Thursday, 27 October 2011

Channel 4 - FactCheck: Why copper theft is the perfect crime

FactCheck: Why copper theft is the perfect crime

Metal theft has caused at least six deaths, 50 injuries, 60 fires and - a contender for stat of the year here - a total of 673 days of train delays in the last three years. But unless personally blighted by it - as Jon Snow was over the weekend - you'd be forgiven for being oblivious to the problem.

Graham Jones, MP for Hyndburn in Lancashire, says it was the "constant concerns" of his wife and son - who both work for Electricity North West - that brought it to his attention. He is not alone in calling for a reform of the Metal Theft Act of 1964, which was slammed in the Lords last month for being "still legally in the age of Steptoe and Son". But are we really dealing with a cable crime wave or has Mr Jones got his wires crossed?

FactCheck dons its hard hat.

The claim
“Metal theft (has) grown over 700 per cent in two years”
Graham Jones MP, in a Twitter response to Snowblog, 10 October 2011

The background
Metal theft has caused at least six deaths, 50 injuries, 60 fires and – a contender for stat of the year here – a total of 673 days of train delays in the last three years.

But unless personally blighted by it – as Jon Snow was over the weekend – you’d be forgiven for being oblivious to the problem.

Graham Jones, MP for Hyndburn in Lancashire, said it was the “constant concerns” of his wife and son – who both work for Electricity North West – that brought it to his attention.

He is not alone in calling for a reform of the Metal Theft Act of 1964, which was slammed in the Lords last month for being “still legally in the age of Steptoe and Son”.

But are we really dealing with a cable crime wave or has Mr Jones got his wires crossed? FactCheck dons its hard hat.


 

The analysis
The police don’t yet have a crime code for “metal theft” so there’s no national figure for it – but as you can see from our graphic, it’s on the rise across the board.

It costs the economy an estimated £770m a year, according to the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). And that’s a “conservative estimate”, a spokesman for the British Transport Police (BTP) told FactCheck. He said the rail networks are the worst affected, as it is extremely difficult to protect thousands of railway tracks with cable running alongside them, especially in rural areas.

Network Rail puts the costs at £43m over the last three years, while the Energy Networks Association claims that in the first six months of this year cable theft has cost the energy industry £13.25m.


Why copper?
Copper wiring and plumbing are vital in the construction of buildings and in power generation, but demand in 2011 is expected to outstrip supply growth, according to the International Copper Study Group (ICSG).

In the last 50 years, world demand has surged by around 300 per cent, the ICSG estimates, and in 2009 China was the largest consumer of refined copper – gobbling up 7m tonnes. Electrical power companies were the largest consumers of copper last year.

At its peak of $10,000 a tonne in February, copper was worth more than seven times what it was in 2001 – $1,425 a tonne, the London Metal Exchange told FactCheck.

As it is used so widely for infrastructure projects, copper is often seen as a thermometer for the global economy – so while copper prices peaked in February, the recent drop off to $8,313 a tonne last month made grim reading.

Who’s stealing it?
Both BT and Electricity North West have raised concerns that they are being targeted by organised crime units. A spokesman for BT told FactCheck: “There’s evidence of criminals selling for a (drugs) fix but there’s a lot of evidence now that points to organised crime gangs moving in, in quite a big way. BT is working with SOCA (the Serious Organised Crime Agency) to look at how to identify and curb illegal exports outside the UK”.

Mr Jones too, has raised the issue of “theft tourism” in parliament last month, explaining to FactCheck that Electricity North West recently recovered some of its stolen copper from a container at Hull port.

He said: “They believe it was about to be shipped directly to China.”
However, across the tracks the British Transport Police told FactCheck it was largely opportunistic:  “The vast majority of the attacks are low level – people wanting a quick buck.”

BT, among others, wants the government to introduce a cashless trading model to stop people walking into scrap metal traders and handing over bits of copper wiring with no questions asked. At least 30 states in the US now operate cashless systems, alongside France, Holland and Belgium in Europe.

BT’s spokesman told us: “The UK is a bit behind the curve”.

The verdict
No need for a scrap on this one: Mr Jones is right. Metal theft rose by 700 per cent in the two years to June 2011 according to the Energy Networks Association. And BT told us it has already seen a rise of more than 100 per cent this year, compared to last.

Why should you care? Not only are the costs directly passed on to customers in their electricity bills and train tickets, but the power surges blow up houses, kill and maim people – and at the very least cause thousands of pounds worth of damage to TVs, boilers and other household staples.

In July alone, a 16-year-old boy died attempting to steal copper from an electrical substation in Leeds, and in West Yorkshire a botched theft sparked a dramatic explosion along a row of houses, moments after firefighters evacuated 30 people from the scene.

Cable theft brought down 16,000 phone lines and 20,000 broadband connections in Salisbury in July – it even affected air traffic control and Inland Revenue operations, and it took up to three days for BT to fix.

Graham Jones told FactCheck that copper theft is the perfect crime, because the crime doesn’t equate to the punishment. “The sanctions are disproportionate,” he said, “They are charged on the basis of the sell-on value of the copper; which might be £20 – but it doesn’t equate to the damage done to the 500 or so properties (which are disrupted or damaged by cut cables).”

The Home Office told FactCheck that the first cross-department ministerial meeting on the topic was held last month. We’ll be keeping an eye out for any sparks that fly.

By Emma Thelwell