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Tool Theft (Prevention)

Volume 693: debated on Tuesday 27 April 2021

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

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require persons selling second hand tools online to show the serial numbers of those tools in searchable advertisement text; and for connected purposes.

Tool theft is at a crisis point in this country. More than half of builders in the United Kingdom have fallen foul of tool theft. A survey of tradespeople by Opinium last year found that roofers had been the worst-hit group, with 65% saying that tools had been stolen, followed by electricians at 58%, plumbers at 55% and carpenters at 54%. Tool theft is not just happening in one or two areas; it is blighting businesses up and down the country. Pick up a local paper, and there is a good chance of finding a story about tool theft.

The impact can be devastating, with builders having to beg and borrow whatever is available to get by. It is not only the inconvenience and the cost of having to buy new tools; tradespeople are missing out on work if they do not have the correct equipment to complete a job. When asked how many working days builders had lost to tool theft over the past 10 years, one in three builders said that one to two working days had been lost, 16% said two to five working days and 7% said that they had lost five working days or more. Despicable as this is, criminals have no misgivings about preventing others from going about their work and providing for their families. These tools mean the world to their owners, and the thieves have no idea of their true value. Indeed, workers often start out with cheaper tools and buy better ones over time as their businesses grow. They are a sign of the pride people take in their work.

Research from Direct Line for Business shows that more than £83 million-worth of tools have been stolen across England and Wales in the last three years. This equates to £83,500 of equipment going missing every day. Data from the Federation of Master Builders reveals that 38% of these incidents involved theft from vans. Indeed, a tradesperson’s van is broken into on average every 20 minutes. A further 34% of thefts are from building sites, 7% are from a shed or garage at home, and 3% are from inside the home. It goes without saying that tools are not cheap. The average value of a reported stolen item is £385, with the most common value of overall loss standing at £2,500 in a single theft. One in 10 builders say that they have had at least £10,000-worth of tools stolen, and 2% said that they have had at least £20,000-worth taken from them.

It also goes without saying that an incident of theft significantly sets a business’s finances back. Let me give the example of my constituent, Barry Phipps. Barry has been a builder for 38 years, and for the past 15 years, Barry and his wife have run their Princes Risborough-based building company, BEP Contracting Ltd. BEP has been responsible for thousands of building projects locally, but Barry, like far too many builders, has been the victim of three separate tool crimes, with burglaries from his home, his storage yard and his vehicle. Barry has lost in excess of £40,000-worth of tools—tools that are vital to his ability to earn a living and support his family, and his ability to provide local employment and to purchase goods and services in the area.

Because of the second-hand market for stolen goods, Barry has far too often seen tools that cost more than £500 new being offered for sale for as little as a tenner. These can include tool belts full of a builder’s collection, some built up over many years and passed from craftsman to apprentice, being sold underground for the price of a packet of cigarettes. Barry tells me that because of the prevalence of this type of criminality, van insurance companies are now charging premiums comparable to those for a new driver, forcing many young builders to have no financial protection from the theft of tools in their vehicle. Barry has yet to be reunited with any of his stolen tools over the years. Indeed, just 3% of tools are ever returned to owners. As there is often a sad assumption that reporting the theft will be a waste of time, I fear that van break-ins are too often under-reported. Tool theft is also taking its toll on builders’ mental health. The Federation of Master Builders tells me that tool theft has led to 15% of builders suffering from anxiety, one in 10 builders suffering from depression, and some reporting experiences of panic attacks and, very sadly, even suicidal thoughts.

During my time in this House, this has been a particularly impactful issue for the residents of the town of Buckingham in my constituency, where thieves have targeted parked vans in the area. My constituents want to see action taken to combat this criminality, and they are not alone, because 84% of tradespeople do not believe that enough is being done to prevent tool theft. Beyond the usual arguments about more bobbies on the beat, which I am delighted this Government are already providing, and things like CCTV, the challenge for all of us in this House is to ask ourselves what practical measures can be put in place to prevent this from happening in the first place.

From my past involvement in community safety and crime prevention, I do understand that there are many ways to stop or deter crime without placing further pressure on our police. Indeed, following a spate of tool thefts in the town of Buckingham last year, talk of how to tackle this problem was alive on a local community Facebook forum, and it was among the comments on that discussion that the idea behind this Bill was formed.

We know that those who steal tools do not do so to complete a DIY project at home—to put up some shelves or re-do the kitchen. Tools are stolen in order to be sold and monetised, and most stolen tools end up for sale online. As criminals become more sophisticated, and with meagre regulations and little scrutiny of third-party sellers, they find online platforms to be efficient channels to sell stolen items and monetise their crimes.

Online marketplaces often display thousands of tools for sale with no address and no serial numbers, providing anonymity—a shield allowing criminals to hide in plain sight. To tackle that, I am bringing forward this proposal that online marketplaces should require individuals selling second-hand tools to show, in a searchable format, the serial numbers—the unique identifiers—of all such items. The use of serial numbers would close down ways for people to turn their stolen goods into money, and it would facilitate the ability of victims, the police and insurance companies to track down stolen items.

A better and more comprehensive tracker is what is needed, coupled with a database from which information on these serial numbers can be sourced. That would help the police to respond quickly and would have the effect of introducing traceability. There could even be technological procedures in place where these online platforms are continuously searched against a database for reported stolen items.

Of course, I am not suggesting this is some sort of magic bullet that will solve tool theft overnight. Clearly, not all stolen tools are sold on the internet, but many are, and every opportunity to monetise these ill-gotten gains that is shut down will help to stop such crimes for good. I believe that the relatively simple measures in this Bill could encourage people to come forward and report this type of crime, and a tradesperson themselves could search such sites to find their stolen goods. I submit this Bill as a practical way of removing some of the incentive to commit the crimes in the first place.

I fear that there is a perception that commercial crime, such as stealing from tradespeople or businesses, is less injurious to the victim than, say, a home burglary, but that is not the case. The reality is that, with these crimes, thieves are depriving honest people of a means to work. Putting this measure in place will go a long way to combating tool theft and protecting the lives and livelihoods of millions of tradespeople. Let us take this step—a much-needed step—so it can play its part in the overall mission of stamping out tool theft once and for all.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Greg Smith, Paul Bristow, Nick Fletcher, Andrew Griffith, Jane Hunt, Dean Russell, Jim Shannon and Alexander Stafford present the Bill.

Greg Smith accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 294).