Thieves are now sawing down metal railings, and I recently canvassed a street in my constituency where all the drain covers had been stolen. Making the assets themselves secure is obviously impossible.
Because of the sums involved, the people engaged in this activity run all the way from petty thieves to organised crime. Just as in other organised crimes such as drug dealing, some of the big players will not do their own dirty work; others will be stealing to order for them. We all know that these crimes can cause massive costs and disruption. Recently visiting friends in a village in Oxfordshire, I could communicate only by text in the last two days before the visit because the village had been entirely cut off by the theft of telephone and internet cables.
Shortly before I came into the Chamber this evening, a member of the House staff told me that Norwood library recently had its roof stolen and £2 million-worth of damage was done to books and computers as a result. We have heard other stories from other Members, so I shall not say much more about that. Such stories show that these crimes are far from victimless, as a single theft can impact on thousands of people.
I am vice-chairman of the all-party steel and metal recycling group, and in that role I recently visited two sites of European Metal Recycling, the largest metal recycler in Europe, which has 67 sites across the UK and employs 2,000 people. The notes for my speech state that this is a “highly reputable organisation”, but I might need to speak to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) about that. At its small site in Marske in my constituency, I saw many of the measures mentioned in the motion already in action—for example, documentation, video recording, photo and vehicle identification are routine and there are clear rules about how to check material. The original source might be a council as in the case of road signs or items might be labelled as BT equipment. At its large site in Hartlepool, I saw what a huge-scale operation, including car shredding, looks like.
Companies like EMR support regulation. EMR says:
“All we ask is that the Government takes the necessary time to work with the industry to ensure that regulations are as tightly and effectively drawn as possible and that the necessary level of resource is committed to enforce rigorously once in place. We have had 20 years of increased regulation and poor enforcement in our industry. Without doing both of these things the legitimate industry will be harmed, the illegitimate thrive and there will be little or no impact on metal theft.”
Let me touch briefly on another area—prevention. All people with metal-related assets need to think more about how they can discourage theft. I have already mentioned BT’s franking of its equipment, but a lot more could be done. Energy companies, Network Rail and many others should look at how to make it easy for dealers and enforcement officers to spot stolen material. They must ensure that their legitimate scrap disposal routes are advertised to the industry so that anyone else receiving identifiable material knows that it is stolen. More questions must be asked about the source of the material, such as high voltage cables or transformer equipment. We must make it easy for people to report others that they see involved in this activity.
We should not legislate for the sake of it, but we should ask the police what is necessary—and make the punishments fit the crime. It is time for action and I urge the House to support the motion.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and other hon. Members who tabled the motion.
Some members of the public have said that the current economic climate and the financial plight in which some individuals find themselves have led to the massive increase in metal theft that we are witnessing. Frankly, I find such a statement to be naive. There can be no excuse for theft at the current levels. I believe that across the House we are united in our determination that something should be done—and it should be done now. As we have heard this evening, the incidence of metal theft has soared throughout the country as metal prices have increased, and we all want the police to be given the powers that will enable them to tackle the epidemic.
The figures given by Members can leave us in no doubt that the amount that individuals are receiving for the stolen metal in their possession represents but a fraction of the cost of replacing it. The weekend before last, ScottishPower reported the theft of power cables from a farm near the town of Castle Douglas in my constituency. In such instances, not only are people put in danger because the cables carry thousands of volts of electricity, but misery is caused to communities and neighbourhoods that are left without power—sometimes for a number of hours—until repairs can be completed.
I know that many other Members wish to speak, so I shall not repeat much of what has already been said. Let me merely emphasise the need to replace the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 and take immediate action to end cash transactions, especially large-scale high-value transactions. Anyone selling scrap metal must provide proof of identity, which must be recorded at the point of sale. We must give the police powers to enter premises and shut down rogue metal scrap yards, thereby protecting decent and legitimate dealers. There are such dealers out there, and they want the House of Commons to act. I also believe, as someone from north of the border, that the powers vested in the Scottish Government will enable it to act in conjunction with the House.
I will try to observe your admonition, Mr Deputy Speaker.
On behalf of the Church of England, I thank the Home Secretary and Ministers in the Home Office for what they are doing. For some time, tragically, lead has been stolen from the roofs of an average of some 10 churches a day. We have heard of many instances from Members this evening.
Whether such a theft is from a church in an inner-city parish or from a rural church, the devastation caused to the local community is enormous. For that reason, the churches and cathedrals division of the Church of England set up a working party which, over a period, took evidence and consulted a number of organisations including English Heritage, insurers, police forces throughout the country, and scrap metal merchants themselves. The working party concluded that the one measure that was needed above all was to take cash out of metal transactions.
Anne Sloman, who chairs the group, the Bishop of London and I went to see Ministers in the Home Office, and I think it should be put on the record that those Ministers listened and acted. I do not understand why Members suggested this evening that Ministers were slow. In my experience, Ministers often say “I understand what you mean, Baldry, and you have a very good point, but we shall have to wait for a legislative slot” but on this occasion, Home Office Ministers reached for the first Bill that passed by, which was the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. They said, “Look, we can get this into the long title of that Bill: we will table amendments immediately.” That is exactly what they did, and I think that they should be thanked for it.
Let me say on behalf of the Church that we accept that additional measures may be necessary in due course. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) mentioned the need for warrants to go into unregulated yards. I understand that view, but I do not think the House should be unmindful of what Ministers have done in persuading colleagues in Whitehall to accept amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. Members should also not be unmindful of the fact that this will be the first ever commercial activity where cash is not allowed to be used—and, indeed, where using cash will be a criminal offence. Credit should be given where credit is due, and I therefore simply say thank you.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on securing this debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Chris Kelly) said, this is an important debate because metal theft has been growing exponentially over the past several years. This issue is a national concern and also affects individuals and communities. I cannot believe that any of the UK’s 650 constituencies has not been affected in one way or another by the blight of metal theft.
In 2011 in Crawley constituency there were 108 reported incidents of metal theft. However, the police tell me that that is, in fact, only a small fraction of the total number of such thefts, and I am sure they are right. There has been a range of different types of metal theft in my constituency, as I am sure is also the case throughout the country. In my constituency, eight schools and three churches had lead taken from their roofs in the last year. Such crimes are often only discovered when it rains several days later and the buildings concerned suffer a great deal of structural damage. Other types of theft include thefts of catalytic converters from garages and thefts from domestic dwellings.
I pay tribute to my local police. Chief Inspector Steve Curry is in charge of Crawley police station, on behalf of Sussex police. He has done a phenomenal job over the last year in reducing crime in my constituency. Dwelling burglaries have fallen by 25.8% over the last year, for instance. Unfortunately however, non-dwelling theft has increased by 25.7%, and much of that has been metal theft.
Metal theft has a massive effect on the UK economy. Many of my constituents commute to London every day, and, sadly, it is not uncommon for the theft of cable, often miles away, to result in trains grinding to a halt across London and the south-east. I am not fishing for sympathy, but I have suffered from that myself. On a day when I was planning to get to Parliament very early as I had an early question on the Order Paper, I almost did not arrive on time.
The cost of these thefts to our economy runs to many tens of millions of pounds, and I congratulate the Government both on their £5 million investment in the taskforce to tackle this problem and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, on introducing amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 was written for a “Steptoe and Son” age. I therefore greatly welcome the Government’s commitment to updating it for the sake of our constituents, the country and the economy.
As we have heard, the explosion of metal theft in recent years has affected churches, railways lines, war memorials and countless public sector buildings, ranging from schools to hospitals, up and down the country. Criminals are hitting our city centres as well as many rural villages, making this a truly national crime. The growing problem of metal theft is costing the British economy more than £770 million a year, although the suspected number of unreported metal theft cases means that it could be argued that the overall cost to the economy is actually even higher. It is therefore right that the Government tackle this issue as a matter of urgency. As such, I am pleased to see that they are prohibiting the use of cash to pay for scrap metal. A cashless system will bring greater transparency to the scrap metal industry and will reduce the often anonymous transactions that enable criminals to sell on much of their stolen metal before disappearing without trace. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), I wish to use this opportunity to welcome the Government’s £5 million funding, as outlined last November, to establish a dedicated metal theft taskforce.
Although I commend the Government’s recent actions on this issue, I wish to focus the rest of my contribution on how we must now keep the momentum going. It would be foolish for us to believe that a cashless system alone will adequately stem the tide of metal theft. After all, as with all robust reforms, there is always a danger that clamping down on illegal activity within a specific sector will drive the activity further underground and into a deeper and more dangerous black market. So I urge Ministers to commit to a fundamental review of the situation in six months’ time, when I believe that the Government’s timely reforms will have had time to take hold. It is imperative that we do not simply introduce such reforms and then sit back, because there is a real chance that the scale of the problem will require even more measures to be implemented in due course. For example, should the first draft of the robust reforms fail to cut it, will the Government also consider providing police officers with new powers to enter and inspect registered and non-registered scrap metal sites, as suggested by the Select Committee on Transport? Likewise, should metal theft be plunged into a deeper black market, will Ministers consider implementing the sensible measures proposed in today’s motion? I will not go into all of these radical suggestions in detail, but they could all play a vital role in a strong second phase of the fight against metal theft.
I urge the ministerial team not to take their eye off the ball on this issue. Metal theft is a hugely expensive and disruptive crime, which has offered criminals a high return in recent years because of the rise in global commodity prices. After a suitable period of time I hope that the Secretary of State will update the House on progress and, if necessary, introduce further measures to penetrate the core of this damaging criminal activity, which cannot continue to go unchecked.
As a member of the all-party group on combating metal theft, which offices initiated this debate, I welcome and support the motion. We must address the widespread and growing problem of metal theft, and ensure that together we deliver a robust approach to fight this crime, which is blighting so many lives and communities. My constituent, the venerable Ian Bishop, Archdeacon of Macclesfield, asked me some time ago to highlight the issue in the House, and I am pleased that the Government are taking action to introduce a cashless payments system. They are perhaps doing so in no small part because of the number of questions that have been raised by those of us who attend questions to the Church Commissioners in this House—this is perhaps evidence of the worth of attending those questions.
Ian Bishop has asked me to reiterate the concerns that he has expressed. Every Church of England church in my constituency has been hit by metal theft in the past four years, and that has had a seriously debilitating effect on both the financial stability and morale of churches. He recounts one minister sobbing on his shoulder following a metal theft. The insurance available to churches is wholly insufficient to offset the consequences of this crime. He explained it as follows today. Ecclesiastical Insurance, the major insurer of churches, can provide only £5,000 of compensation for incidents of metal theft. In extreme cases, when the historic fabric of a church suffers water damage, the costs of repair easily exceed £100,000, which means that churches are, in effect, uninsurable and left at the mercy of those who perpetrate these crimes.
Ian Bishop has also highlighted to me the “ludicrous position” of the Church Buildings Council and English Heritage being too slow to allow churches to use alternative materials on grade I listed buildings. Such an approach encourages metal theft to become a cyclical crime, with the criminals winning again. I feel another Church Commissioners question coming on.
It is not only churches that suffer. In my constituency there has been a significant increase in the number of thefts of iron work from highways in the past 18 months—sometimes as many as 20 to 30 gullies a day. These are very expensive to replace, with installation costing £300 to £400 per gully, and the costs are paid by local council tax payers. Just last Saturday a constituent reported that on walking to my surgery he noticed the theft of metal posts that had been put in place to protect the public from falling into the canal at a risky point. That left a dangerous gap between the water and the popular walkway alongside the canal. It was reported to me today, on telephoning his home to check his account, that on his return from my surgery he noticed that the next set of posts had been stolen too.
The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 needs to be updated. I, too, applaud the Government for their initiative in amending the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill and I thank Home Office Ministers for introducing the move towards cashless transactions. However, we also need changes to police powers to close unscrupulous scrap metal dealers and to give police the authority to search all premises owned and operated by scrap metal dealers. The police should be given the power to inspect any articles or records kept on site and there should be an ability to close dealerships. We need a move to a robust and compulsory licensing scheme to replace the present inadequate and outdated registration scheme. The use of CCTV should help. A comprehensive package of measures is needed to address this grave and far from victimless crime.
There have been many disturbing instances in my constituency relating to metal theft. Just before Christmas, tenants had to be evacuated from their flats after a gas leak was discovered on an estate in Halesowen. Lives are clearly being put at risk by criminals stealing this metal. We know that most metal dealers take all appropriate steps to check the provenance of the scrap metal they are buying. Soon after I was elected, I toured the Mason Metals recycling centre in Halesowen. Mason Metals was working with Dudley police on “Scrap Yard Watch”, an appointment-driven collection scheme to help householders to dispose of large white goods legally and responsibly. It has now launched a new membership card programme for its customers. That scheme is in addition to the statutory waste transfer note records and is run alongside other measures.
I very much welcome the Government’s announcement that cash transactions for scrap metal will be outlawed. I understand the concerns voiced by legitimate metal recyclers, but the growing problem of metal thefts cannot be tackled effectively without proper traceability. We also need tougher penalties for those who are caught and convicted so that punishments are more proportionate to the scale of the crime. A £1,000 fine is hardly a deterrent for the unscrupulous minority. The Home Secretary has said that sentences will be significantly increased, which is very good news. Scrap metal dealers who offer a market for stolen metal, whether knowingly or by failing to carry out adequate checks—
I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and the hon. Members for Dudley South (Chris Kelly), for Worcester (Mr Walker) and for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) for securing this debate on behalf of the all-party group. Today has been one of those rare occasions on which the House has a unanimity about it, as it does regarding our objectives for the Bill. Let me add to that unanimity by saying that the Opposition support the motion and hope that the Government will too, because urgent action is needed on metal theft.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) reminded us, this has been an emerging and long-standing problem. Indeed, Operation Fragment, which he commenced when he was at the Home Office, when I had the privilege of sharing an office with him at that Department, was an important effort in developing a programme to tackle metal theft at the end of the previous Government. Sadly, the problem has increased in that time, although this is not the fault of the current Government. About 15,000 tonnes of metal are stolen each year, with as much as half of that being stolen from scrap metal dealers themselves, as the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) mentioned. Industry and commercial victims agree that the figure is an underestimate. As the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) has said, there is still a significant problem with metal theft across the board.
There is a particular problem with churches, as was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) and for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) and the hon. Members for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Banbury (Tony Baldry): 2011 was the worst year on record for the number of metal thefts from churches, with more than 2,500 claims. The problem of insurance has been drawn to the attention of the House today.
In Bournemouth, we find that it is not just individuals who steal metal but organised groups. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we need to legislate not just against individuals but against those who organise the crime?
Serious organised crime as well as opportunistic individuals are behind metal theft.
Cable theft caused the delay or cancellation of more than 35,000 national rail services, with more than 365,000 minutes of delay and a £16 million bill. Those points were made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman). Her Committee’s report highlighted them particularly, and my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) has played a role in raising the issue.
Every day, there are eight actual or attempted thefts on railways. I was particularly struck by the contribution of the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), who illustrated the impact of metal theft on small businesses in his constituency.
Over the past year, 10 people have been killed in metal theft incidents. The gas leak referred to by the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) was an extremely important incident. The Association of Chief Police Officers has estimated that metal theft costs the UK about £770 million a year, a figure that the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) mentioned, and which my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) showed has been rising over the past few months.
I am most struck by the despicable nature of the crime. In his contribution, the hon. Member for Worcester said that door-knockers had been stolen from old people’s homes. People have talked about war memorials. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) spoke about the theft of a memorial in the city of Hull for fishermen lost at sea.
These crimes are committed by people who do not respect their neighbours, their communities or the people who live in them, so I welcome the fact that the Government have acted to tackle metal theft head-on, but I genuinely say to the House that they need to go much further. I welcome the proposals to end cashless payments, as did the hon. Members for Congleton and for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier). The proposals to increase fines are welcome too, but that is only part of what is required. The motion today, and its support from Members, has indicated that the House agrees.
I worry that the situation could be made worse by the amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill that Lord Henley has indicated he will table on Report, which is likely to take place next month. Banning cash transactions, while positive, will not of itself solve the problem. Legitimate scrap yards will go cashless, but some yards, as has been said, will continue to take cash and to operate a black market. Only yesterday evening in the other place, my noble Friend Lord Rosser tabled an amendment that would give the police greater powers of entry and to shut down rogue scrap metal yards—measures welcomed by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) and others. Those proposals are in the motion and were welcomed by Members this evening, yet the vote last night—for vote there was, Mr Deputy Speaker—was lost by six.
Lord Henley argued against the amendment, but he should read the debate we have held today. The feeling on both sides of the House is that it is an important proposal, so he needs to revisit it when he and his officials draft amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) said, and as Lord Henley himself said last night, the 1964 Act is “beyond its sell-by date.” It was designed for the time of Steptoe and Son, not for the multifaceted organised criminals and opportunists of today. Lord Henley said:
“We wish to see a reform to that Act as soon as is possible, and we will make sure that we do it…We are looking for a coherent package of measures to tackle metal theft.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 February 2012; Vol. 735, c. 52-4.]
Let me be presumptuous and recommend that Lord Henley look at the motion in detail. I commend the suggestions of my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) on tackling metal theft. As the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) mentioned, those who follow best practice already do the things that the motion suggests.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford has introduced proposals to tackle metal theft, and that plan is supported by the British Transport police, the Association of Chief Police Officers, Neighbourhood Watch, BT, E.ON, energy networks, and Network Rail, to name but a few. It includes powers of entry for police, and tougher powers for them to close down rogue traders—a proposal that has been welcomed tonight across the board. It means that anyone selling scrap has to provide proof of identity, which will be recorded at the point of sale—again, that has been welcomed tonight across the board. It includes licensing scrap metal dealers, rather than the current system of registration with local authorities. It means, yes, doing what the Government say they are doing— banning cash transactions, especially for large-scale, high-value scrap metal transactions.
Those measures will allow legitimate trade to continue, which is what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) wants, but, by our making it harder and more expensive for opportunists and organised criminals to profit from metal theft, the cowboy traders that he mentioned will feel the burden of those measures very strongly. Prevention can play an important part. Private sector solutions such as SmartWater, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford, are important. Other suggestions, such as the one made by the hon. Member for Sherwood, for alternatives to lead, are valuable, and can be looked at by the private sector.
We cannot, however, get away from the fact the House has spoken with one voice, and it wants the changes proposed in the motion. The Opposition support those measures, and I want the Minister to support them too. We need a much tougher licensing regime, and we must ensure that we require people to do the things that I have outlined so that we can stop extensive metal theft. The Minister will say that she certainly supports the banning of cash transactions. She will say that she supports increased fines, but if she says that she does not support the other measures in the motion she must explain to the House and to her hon. Friends why not, and why she will not undertake those actions. From my perspective—and I think that I speak for most Members who have spoken tonight, not on a party political basis, but on a House of Commons against the Government basis—those are important measures that we want collectively, across the board.
The motion was drafted by the all-party group, with support from every party. It has the support of every Member who has spoken tonight. Time is pressing, and we need to do this. Households face power cuts, commuters face increased delays, and churches and public buildings have been damaged. If the Minister does not support the motion, will she explain to the House why not? I genuinely hope, however, that she does and that she drafts measures in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill in a different way. I will even forget the fact that her party voted against the amendment in the other place. I urge her to support such proposals, and she will receive a great cheer from the House when she does.
I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on securing a debate on an issue that rightly concerns all of us. I congratulate the hon. Members for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), for Dudley South (Chris Kelly) and for Worcester (Mr Walker) on tabling the motion.
Metal theft is a crime that affects us all and strikes at the very heart of our communities. As we have heard from Members on both sides of the House, it is a dreadful crime. They have painted a thoroughly depressing picture of the mentality of those who would desecrate churches and commit theft—whole brass bands gone and a building having to be demolished because of the amount of metal taken from it. There were really horrible stories from every constituency.
The consequences are there for all to see, not least the loss and disruption to telecommunications, as every hon. Member mentioned—I am not going to go over everything that was said, as more than 22 contributions were made—as well as to electricity and transport networks, and the damage to our religious and heritage sites. There were horrific stories right across the country.
We are not prepared to stand by and see our infrastructure and heritage destroyed, which is why the Government are taking the problem of metal theft so seriously and taking action. We are clear that the only sustainable, long-term solution is legislation, but we are equally clear that legislation alone is not enough. That is why we propose a coherent package of measures to tackle metal theft. We want to cut out the easy, anonymous reward for metal thieves by banning cash payments for scrap metal and making it much harder for illegitimate dealers to trade in stolen metals by introducing a more rigorous licensing scheme, which many Members across the House have called for. We want to deter thieves and illegal metal dealers by introducing more focused and sustained enforcement and tougher penalties.
To those who say that the Government are not going far enough or fast enough, I say that we are going as fast as we possibly can. Metal theft is a horrific crime, and the Government are stepping forward to take action. Two weeks ago the Home Secretary announced to Parliament the legislative action we will take as part of our package of measures. We will increase the fines for all offences in the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964—the maximum fine will be unlimited—which will strengthen the deterrent and improve industry compliance with the current registration scheme. We will also create a new criminal offence in order to prohibit cash payments for the purchase of scrap metal. That has been welcomed on both sides of the House.
Prohibiting cash from an entire sector is a bold step, but cash transactions for scrap metal are often completed without any proof of personal identification or that the individual legitimately owns the goods being sold. This leads to anonymous transactions that create such a low risk for criminal activity that we have seen this epidemic across our country. Requiring transactions to be completed with traceable payments will dramatically improve the ability of the police and local authorities to enforce the existing registration scheme. The widespread use of cash, coupled with lax record keeping, also creates easy opportunities for tax avoidance. We will work constructively with the British Metals Recycling Association on how his measure will operate in practice.
The legislative changes to increase fines and ban cash payments will be made through Government amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. This is the quickest and most practical way that we can get these measures into law and crack down on metal theft. Members across the House have made it perfectly clear tonight that the House wants us to go further, but let me stress that we need realistic, achievable and effective legislative measures.
I will not, as I am really short of time.
That is why we took the difficult decision not to support the private Member’s Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Hyndburn. It was not because we do not agree with the principles, but because unfortunately the Bill would not have received the necessary parliamentary time to achieve Royal Assent in this Session.
I am sorry, but I really want to make some particular points. If I have a minute at the end I will give way. Members have been asking all evening for me to answer the points raised, and I intend to do so.
Strong legislation is absolutely vital, but it must be backed up by strong enforcement action from the police and other law enforcement agencies. We are working with the Association of Chief Police Officers, local police forces and the British Transport police to strengthen law enforcement activity. Recognising the damage that metal theft causes to our economy, the Government have committed £5 million of additional funding to establish a dedicated national metal theft task force. The taskforce will complement and expand existing enforcement activity not only by the police, but by a range of law enforcement agencies.
The message we are sending out is clear: metal thieves will have nowhere to hide. We have recently seen some significant sentences given to metal thieves, which I hope will continue. I welcome the recent announcement by Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, in which he instructed prosecutors to use every tool at their disposal to take a firm stand to convict metal thieves. I make it clear that we are in no way targeting the legitimate metal recycling industry, which does important work that is good for our economy and good for our environment.
Many Members on both sides of the House asked about a number of measures, and the Government believe that the measures that we have already announced will make a big difference, but we are open to new ideas and are already considering how we can further strengthen our approach to metal theft, including the proposals outlined in the motion.
We are considering, for example, how the existing registration scheme can be strengthened, with a robust licensing scheme for scrap metal dealers to replace the current registration scheme, and we agree that the existing scheme under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act is outdated and in need of improvement. The Home Office is already seeking to make such changes as soon as parliamentary time allows.
On greater police powers, which Members on both sides have asked for, we are keen to provide the police with sufficient powers, including entry and closure powers covering the scrap metal industry, to tackle metal theft offenders, and we are seeking clarity on whether we can include amendments to police powers of entry as part of wider measures in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.
We want to regularise the position under the 1964 Act, whereby the police have the power to enter yards that are registered under the Act, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) said, their inability to go into unregistered yards is a real anomaly. In the meantime, the work of the dedicated metal theft task force, along with unlimited fines and the end of cash transactions, will tackle the problem until we can bring all those powers into being.
Any new scheme must support legal operators and promote the green economy, but it must also have the power to tackle scrap metal dealers who wilfully help the stolen metal trade, so we will consider further measures, listen to the outcome of the debate and see whether there is more we can practically do to stop metal theft. I shall now give way to the hon. Member for Hyndburn, but I hope that Members appreciate that they did ask for an answer to these questions, and I have been trying to give them one.
Government Front Benchers will not oppose the motion tonight, and I am sure that hon. Members on both sides will support it.
We are strengthening the law, cracking down on rogue scrap dealers and targeting the criminals who supply them. That is the right way to tackle this devastating crime. That is what this Government are doing, and this Government are taking action. Nothing happened during the previous 13 years.
First, I welcome the Minister’s words, because we are beginning to move in the right direction. We still have some outstanding issues, including whether the Government are going to be robust enough, but we have heard everybody’s comments tonight, and we in the plural sense—the public, Members and those in the other place—want to see tough action, so that is a key question for the Government.
Secondly, on the point about timing, Members want to see measures introduced as soon as possible, and one key issue for many Members is the fact that we have the summer recess coming up and the Queen’s speech, so legislation needs to come forward. We also have the Olympic games, and, to cite again the words I mentioned earlier, we are not far from a national catastrophe. Paul Crowther from the British Transport police said that the issue is second only to terrorism, so urgency is key in this issue, and many people both nationally and locally feel that way.
I say politely to my hon. Friend, “It wouldn’t be very good, would it?” It would not be a good advert if London ground to a halt and the rail network stopped, so it is imperative that we are seen to act.
I am grateful to Members for being here tonight in such numbers in order to express their opinion on the need to act on metal theft. The Government need not just to look at the timetable and to bring forward legislation as soon as they can; they need to go beyond legislation. We need to consider being far more proactive, so I am very grateful for Members’ contributions this evening.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes that metal theft is becoming a serious issue for the UK; welcomes the Government’s announcement on introducing a cashless system and higher penalties; is concerned that the comprehensive package of measures which is needed to address this issue is not being introduced at the same time; believes that to effectively stamp out metal theft there needs to be a radical change in how the scrap metal industry is regulated; and calls on the Government to introduce a number of additional measures as a matter of urgency, including a robust licensing scheme for scrap metal dealers to replace the present registration scheme, a licence fee to fund the regulation of the licence, greater police powers to close unscrupulous scrap metal dealers in line with alcohol licensing, police authority to search and investigate all premises owned and operated by scrap metal dealers, use of photo identification and CCTV to identify sellers of scrap metal, and their vehicles, vehicle badging for mobile scrap metal dealers, and magistrates’ powers to add licence restrictions and prevent closed yards from re-opening.