My Lords, the Government recognise the growing problem of metal theft and are taking urgent steps to address it. Five million pounds has been provided to establish a dedicated national task force to significantly increase enforcement activity to deal with both scrap metal dealers who trade in stolen metal and those who steal metal.
My Lords, that is fine as far as it goes but does the Minister agree with what his Home Office colleague James Brokenshire said in the other place on Monday? Mr Brokenshire estimated that the cost of metal theft may be now as much as £777 million a year and said,
“we have now reached the stage where the only conclusion is that new legislation is needed to tackle metal theft”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/12/11; col. 508.]
As a vital first step, will the Minister accept my amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which would make cash transactions for scrap metal sales illegal, bearing in mind that probably as much as £1 billion out of the £5 billion in this industry is accounted for in cash and is the cause of most of the problems?
First, my Lords, I always agree with everything that my honourable friends say and I agree with absolutely everything that my honourable friend Mr James Brokenshire said on Monday about metal theft. We think that the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 is dead. It is past its sell-by date and we need to look at other measures to properly regulate the scrap metal yards, because that is where the problem is—in dealing with the stolen metal. We will certainly look very carefully at the noble Lord’s amendment, which I have not yet seen, when it comes before us shortly in the legal aid Bill. If we can give it a fair wind or tinker with it, we certainly will because I agree with him that addressing the question of cash in this industry certainly needs looking at.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the stakes have been significantly raised in this issue, now that it is a question not only of very significant funds but of human lives being put at risk in hospitals, when hospitals have to close and operations have to be postponed because metal has been stolen by thieves? Does that not raise the measure of the issue significantly?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right to raise the issue of the threat to life. Already this year, I think that some six criminals have been killed stealing metal—it is perhaps a higher figure—but in stealing that metal they have caused considerable disruption to power supplies and other things. We know that that has affected not only hospitals but, on other occasions, the emergency services. That is why the Government certainly feel it necessary that we must make moves in the area.
My Lords, the call for tighter regulation of scrap yards, including cashless transactions, is widespread. We know that the industry itself wants to back regulation. I wonder whether the Minister could be a bit more specific on the timescale and when we might expect some real reform of the regulations, including particularly the easy access to cash which supports something causing not only the damage of yesterday that we have heard about but damage in our own case. We have around 10 churches a day losing their roofs. Can we have a timescale?
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is right to draw attention to the problems that the churches are facing. I recently met his colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, to discuss this issue. He is also right to draw attention to the fact that the industry itself recognises the need for more regulation in this field, which is why we want to go down that route. However, although the industry recognises the need for more regulation, it does not see the advantages of going cashless. I think that going cashless would possibly be the biggest gain to make.
Metal theft has become a really serious epidemic. As the noble Baroness said a moment ago, only about two days ago some copper metal was taken from a hospital in Wales and that resulted in eight operations having to be abandoned. I want to be assured by the Minister that the Government are going to deal with this very urgently and have some plans to deal with these scrap metal dealers as soon as possible.
My Lords, I can give my noble friend that assurance. The important thing to say is that is very difficult to stop the actual theft, given how widely spread all the various metals are. That is why we think the important thing is to deal with the handling, and why we want to deal with the yards. If we could cut off the route for getting money from these stolen metals, we would then cut off the thefts.
My Lords, in view of the danger to life in hospitals and the very possible serious damage to life due to metal theft on the railways, is the Minister satisfied that there are sufficient penalties available once the criminals—either the thieves or the receivers—are caught? I would not normally call for harsh sentences but in view of the salutary sentences given to the rioters, should we make sure that there are salutary sentences for those engaged in this dangerous and life-threatening trade?
My Lords, my memory of the Theft Act is sketchy but, as I remember it, it provides for seven years for theft, something considerably longer for burglary—which most of this would come under—and makes very severe long sentences available for handling. It is the handling we want to get at because it is the fence who deals with the metal who provides the value to it.