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Metal Theft

Volume 814: debated on Thursday 14 October 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what additional funding they will provide to the National Infrastructure Crime Reduction Partnership to combat the incidence of metal theft.

My Lords, the Home Office provided £177,000 of seed-corn funding in the last financial year to establish the National Infrastructure Crime Reduction Partnership. The partnership is going strong in its second year and is seeking funding from several sources. Ultimately, it intends to become self-funding through subscriptions from member organisations. Home Office officials continue to work closely with the partnership to tackle metal theft and other crimes that affect infrastructure companies.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the incidence of this crime can be reduced only by effective enforcement action? That worked really well when we had a dedicated metal theft task force and the British Transport Police-led Operation Tornado, supported by excellent police forces around the country, including West Mercia Police. Now the numbers are shooting up again and the national police database shows that the number of thefts rose from under 21,000 in 2019 to 36,000 in 2020. Unlicensed operators are no longer being prosecuted and we are again seeing loads of advertisements illegally offering cash for scrap. Can she assure me that there will be a new and determined effort to stamp out this wholly undesirable and anti-social crime?

The noble Lord is right in one sense: metal theft overall has decreased by 74%, but the amount of infrastructure-related metal theft has increased by 21% in the year ending March 2020. The National Infrastructure Crime Reduction Partnership is extremely effective, in that it brings together agencies that can both share intelligence methodologies and help to drive down types of metal theft, which change over time, depending on the market in question. This is a very good thing.

Does the Minister accept that her response to my noble friend’s Question reeks of complacency? It is not someone else’s problem; it ought to be dealt with by the Government. Is she aware that those high figures that he mentioned do not include the 850 cases of cable theft on our railway system in the last year? What action will the Government take to properly enforce the 2013 law to ban cash payments for scrap metal and to see that scrap metal dealers seek identification, as laid down by the law?

We talked about cash payments being outlawed some years ago, and in fact they have been. Some of the innovations like marking and tracing are now in place to make theft of things like railway tracks much more difficult. It is in working together through the various agencies that the various industries will help to beat this type of crime.

My Lords, I am glad that the Minister mentioned marking. From over 30 years’ experience in the police service, I can tell the House that longer prison sentences rarely deter criminals, whereas the higher chance of being caught does. Why do the Government not invest in technologies such as SmartWater, rather than building more prisons?

The British Transport Police has plans whereby SmartWater would cover any shortfall in the funding required to stamp out this theft. There are a number of different innovations that are helping, and clearly the overall driving-down of theft is very helpful.

The newly launched National Infrastructure Crime Reduction Partnership is looking to pick up where the National Metal Theft Taskforce left off when it was prematurely disbanded in 2014, following what the Minister, speaking on behalf of the Government, told this House on 26 June 2019 was the “successful implementation” of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2014. In light of the figures that my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester gave, which I do not intend to repeat, do the Government stand by their view that the Scrap Metal Dealers Act is being successfully implemented?

We at the Home Office carried out a review of the Act in 2017 and found that it had been effective in addressing metal theft and should be retained, but now on top of this we have the NICRP, and I hope that the combination of the two will help drive down what is in many cases the very dangerous activity of metal theft, given the types of metal that they target.

I declare an interest as I sit on the rural affairs group of the Church of England. Does my noble friend share my concern that the theft of lead from church roofs has literally gone through the roof? I know this is a matter that she takes incredibly seriously. Lead has a special significance on church roofs, as it protects many historic buildings, and the cost of the damage in rural areas of restoring and repairing the building is great. Will my noble friend use all the resources available to her to ensure that we can find out at what point this metal is entering the market? The Act, as the noble Lord said, is simply not fit for purpose at the moment.

I say to my noble friend that the various measures I have outlined today have helped to tackle these types of thefts, but also the sentencing guidelines on theft highlight that, where theft is of a heritage asset or causes disruption to infrastructure, this should be taken into account when assessing the level of harm. I say to my noble friend, as I said at the beginning, that the market for different types of metal is changing and therefore theft patterns are changing. That is why catalytic converters in particular, which contain precious and rare metals, are being targeted at this time.

What long-term strategies are the Government adopting to move to the prevention of metal theft crime, rather than responding to crime as it happens? In relation to the £170,000 invested in the National Infrastructure Crime Reduction Partnership, what is the social return on the investment? In relation to local councils, there is a clear loss of funding to them: does the Minister agree that that is hampering the fight against metal theft crime?

In terms of the monitoring by local councils of cash payments by scrap metal yards, the picture has improved. On prevention, that is precisely why we have seed-corn funded the NICRP—it is the agencies working together that will help drive down these types of crimes. On catalytic converters in particular, we are working closely with the police and motor manufacturers through the national vehicle crime working group, established by ACC Jenny Sims, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on vehicle crime. In addition, a comprehensive and co-ordinated programme of work to reduce catalytic converter theft is being undertaken by an expert subgroup.

My Lords, metal theft is organised crime on a national scale. As the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, just reminded us, lead theft from village churches in particular can have a devastating impact on local communities. Yet the APPG which the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, jointly chairs, and of which I am a member, has heard from police officers directing the national strategy that they struggle to access data from multiple forces, that they cannot segment categories of theft or identify trends and that they seriously lack intelligence about how metal theft is monetised—a very different picture from the one we just heard from the Minister. Will she undertake to convene a meeting of all interested parties and create a timetable and a set of deliverables for meaningful co-operation to counter this pernicious crime?

I am very happy to convene a meeting, but I would say that the NICRP does share intelligence between forces and utility companies, which does help with crime prevention and investigation. It helps with information, good news and developing best practice. It manages a central industry and police intelligence database of metal theft, to track trends and to link crimes and intelligence on offenders. It also has a RAG rating database of scrap metal dealers—going back to the noble Lord’s point earlier—in order to focus enforcement on those known to be involved in crime.

My Lords, since when is self-financing by industry or any other victims of crime a constitutionally appropriate approach to the enforcement of the criminal law? I give the Minister another opportunity to answer the principal question: what additional funding will the Government provide for the enforcement of this crime that is costing hundreds of millions of pounds to our economy?

Seed-corn funding is generally pump-prime funding, which is then intended to be self-financing ongoing, and the agencies and organisations involved are actually supportive of this model of funding.