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Metal Theft

Volume 798: debated on Wednesday 26 June 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they plan to counter the increase in metal theft on the railway network, from construction sites and from churches.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and remind the House of my railway interests as declared in the register.

My Lords, we recognise the disruption and distress that metal theft can cause. That is why we supported the introduction of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 and continue to work with the police and industry to further improve the response. A rise in the value of metal may be a driver in recent increases in metal theft incidences. However, recorded offences in March 2018 are still 73% lower compared to March 2013.

My Lords, I agree with the Minister that the Scrap Metal Dealers Act has been very successful, not least because it was followed up by Operation Tornado and the activities of the scrap metal task force. However, figures for recent times, particularly the past two years, are not as good as the Minister indicated. In the case of railway and cable theft, for example, delays caused in the year up to 2019 are 83% up compared to the previous year. Will the Minister look at these figures again and pay particular attention to the need for stricter enforcement, while encouraging police forces to visit scrapyards to ensure that metal is not being sold for cash?

I entirely agree with the noble Lord’s latter point about enforcement. As he said, it is up to local authorities and police forces to do that to deter the theft which we historically saw. His point about cash is also well made, but that was covered by the Act. The task force was never intended to be a long-term group, and was disbanded in 2014, following the successful implementation of the Act. In the specific case of railways, the national crime tasking and co-ordination group brings rail and telecoms together. It is organised by the national crime tasking and co-ordination group. In addition, we have the NPCC-led theft working group, chaired by the national policing lead, ACC Robin Smith.

My Lords, I speak as a vice-president of the National Churches Trust. Will my noble friend acknowledge that this is an increasing problem, particularly in rural churches, and will she meet a deputation from the National Churches Trust to discuss it?

I totally agree with my noble friend that this issue is a problem for churches, but I would say that both rural and urban churches probably suffer from it. The sentencing guidelines on theft highlight that where a theft of heritage assets causes disruption to infrastructure, this should be taken into account when assessing the level of harm caused. I would be very happy to meet my noble friend and a delegation.

My Lords, in her Answer to a Question last week about the dramatic increase in catalytic converter theft, a Minister—it was not the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford—stated:

“Metal theft is down by 73% since the scrap metal Act was introduced in 2013”,

as the noble Baroness has just said. However, when challenged by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, that Minister went on to say that,

“metal theft has increased by 30% over the past year”.—[Official Report, 20/6/19; cols. 841-42.]

I accept that both statements may be true, but is it not misleading to rely on the change since 2013 to create the perception that metal theft is not a current cause for concern when, clearly, it is?

I do not think that my noble friend was trying to confuse the two figures. She acknowledged that although metal theft was up 30%, it was still down 73% since 2013. The two statements are not incompatible.

My Lords, what strategies are in place to protect our public sculptures, some of which are vulnerable to metal theft? Are we fully aware of what we may have already lost in recent years and what has disappeared from our townscapes and other spaces, either through metal theft or for other reasons?

The noble Earl raises the general issue of metal theft. In terms of an analysis of which sculptures are vulnerable, they are clearly protected from theft in varying degrees. I will take his point back to the department because I do not have any facts or figures on it in front of me. I do not suppose that sculpture is any less vulnerable to metal theft than other types of metal structures are.

Bearing in mind that the theft of metal from railways, as referred to in the Question, can be very serious, is the Minister satisfied that co-operation between the British Transport Police and the local police forces which would probably check the scrapyards is as good and effective as it might be? I do not know whether it already does so, but is there a case for allowing the British Transport Police to check scrapyards in cases where there has been serious theft from railway premises?

As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, it is the job of the police and local authorities to enforce the lawfulness of scrap metal exchanges at scrapyards. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, said, the theft of metal from railway lines can be not only a treacherous undertaking but, in many cases, fatal. The deterrent must come from the point of view of protecting both the people who might take those risks and the scrapyards that might receive stolen goods.

My Lords, I support the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, as together we piloted the Bill through your Lordships’ House. I appreciate that once an Act of Parliament is on the statute book, it is often left to others to make sure that it works, but I urge my noble friend to pay particular regard to rare earths. The Government must be well aware of the way that metal prices fluctuate. We should be as concerned about what is happening with rare earths and their usage as with any other commodity of which we have limited resources.

I thank my noble friend and commend her on the part she played in passing the 2013 Act. I agree with everything she said. The British Metals Recycling Association has recently written articles about metal theft being on the rise due to the global rise in metal prices. It is pushing for certain amendments to the 2013 Act to combat this; we are working with it to consider the points it has raised.