Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Itinerant Scrap Metal Collectors Exempt from New Cashless System

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill passed through the last stage in the Commons last night and will soon become law.

Unfortunately the Government decided to take a soft on crime approach and ridiculously exempt mobile collectors from the new regulations.

Every constituent I speak to shares the view of the British Transport Police that mobile collectors are a significant problem in the theft of metal. The same vehicles week after week cruising suspicously Haslingden and Hyndburn's estates and back streets.

The Bill includes the Government’s new scrap metal legislation, banning cashless payments by scrap metal dealers. This is a move I have long been campaigning nationally for and I am delighted that the Government has taken this step in the right direction. It would mean that scrap metal collectors would not be able to sell their scrap metal to dealers for cash but instead would have to go through the proper channels and receive a payment into bank accounts.

This will help address the blight of opportunistic thieves who steal metal – such as copper cables and war memorials – and sell it to dishonest metal dealers who will melt it down, no questions asked. By not being able to receive cash for scrap metal, the thieves will no longer have the same incentive to casually steal. There will instead be a paper trail allowing for proper traceability in the industry, which will not cause any problems for legitimate scrap metal dealers – indeed it will bring benefits.

However, the Government has made a profound mistake in this Bill – itinerant scrap metal collectors will be exempt from the legislation. This is a huge loophole in the legislation, which renders the action ineffective and futile.

Furthermore, the Government forced the Bill through the Commons with very little time for debate. Labour tabled an amendment closing this loophole concerning itinerant collectors. The Government ensured that this amendment did not even get a debate in the Commons.

I am disappointed that this loophole was not even properly debated, let alone be removed. It is something that should be agreed on by both Parties and yet the Government is determined to keep their heads in the sand and ignore this failing in their weak legislation.

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THE ROLE OF ITINERANT COLLECTORS IN SCRAP METAL TRADING

Introduction

This briefing note assesses the role of itinerant collectors in scrap metal transactions in relation to the domestic and commercial scrap metal market, using the limited information on the sector that is currently available and drawing on SITA UK’s operational experience. The implications of a cashless system on the itinerant trade are discussed, along with the likely contribution that itinerant collectors make towards meeting waste recycling targets.

The scrap metal sector and the itinerant trade

Information on the make-up of the scrap metal industry is scarce. A study conducted by Manchester Business School([1]) describes the sector as having a pyramid structure dominated by two “first tier” firms (EMR and SIMS), 25 “larger domestic firms”, 250 “middle sized merchants” and “perhaps 20,000 itinerant collectors”.

Domestic trade

Itinerant collectors acquire scrap metal by way of visits from house to house, and by engaging with small size commercial and industrial enterprises. Of these two routes, business opportunities within the domestic sector are fast disappearing, for a number of reasons:

With the introduction of EU municipal waste recycling targets on Member States and UK household waste recycling targets on local authorities, metal packaging (steel and aluminium cans, metal foil, etc) is routinely collected as part of the weekly or alternate weekly household waste collection service, or via take-back and deposit refund systems set up in retail outlets.

Commercial and industrial concerns obligated under the EU packaging waste Directive and therefore required to meet specified recovery and recycling targets have their metal packaging collected by private waste management contractors or by local authorities, to be processed in accredited treatment centres.

Producer responsibility take-back schemes apply to bulkier metal-bearing used items such as domestic boilers, washing machines and dishwashers, which are also now routinely collected by the vendor free of charge when the new product is delivered or installed, often with an offset against the cost of a replacement product. As an example, British Gas advertise a £400 “scrappage discount off a [new] Worcester boiler” when the old boiler is traded-in. Similar considerations apply to part-exchange of other large household appliances – by definition these are unavailable to itinerant collectors.

For smaller items such as kitchen sinks and bathroom fittings arising out of home renovations, professional outfitters typically clear these away as part of the overall service, with the value of the metal offset against the invoice. The DIY householder may choose to dispose of the items at a household waste recycling centre at no cost, or alternatively, SITA UK’s experience is that the householders now approach the scrap metal dealer as a gate trader in order to receive a financial consideration for the value of the metal.

In sum, SITA UK’s experience from its gate transactions confirms that the domestic itinerant collector trade has dwindled significantly – indeed our knowledge of the trade suggests the majority of itinerant traders have resorted to scavenging for metal in the vicinity of domestic premises rather than engaging in formal door-to-door cash transactions. Householders wanting to recover monetary value from their scrap metal are increasingly dealing directly with scrap metal sites rather than using itinerant collectors as intermediaries. Itinerant collectors no longer rely on this trade to sustain a viable metal collection business.

Commercial trade

Turning to the commercial itinerant trade, it should be noted that waste generators have a duty of care to ensure that their scrap metal is appropriately and legally managed. In principle this includes the requirement for the itinerant collector to hold a valid waste carrier’s licence, and as a bona fide scrap metal dealer, to adhere to the provisions of the SMDA 1964. All necessary waste transfer notes and other records need to be completed and retained by both parties as required under the SMDA 1964 and other waste-related legislation.

In practice verification checks on the bona fides of the itinerant collector are rarely if ever made by the seller, not least because of the receipt of “instant” cash payment for the metal bought.

Overlaying these existing regulatory stipulations, the introduction of a cashless system would strengthen rather than jeopardise the legitimate itinerant collector’s business, since the temptation to deal with any passing collector would not arise – sellers would not be willing to accept a cashless transaction from a collector with whom they have had no prior business dealings over which to build up a level of trust. The outcome would be a more considered business transaction in which the bona fides of the itinerant collector would be more carefully scrutinised, which in turn would raise the professionalism of the itinerant sector.

The collection of scrap metal from farms is another commercial activity potentially undertaken by itinerant collectors. Even in this case, the trade is increasingly being subsumed within the mainstream scrap metal sector, with the established (ie non-itinerant) scrap metal companies offering regional and national collection schemes to the farming community. In large part these “direct to dealer” collection services have developed in response to the need for dealers to vouch for the provenance of the material, in the absence of adequate traceability of the metal when passing through intermediate itinerant collectors.

Itinerant collectors’ market share and their influence on recycling targets

Metal arising from itinerant collections would be traded into the upper tiers of the scrap metal sector. According to the BMRA, 15 million tonnes of metal are processed annually by the UK scrap metal industry. On the basis of SITA UK’s collective gate trade nationally, we estimate the share (in tonnage) of the total market in scrap metal attributable to itinerant collectors to be in the order of 5-6%.

For the reasons discussed above, we do not believe that the itinerant trade materially influences or is in turn significantly impacted by the collection and recycling of metals arising from households, because metal from this source is now substantially captured either by the formal (municipal) waste management system or through take-back or part-exchange schemes. There would be no significant movement in metal-related household waste collection and correspondingly in household/municipal waste recycling rates were cashless payments to be introduced for such transactions.

For companies operating within the various producer responsibility schemes, a loss of traceability means that metal collected in this manner is “lost” in the system and cannot be counted against the company’s or the UK’s obligated recycling target. Hence obligated metals are not traded through itinerant collectors. In the farming sector we have noted that the itinerant trade is being replaced by direct-to-dealer collection services offered by the formal scrap metal sector. For these reasons we do not envisage any diminution in the overall tonnage of metal collected, hence having no adverse impact on commercial/industrial metal recycling rates.

Cashless transactions pertaining to itinerant collectors

Discounting the domestic itinerant trade – which as discussed above, has substantially moved away from itinerant collectors – there is no reason why a cashless system cannot be implemented by bona fide itinerant collectors, along with the rest of the scrap metal industry.

Moreover, the requirement for a cashless transaction between the itinerant collector and the scrap metal merchant will in any event necessitate the former to maintain a bank account with provision for electronic or cheque payment. It is therefore illogical to exempt the initial transaction between the seller and the itinerant collector, but to (rightly) mandate a cashless transaction for the on-sale of the material to a scrap metal dealer. Traceability over the entire chain, from seller to intermediary to dealer, will be broken along with proof of provenance of the metal presented for sale.

Furthermore, cash transactions between sellers and itinerant collectors are typically unreceipted and unrecorded, and as a result there is a high likelihood that they will not be declared in full to HMRC in VAT and income tax returns.

The offer of a cash sale by an itinerant collector to a seller will continue to drive metal theft and other illegitimate dealings, a circumstance that could readily be camouflaged during the on-sale of the material to a legitimate dealer, who can take only reasonable steps to ascertain the provenance of the material presented.

A further consideration is that even under a tighter and more robust version of the SMDA 1964, the loophole would be exploited by individuals deliberately registering as itinerant collectors in order to continue acquiring and trading in cash, metal obtained through theft – thereafter either laundered through the legitimate trade in the UK as noted above, or shipped directly out of the UK to an offshore destination.

Conclusions

Full end-to-end traceability is the raison d’ĂȘtre of a cashless system, its key strength in relation to facilitating detection of criminal or fraudulent activities, and enforcement by relevant competent authorities. This essential feature is lost were intermediate actors in the shape of itinerant collectors to be exempted from the obligation to go cashless in relation to the acquisition of the metal, even though they would rightly be obliged to trade via electronic transfer or cheque for the subsequent on-sale. The intention to offer this exemption opens a loophole that could readily be exploited to the detriment of the legitimate scrap metal trade in the UK because it destroys the integrity of a cashless system while making crime detection and enforcement more difficult.

SITA UK urges Government to reconsider this option, and obligate all actors engaged in the collection and trading of scrap metal to go cashless.

SITA UK 9 March 2012

[1] Markets in ferrous scrap for steelmaking, J Aylen and K Albertson, Ironmaking & Steelmaking, Vol 33, 203-212, 2006.