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Metal Theft

Volume 542: debated on Monday 19 March 2012

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced in a statement to the House in January, we are taking legislative action to tackle metal theft, including raising the financial penalties for rogue dealers, banning cash payments for scrap metal and giving the police powers to enter unregistered scrap yards. That is part of a coherent package of measures, which includes enhanced enforcement through the funding of a £5 million national metal theft taskforce.

Rossendale and Darwen has been subjected to a spate of metal thefts, including from the mills and, on Thursday night, from a school in Lower Darwen. Will the Minister inform the House how quickly the cashless payment system will be introduced to stop this metallic crime wave?

I certainly recognise the impact that these crimes are having in communities up and down the country, and my hon. Friend highlights the problems in Rossendale and Darwen. Our amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill prohibiting cash payments will be debated in the Lords on Report tomorrow, and will come before this House in due course. The exact enactment date is subject to the Bill’s receiving Royal Assent, but we anticipate enactment later this year.

Forty Hall in my constituency is a 17th-century Jacobean mansion that is undergoing a £3 million refurbishment. There have been three thefts in the past year, including with violence against security guards. Speed of implementation is one thing, but will the Minister assure me that there will be speed of enforcement against criminals?

I accept absolutely my hon. Friend’s point about the need for strong enforcement, and I am sorry to hear of the problems experienced at Forty Hall in his constituency. A report was published today about threats to heritage sites. We have put forward £5 million for enforcement, which is already bearing fruit, with enforcement action taking place. For example, in the north-east more than 300 police officers and law enforcement personnel have visited scrap metal yards, £900,000 in cash has been seized, and a further operation—

Order. That is very informative, but I say to the Minister that it would be helpful if we could make some progress. Reading out great screeds just slows things down. It is quite straightforward, really.

Last month, a bronze eagle statue was stolen from the memorial garden at the museum of Army flying in Middle Wallop in my constituency. The statue was placed there to commemorate brave Army aviators who had served their country. What discussions has my hon. Friend had with the Ministry of Justice about sentencing guidelines for those who desecrate memorials to our servicemen and women?

My hon. Friend highlights the significant community impact that metal thefts and desecrations of war memorials and other historical sites have had, and the often irrevocable harm that can be caused. The Bill is being considered in the other place as we speak, and the sanctions in it can lead to an unlimited fine. We will look to follow that through with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice.

We in High Peak have also been victims of metal theft. Last November a popular tourist attraction, the Eccles Pike topograph, was removed from near Chapel-en-le-Frith. I am pleased to say that scrap yards in my constituency were given a clean bill of health during a multi-agency operation last year. Does the Minister agree that tackling metal theft by preventing cash for scrap without questions is the best way, and will be welcomed by the honest scrap metal merchants in my constituency?

My hon. Friend highlights the fact that the cashless approach is essential in driving out this crime, and I underline the point that he has very effectively made.

Almost every Church of England church in my constituency has suffered metal theft. Will the Minister assure me that penalties for those found guilty of acts of metal theft will appropriately reflect the huge costs to local churches in seeking to repair damage, which far outweigh the scrap value of what is stolen?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about the impact of metal theft. The new provisions include an unlimited fine, and we will look closely at their impact as they come through.

Does the Minister not recognise that the public may be shocked that a cashless scheme might not be cashless under the Home Secretary’s proposals, which exclude mobile collectors? If they are exempt, that will create a huge loophole in the system. Does he not accept that resident householders have access to local recycling centres, local authority kerb-side collection and retail take-back and swap, and the option of going to a reputable dealer? Is the exemption not a giant loophole and an own goal?

The short answer is no. Those involved in door-to-door sales will need to trade their product through scrap metal dealers, so they will be subject to the Bill’s provisions.

I am afraid that that answer is not really good enough. On what basis has the Minister determined that an exemption from cashless payments should be made for itinerant collectors of scrap metal? Will that not drive a Steptoe and Son-sized coach and horses through the rules, and will not people such as his hon. Friends whose communities have lost metal in war memorials, gates and rails be appalled by the existence of that loophole?

I would never cast the shadow policing Minister in the role of Del Boy, but I would say to him that the provisions we have brought forward will ensure that those involved in door-to-door selling must trade through a registered scrap metal dealership. They will therefore be subject to the restrictions on cashless payment. That underlines the fact that those itinerant collectors need to be registered and approved by local authorities and police—another form or enforcement that needs to be focused on.

Order. We have been somewhat delayed by the length of ministerial replies, but I am interested in hearing Back Benchers, so we will now hear Mr Gordon Henderson.