Wednesday, 8 February 2012

House of Commons backs my co-sponsored metal theft motion

Last night the House of Commons debated a backbench motion brought forward by myself, Chris Kelly MP and Robin Walker MP which called on the Government to introduce a full set of measures to combat metal theft.

I argued that though the Government have made some progress on the issue, they are going about changing the law in an incoherent fashion and without a clear strategy. The motion was passed unopposed, giving the Commons a clear mandate to push the Government to act on the specific measures in the motion (emboldened below). Despite my pleas I did not get a clear timetable from the Government as to when they are going to change the law.

Lynne Featherstone – the Home Office Minister responding to the debate – made some interesting comments regarding the Government’s decision not to support my Private Member’s Bill. She described it as a “difficult decision”, which was taken “not because we do not agree with the principles”.

I will be following up on this last point.You can read the full debate here.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House notes that metal theft is becoming a serious issue for the UK; welcomes the Government’s announcement on introducing a cashless system and higher penalties; is concerned that the comprehensive package of measures which is needed to address this issue is not being introduced at the same time; believes that to effectively stamp out metal theft there needs to be a radical change in how the scrap metal industry is regulated; and calls on the Government to introduce a number of additional measures as a matter of urgency, including a robust licensing scheme for scrap metal dealers to replace the present registration scheme, a licence fee to fund the regulation of the licence, greater police powers to close unscrupulous scrap metal dealers in line with alcohol licensing, police authority to search and investigate all premises owned and operated by scrap metal dealers, use of photo identification and CCTV to identify sellers of scrap metal, and their vehicles, vehicle badging for mobile scrap metal dealers, and magistrates’ powers to add licence restrictions and prevent closed yards from re-opening.

First, may I express my thanks to the hon. Members for Dudley South (Chris Kelly) and for Worcester (Mr Walker) for co-sponsoring this topical Back-Bench debate and to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing Members of this House to debate this issue tonight? I also wish to mention my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), who first raised this issue back in 2010. I understand that just last night, in the other place, metal theft was once again the subject of much discussion.

Metal theft is at epidemic levels. Industry is being hard hit by daily thefts and the general public are not only horrified at the escalation and cost, but disgusted at the theft of Britain’s heritage; reports of war memorials being desecrated have shocked the nation. We have seen lifeboat stations without communications, and last month Llandough hospital in Wales had to cancel 80 operations because of cable theft. Remote rural broadband services across Britain are too frequently knocked out.

The Energy Networks Association claims that there has been a 700% increase in theft from the energy networks between 2009 and 2011. The Association of Chief Police Officers conservatively puts the cost at £770 million. I believe that a lack of accurate reporting—there is no specific crime code—probably means that the true cost is higher, but Deloitte puts the figure more conservatively at between £260 million and £600 million.

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): Is not one of the key factors the disproportionate relationship between the value of the metal being sold and the cost of replacing it? For example, manhole covers are being sold for a few quid but the cost to Sandwell council of replacing them is £400, and it is losing 40 or 50 of them a month. A similar comparison can be made between the price of the cable that is being stolen and the disruption to travel. Should not the penalties reflect that cost rather than the value of the metal?

Graham Jones: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right and many in the House will share his view.

The British Transport police state that there are eight attacks on the transport system each day, and that is of grave concern. Ecclesiastical Insurance reported that in 2011 there were 2,500 lead thefts from church roofs. Perhaps most shockingly, the War Memorials Trust estimates that one memorial is vandalised every week in the UK, and for only a very small amount of metal. Today’s debate is a reminder of the urgent need to tackle this scourge and of the importance of doing so; with the Olympics around the corner, it reminds us of the threat to essential services. Paul Crowther of the British Transport police described metal theft as “the second biggest threat to our infrastructure after terrorism”.

Nigel Martin, the head of supply at Wessex Water, has said: “Any one of these cable thefts can turn into a civil emergency.”

The Government’s response so far has been unclear. My comprehensive Bill was rejected, despite its forensic drafting by the Public Bill Office—I wish to thank the people there. The announcement of a ban on cash trade and the introduction of unlimited fines for those trading in stolen metal are welcome steps. However, the Government’s announcement misses key elements that underpin the success of a cashless payments system. First, a robust licensing system is required to overhaul the inadequate and flawed Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964.

Secondly, and as importantly, we need a UK wide taskforce to gather best practice and to bring together the key partners: the United Kingdom Border Agency; Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs; the Environment Agency; local government, the National Crime Agency; banking; local police forces; and, importantly, industry. Those bodies need to come together in a positive way to tackle this scourge.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned church roofs. Is he aware that insurance companies now have a £5,000 limit and will pay out only on that, but in most cases that does not get anywhere near covering the cost of the stolen lead?

Graham Jones: I am aware of that, and it appears that that figure is falling as a result of the escalation in lead thefts from church roofs. That is of some concern, especially as insurance is very hard to come by for some of the churches that have suffered.

The measures in this motion were agreed by the affected industries and, importantly, by members of the all-party group on combating metal theft. However, the Government’s two announcements somewhat sit in isolation, and that is where the concern lies. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill is an unsuitable legislative vehicle, so we need to move beyond it. It appears to be have been commandeered at the 11th hour and, unfortunately, no other measures have been allowed to be added to it. The Bill only passed through this House last November and notably absent were any measures to tackle metal theft. That raises further questions about this House’s ability to scrutinise last-minute amendments from the Lords.

In November, the Chancellor announced a £5 million pilot which has been started in the north-east—Operation Tornado. However, it will not report back until July, when the Olympics begin and Parliament starts its summer recess. I am concerned about that, as the approach being taken all seems a little disjointed, and I appeal to the Minister to bring coherence to the Government’s strategy.

Metal theft is a very particular type of crime. That is because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) said, its effects are disproportionate to the impact it has on other people; stealing £20-worth of metal can cause £100,000-worth of damage. Such a theft can remove a war memorial or result in the loss of life, and it cannot be calculated in financial terms in some cases. A theft in the Dartford tunnel area caused £29 million-worth of damage and a recent metal theft in Glasgow caused a further £14 million-worth of damage, including the part closure of a hospital.

Metal theft is also a very particular type of crime because the effectiveness of policing it is limited; the nation’s metal estate is so vast that there is not a police solution. The Government must look more intelligently and co-operatively if we are to “design out” the problem. We are talking about a failure of regulation and of joined-up working, not of policing.

In 2010, only 21 people were proceeded against under the 1964 Act, and only 18 were found guilty and sentenced. Of these 18, 10 received a fine and eight were given a conditional discharge. The average fine was £379, and only once was the maximum of £1,000 used. I welcome the response by the Home Secretary on sentencing and the comments of Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, who recently said that the Crown Prosecution Service would be taking a “firm stand” against metal thieves and would spell out the level of public disgust to judges.

Unfortunately, I am never shocked by the scale of criminal activity in the scrap metal industry. Cash is king for one reason and HMRC needs to wake up to that, as the Treasury is losing millions in revenue. A sting article in the Daily Mail last week exposed the size of the problem in the industry, as 40% of the dealers approached accepted metal that the undercover journalist told them was stolen. Shockingly, none of them reported this alleged crime to the police, and this is simply not good enough.

Two previous sting operations by BBC London and The Daily Telegraph have shown that those cases are not isolated. The measures called for in the motion will support honest dealers who play by the rules. Without those changes, the dishonest and the criminal will have a commercial advantage. I welcome the story of a south London scrap metal dealer, Stuart Nebbett, who is donating £21,000 to replace stolen plaques from war memorials in south London.

The industry needs reform. Last night, in the other place, the Minister stated that a robust licensing scheme would be brought in “as soon as possible”, but I should like to know when and how. I do not want to see any drift on this matter or any relaxation of tough regulation.

The way to deal effectively with this crime is to choke it off at the point at which it enters the system, before war memorials can be laundered through apparently legitimate metal dealers and before all traceability is lost. Legitimate dealers are being infected through actions at entry-level points in scrap metal trading. The public need a commitment from the Government that they will introduce a full licensing scheme funded by a licence fee. That is the first step towards fully legitimising the scrap metal industry and is a prerequisite to the introduction of cashless payments, as it would provide a robust legal framework with traceability at the heart of the process, particularly by giving magistrates the power to add licensing restrictions.

There is also a need for increased powers for police to enter, search and close the premises of those suspected of dealing in illegally obtained scrap metal. At the moment, they require a warrant to enter premises that are not registered by the local authority. It is important in identifying stolen metal entry points that the Environment Agency waste carrier notices are enforced and that other agencies and, crucially, the public can identify itinerant traders and, at the other end of the scale, illegal containerisation with the introduction of vehicle badging.

The robust measures called for in the motion are one half of the solution, but good practice is the other half and I am concerned that we might turn a blind eye to good practice should we regulate the industry. Together, those two kinds of action will free up scarce resources to deal with displacement of the crime and to allow the agencies involved to shift resources to the hardcore criminals who will seek to divert their criminal activities away from regulated scrap metal dealers.

I conclude by affirming that the House wants to know what the Government are going to do and when they are going to do it. Lord Henley said last night in the other place that “as soon as possible…by whatever legislative means is appropriate, we will bring forward the further amendments that need to be made, particularly to the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964.”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 February 2012; Vol. 735, c. 54.]

I welcome those comments. If the Government do have a clear strategy, I hope that the Minister will be able to make that clear and provide a road map and timetable for regulation. At the moment, it appears to the industry and those outside it that this might be policy on the hoof.