Metal theft in the UK has reached endemic levels. Barely a day goes by, it seems, without more news of the theft of lead from church roofs, railway line cables, and war memorials, amongst others. Though the scale of this problem has now reached crisis point, this particularly heinous crime is unfortunately nothing new. Indeed special regulations have been in place for scrap metal dealers, in order to try to tackle metal theft, since the 1800s.
The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) has estimated that metal theft costs the UK economy approximately £770 million per year. Whilst recent figures from the BBC have shown that in my region of the West Midlands £35 million of metal has been stolen in the last four years and almost 30,000 incidents have been reported in that period.
It is estimated that 10 churches a day suffer from theft, a memorial is stripped in London every week, and in 2010/2011 passengers on Network Rail had suffered 6,000 hours of delays due to cable theft.
The problem is clear. But the current law, set out in the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964, is insufficient. At present it is far too easy for the perpetrators of this crime to sell on their ill-gotten gains anonymously for cash in hand to rogue scrap metal dealers. At the same time, the punishments in place are not nearly severe enough to act as a sufficient deterrent - either to the thieves or the illegal metal dealers. In fact, scrap metal dealers are only subject to a fine of up to £1000 if found guilty of offences under the act.
More recently we have seen the introduction of a voluntary code of practice for scrap metal dealers, established by the British Transport Police and the British Metals Recycling Association. Though, as we know from experience with other industries, voluntary codes are not always effective.
It is therefore extremely welcome news that the government are taking action. The Home Secretary has announced a government amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill which will prohibit the use of cash to purchase scrap metal and significantly increase the fines for offences under the 1964 act.
This move, in addition to the new £5 million multi-agency national metal theft taskforce announced by the Chancellor at the end of last year, is to be congratulated. However more action is needed. Legitimate yards will have no objection to CCTV monitoring the vehicles entering and departing and records of all purchases should be mandatory. The government must also consider creating a new licensing regime for scrap metal dealers, and increasing police and Magistrate powers to deal with illegal scrap metal yards.
Metal theft is a crime against the whole of society and, as ACPO recently pointed out to the Transport Select Committee, is not without a physical cost to those who try to steal metal from often extremely dangerous locations. In addition to the vast monetary and cultural costs arising from these thefts, at least ten people have been killed over the past year whilst attempting to steal metal. This is a crime we should not tolerate. I am delighted that the government is taking action at last but I think we need to go further still to stamp out this illegal trade.