Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Osborne's £5million task force won't stop metal theft.

Yesterday in his Autumn statement, the Chancellor announced the creation of a £5 million task force to tackle metal theft. It is just a sticking plaster.

While I welcome the fact that metal theft is at least on the Government’s radar, they still shows an apparent unwillingness to legislate and seriously tackle this problem.

Stretching the British Transport Police isn’t going to solve the problem of metal theft, and £5million though nothing to sniff at, isn’t going to scratch the surface of this plague.

It is simply a wasteful repeat, a duplicity of an identical policy Labour's Home Office spokesman Alan Campbell introduced in early 2009. The results of which are still sat on ministers shelves.

The problem extends way beyond British Transport Police and does nothing to help Local Authorities, churches and voluntary organisations, energy companies and others fund increased staff.

The police work tirelessly to fight thieves and the bent dealers who melt down war memorials; however they can only operate within the existing regulatory framework.

This is where the weakness lies, in the regulatory regime surrounding it – metal theft didn’t get to levels it is at today just because the police weren’t properly dealing with it.

A recent answer to a parliamentary question I submitted on prosecutions proves this point. Because as you can see, there have been next to none. This disjuncture between the level of criminality and the level of prosecutions can’t be because the police are simply unwilling or unable to deal with it.
I have tabled a PQ - full table here - enquiring as to the number of defendants proceeded against at magistrates courts, the numbers found guilty and sentenced at all courts under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 in England and Wales.
It found that just 21 were proceeded against in 2010. 18 were found guilty. Of those 18; 10 received an average fine of £379 and 8 were given a conditional discharge. 
Policing the nation’s infrastructure is nigh on impossible and if they are working out of London, I fail even to see the purpose of a task force. The solution is very simple: make it more difficult for dealers to scrap obviously stolen metal.

I want to know two things about this new task force: how many new people will be employed with responsibility for investigating metal theft, and where will they be based?

The official statement from the Home Office said that the purpose of the task force is to “develop intelligence, coordinate activity and target and disrupt criminal networks”. These are all important parts of an integrated response to metal theft, but the causal blame for metal theft does not lie with police competence or capability (though any additional resources are of course a help). The Government needs to cut the head off the snake. It needs to make it impossible for scrap metal dealers to knowingly scrap stolen metal. It needs to make the 6 reforms included in my private members bill:
  1. They should amend the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964. Instead of the current registration scheme, the UK needs a robust licensing regime, with scrap metal dealers paying a licence fee to fund the regulation of the licence.
  2. Property obtained through theft should be regarded as criminal assets; that would allow the provisions in the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to apply.
  3. In line with alcohol licensing powers, police authorities should have the power to search and investigate all premises owned and operated by a scrap metal dealer, and to close scrap metal dealers where criminally obtained materials are discovered.
  4. We should restrict trade in scrap metals to cashless payments, and introduce a requirement that scrap metal must not be sold or processed until payments have been cleared. Photo identification and CCTV should be used to identify sellers of scrap and their vehicles.
  5. Magistrates should have powers to add licence restrictions and prevent closed yards from re-opening, and
  6. Criminals should be charged in a way that is proportionate to the consequences of the crime, not the scrap metal value.
I ask the Minister to use all his efforts to ensure that something is done before it is too late.

As long as the price of metal makes it worthwhile for thieves and bent dealers to trade in stolen metal, this task force working on its own without necessarily legislation will not make any real difference.