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Stone Theft

Volume 597: debated on Monday 22 June 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(George Hollingbery.)

I am delighted to have been granted this Adjournment debate on stone theft, which is plaguing my local communities in the Colne and Holme valleys and Lindley. There have been some light-hearted comments about the unexplained disappearance of a certain slab of stone with writing on it towards the end of the general election campaign; however, for my constituents, stone theft is extremely serious. Our heritage is being systematically dismantled.

Stone theft in my beautiful part of West Yorkshire has reached epidemic proportions. For the past two years I have been receiving weekly reports from my local West Yorkshire police of multiple stone thefts. Many constituents have told me of their first-hand experiences of this ever-increasing crime. Homes, schools, farms and places of worship have been victims of thieves snatching building materials. Roof tiles, topping stones on dry stone walls, York stone path slabs and many other types of stone are being systematically stolen. Some are clearly being sold on. Others are being used by rogue builders so that they do not have the expense of sourcing their own materials.

Scapegoat Hill Junior and Infant School was targeted by stone thieves twice in less than a fortnight. Slates were stolen from the school roof overnight. They were replaced at great expense, but just a couple of days after the scaffolding had come down they were stolen again.

Places of worship have been repeatedly targeted. A freedom of information request by my local newspaper, the Huddersfield Examiner, to West Yorkshire police has revealed that since 2012 building materials have been by far the most commonly stolen items from religious buildings in my area. Shockingly, the figures show that thieves have targeted places of worship in Kirklees 132 times in the past three years. Earlier this year, 200-year-old Yorkshire stone paving slabs were ripped up from Christ Church in Linthwaite. Replacing them cost in excess of £2,000. Nowhere has been safe from this crime.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this crime is far more prevalent than people appreciate? Last year, in my own village of Pendleton, Mr Tony Ormiston had eight slabs removed from his backyard. It seems to me that stone theft is not taken as seriously as it should be.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it is why I wanted to highlight this issue. The problem is of epidemic proportions in my constituency, where we have so much wonderful stone, whether it is on pathways or stone walls, or on buildings and places of worship. That is why I wanted to bring the matter before the House.

A constituent from South Crosland has told me how distressing it was when just two weeks ago vehicles pulled up in the middle of the night at their farm and thieves took away the topping stones of their boundary walls. Those walls have marked the boundary of their farm for hundreds of years. The toppings on the walls are very old black-faced local sandstone and hard to replace.

Another constituent from Colne Valley told me that the theft of stone slates is totally out of hand in the valley and has asked for the sale of stone to be registered in the same way as scrap metal. I shall come to that in a moment. Meanwhile, just up the road in Leeds, in the past year, Leeds City Council has replaced £50,000-worth of York stone stolen from pavements across the city—an increase of more than 50% on the previous 12 months. That comes at a time when local council budgets are tight. It is costing tens of thousands of pounds, and as I have said, these are far from victimless crimes.

I am proud that the coalition Government acted very quickly to tackle metal theft. The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013, which requires dealers to hold a licence to trade and gave councils powers to deal with rogue businesses, slashed the number of metal thefts. The targeted operations against unscrupulous scrap metal dealers, in conjunction with police and local agencies, resulted in more than 1,000 arrests for theft and related offences, and police seized more than 600 vehicles involved in that kind of criminality. Statistics show a 40% fall in the number of offences in the first three months after the passage of that Act, to the end of March 2013, compared with the three months to the end of June 2012, so the action taken then was incredibly successful against metal thefts. We are looking at that sort of action to try to curb the crime of stone theft.

I would like to praise West Yorkshire police for their action so far in tackling the epidemic of stone thefts in my part of West Yorkshire. They have launched a campaign using SmartWater. The Kirklees safer communities partnership acquired funding to protect walls in the area with SmartWater—for those who do not know, that is a uniquely coded forensic liquid that shows up under an ultraviolet lamp. It means that stone merchants or police can easily identify whether stone is stolen, and if so, it can be traced back to its original location. Letters went to hundreds of homes, warning residents of the dangers of stone theft and advising ways to protect their home and property. A similar project that operated in my area recently led to a temporary reduction in incidents of stone theft.

Many of these thefts take place in broad daylight with thieves posing as workmen—sometimes they are even brazen enough to wear dayglo jackets—so vigilance is definitely required. In the last week, West Yorkshire police have had a publicity campaign with Yorkshire’s world-famous landscape artist Ashley Jackson highlighting that the theft of stone from our beautiful stone walls causes great damage to our countryside and our heritage. I have the leaflet here, which says:

“Yorkshire Stone. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Our landscape is not replaceable so let’s stop the thieves from taking it. Stone theft and the removal of old stone tiles from roofs might look innocent activity. Examples of where this could be happening include a rural location, outside a church, from someone’s garden or in the middle of a town or village. You have no way of knowing if it is a job of work or a theft.”

The police advise:

“See it, note it, let’s hang on to our Yorkshire.”

That is the scale of the problem. I appreciate that this is not as straightforward as tackling metal theft, as the materials are not always sold on immediately for cash. However, I will finish with three specific policy requests. First, I would like there to be a dedicated stone theft taskforce, like the one that was set up to tackle metal theft in 2011. Secondly, I would like there to be a national and regional awareness campaign so that householders and businesses that deal with stone, tiles and paving slabs check where they are from, and so that the public can challenge those who pose as workmen in dayglo jackets, whether they are ripping up stone pavements or taking off roof tiles. Finally, I would like to see an increase in the fines that are handed out to those who are convicted and the introduction of exemplary punishments to deter these extremely antisocial criminals.

Our heritage is being stolen, brick by brick. Let us tackle the scourge of stone theft, as we did metal theft.

It is a pleasure to reply to my first Adjournment debate of the Parliament. The subject caused some smirks among my colleagues when I mentioned it to them, but they would realise that they were wrong to do so if they knew what was happening in their constituencies and in Colne Valley.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) on securing this debate. His comments concentrated on heritage and high-value stone. In general, stone has become a very expensive commodity. It is used in myriad different ways in our communities. Often, people do not know whether it is old or not, because it can be made to look old and it matures quickly.

Stone theft is not new, but has been going on for many years. Once, I was a young man, Mr Speaker, and as a fireman in Essex, I would go and fish off Canvey island on my off days. Many Members will know that Canvey island flooded badly back in 1952. I used to beach-cast off the point and sometimes, in the early hours, just as it was getting light, I would suddenly see some characters creeping around. I was sure that they were not fishermen, because I knew the community quite well. In fact, people were stealing stones from the breakwater—the walls that protected an area that is prone to flooding. That was some 30 years ago. Mobile phones were not available then and it was difficult to report it. When I had conversations with the police, which firemen often did, they said that it was known to them, but very difficult to handle.

This is an opportune moment for my hon. Friend to bring this matter to the House. As he said, the Government acted quickly on scrap metal and iron. Appallingly, some historic pieces of wrought iron vanished from our streets and communities, just to be melted down for scrap. In my constituency, people were injured in industrial areas when they fell down places where the grates had been removed. People walking their normal routes to work in the morning, particularly during the winter, went straight down the drains. That was very dangerous indeed.

As this is such an important issue, people would be right to assume that West Yorkshire and other constabularies are doing their best to tackle it. I will rule out nothing that my hon. Friend has asked for this evening. We are already working on two of the three things he asked for and I will touch on those in a moment. However, it is much more difficult than introducing the sanctions and licensing that we brought in for metal, as I am sure he understands.

The chief constable for my area, Chief Constable Andy Bliss of the Hertfordshire Constabulary, heads up the efforts against heritage theft in the United Kingdom on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers. I have raised this matter with him and he knows about it, not least because the milestones were stolen in my constituency. You know my constituency well, Mr Speaker. I have the great privilege of having Watling Street, the Roman road, going through my constituency. Interestingly, we got back the milestones that were stolen from it, but it was the public who were the eyes and ears in that.

We often think of neighbourhood watch as being in our towns and cities, but it is vital in our rural communities as well. Over recent years, neighbourhood watch has come together well to tackle such thefts, particularly from farms. SmartWater has helped to prevent expensive farm machinery from being stolen, often to order. I am pleased to hear that West Yorkshire police is using SmartWater, which requires infrared light to see that something has been marked.

It is not just about stone, and it is not just about heritage; it is about slate; basically, where people feel they can make a profit, they steal. Therefore, we need to ensure that we have legislation on the statute book. Across the country, police forces are aware of the problems and are treating them seriously. As Policing Minister, I say to the 43 authorities under my control that they need to take this matter enormously seriously. I expect it to be brought up and addressed at the next chiefs’ meeting.

The Crown Prosecution Service already has 14 specialised prosecutors in this area. I will meet the Solicitor General in the next couple of days to ensure that we know exactly where they are based, and I will then write to my hon. Friend. I do not want to give out too much information about where they are based, because we need to surprise some of those people who think they can get away with whatever they feel like. We need to have some high-profile prosecutions and ensure that the full force of the law is brought down on them.

The impact of this sort of theft is not isolated. It is not just a theft on a farmer or on a local authority or on the breakwaters that protect our coastline. As has been alluded to, it is about where the money could have been spent otherwise. If people are involved in this sort of criminality, they are often involved in other sorts of criminality. One thing we must ensure is that we have a publicity campaign. When people purchase these stones, they need to ask where they come from. It is often the case that if we start asking questions, the people standing on the doorstep trying to sell them to us vanish quite quickly—I was asked recently whether I wanted cash-in-hand building work done on my house, and when I told them what I did for a living, they vanished rather quickly. They were obviously not from my area. It is important to recognise that we, the public, have a responsibility as well; it is not just an issue for the police and prosecutors.

One big issue in my constituency during the two years of my listening campaign was rural crime. That was a pressing problem, particularly in the east Northamptonshire villages. The Northamptonshire police are dealing with it in two ways. The first is through introducing a parish special scheme, which will have a “volunteer special” on the beat and available to local residents so that they can have some reassurance and be able to report things. The second is that we are seeing much more cross-border policing through the “futures” policing scheme, which I think is welcome. Does the Minister agree that what we need is more police officers out on the beat, catching criminals and deterring crime on a continual basis?

That is a leading question. Let us start with the first point. The specials play a vital role in our communities. Long before I was the Policing Minister, I had the pleasure of launching in my own constituency not only rural specials, but mounted rural specials. Members of the rural community felt that they were able to be out there protecting their own livelihoods and homes. Even though we have had these difficult times of austerity over the last five years, there are in percentage terms more officers in uniform on the beat than there were before 2010—and, of course, crime has dropped by 20% across the nation as a whole. We must not be complacent: as crime changes, police forces must change the way in which they detect different sorts of crime. I cannot think of a better group of people to serve as rural specials than the people who live in the constituency, who know the people that live there and actually feel part of the community. Anybody listening to this evening’s debate—I am sure there will be millions—can hear my encouragement: please sign up to be a special; it is never too late to do so; the age restrictions on the specials are very generous.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) on his successful Adjournment debate. He asked for exemplary sentencing. Does the Minister agree with me that exemplary sentences just might wake up the criminals to the fact that what they are doing is a crime and might also deter others?

If I could just finish my point about the specials, I will come back to my hon. Friend’s point.

The point about specials has been proven in the House. Two of our colleagues have been specials in the British Transport police until recently, serving their community in parts of London.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend about sentences, but we have to catch people first and ensure that we understand the value of the products that have been stolen and the effects on the community. That is why, as I said earlier, the CPS is so important. We have specialist prosecutors, but the judiciary also have to understand the will of Parliament, which is probably one of the best reasons for reiterating tonight that stone theft is such a serious crime. It is often organised crime, which is another part of my portfolio. Organised crime does not always mean millions and millions of pounds of goods being stolen, but in my opinion orchestrated crime such as we are discussing is organised crime.

It is important that we are having this debate on the Floor of the House. I was slightly concerned when my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley indicated right at the start of his speech that a certain stone that the Labour party owns may have gone missing. If so, I understand that it has not been reported to the police. However, we are talking this evening about high-value stone, not a stone that was a complete waste of time and effort, even though Great British craftsmen probably made it for the Labour party.

On a serious note, our heritage is what we are sent here to protect, whether it be here in this great House where we are lucky enough to work, a piece of milestone on Watling Street, the A5, in my constituency, or something in the constituencies of my hon. Friends who are here this evening. We must highlight to our communities that it is their job, as well as the police’s job, to ensure that we catch the criminals in question, that they are prosecuted and that the full force of the law comes down on them.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.