Friday, 20 January 2012

Government puts politics above action to save war memorials and train lines

Today the Government decided to object to my Private Member’s Bill on metal theft, which would have gone a long way to cracking down on the scourge of metal theft on our national infrastructure and our national heritage.

We have all seen the stories of train delays caused by cable theft, and damage caused to churches by lead taken from the roof. Worst of all we have been appalled by reports of war memorials being melted down by amoral individuals looking to make a quick profit.

My Bill was particularly timely and reflected the urgency of the need for change. But the Government decided to put party politics above the potential for loss of life and the costs to business and the public. The Government have stated that they support the provisions in my Bill, but out of pure vanity, they will introduce the same measures themselves. I hope next time a war memorial or piece of public art is desecrated, the Government realise they could have done something about it.
Last Friday the Government let three private members bill pass but not the bill outlawing metal theft. The likely bill currently passing through parliament which they will add metal theft prevention to is the Legal Aid and Sentencing Bill. A Bill which has passed through the Commons and will only come back briefly to the Commons. 
The problem is that these new measures added in the Lords won't be properly debated in the Commons in the hour or two backbenchers have to go through the potentially long list of other amendments. 
Further it was our intention to table further amendments following consultation which only adds to the mess. The Government will be forced to vote against new commons amendments to avoid ping pong and the Bill having to return repeatedly to the Lords when there is no time left before the impending guilotine of the Queens Speech in May. It's shocking.

The only other option is an emergency bill but where is the logic in turning down the PMB last friday? Failing amendments to the Legal Aid and Sentencing Bill, a bill which passed through the commons in November (highlighting the Government failed then to understand the sacle of the issue) is regretfully a new bill in the Queens Speech in May with a Bill to come forward later this year and made law probably in 2013.
Last Autumn parts of the rail network in central London were paralysed leading to a front page splash of the Evening Standard highlighting the sale and risk caused though metal theft. Currently there are on average 8 thefts per day on Britain’s railways. Most worryingly, this summer will see our national infrastructure tested to its limit as thousands of people come to the UK to celebrate the Olympics. Now that the Government has killed off my Bill, there will likely be no change in the law until 2013.

The public want to see a full licensing regime, cashless payments, a clampdown on mobile collectors and a strengthening of police powers. These are the necessary actions, and they were the actions contained in my Bill. The Government is not doing enough with a small scheme in the North East, and while extra resources for the police are always to be welcomed; it is not going to solve the problem. There must be a change in the law.

Asking the Police to catch villains has one flaw. The damage has already been done and in the case of metal theft this can be £20 of copper and £100k's of damage.

Metal theft didn’t get to the scale it is at today simply because the police were not putting enough effort into it and it is naive to believe that Britain’s extensive metal estate can simply be policed. New powers are required to enter and search premises and tougher sentences for those who cause £100,000 worth of damage for the sake of £20 worth of scrap metal.

The current legislation was laid down in 1964, a time when the international price of metal didn’t make its theft such a profitable crime. In 2012, prices have soared and metal theft is now a growing industry which creates perverse incentives for people to melt down war memorials, paralyse rail networks and cause dangerously high voltages to flow through domestic supplies.

My Bill was designed to help the scrap metal industry. Legal operators who are undermined by criminal, cashless traders and dealers whose evasive practices deny HMRC millions of pounds in tax will benefit from a fairer and more reputable industry. I will now be pushing for the Government to adopt Labour’s 4 point plan for tackling metal theft, as it is apparently only the Labour frontbench who understand the urgency of this problem.

Ministers who believe that it represented Government red tape are completely out of touch. The intention is to reduce the costs to businesses and the public purse incurred through criminal actions and damage to the nation’s infrastructure. This Bill will allow legitimate, law-abiding and socially responsible scrap metal dealers to flourish.

Above all I wanted to present my Bill as an opportunity. Since I began campaigning and working on this issue, I have encountered nothing but support from the public and from those affected. This is bipartisan issue, on which the whole of Parliament could have worked together, to achieve something that every MP wants to see. While there is apparent consensus that action be taken, the Government decided to kick this issue into the long grass. It’s not good enough.