Monday, 11 June 2012

From trains to drains - Metal theft crime wave now costing over £1 million every week

Metal theft has risen in prominence due to escalating thefts and the sheer immorality or audacity of callous and calculating thieves. The question the public are asking is why it is taking the government so long to act to combat this costly menace.

In March the Government scuppered my Metal Theft (Prevention) Bill in the last session of Parliament. Since then some progress has been made on banning cashless payments, increasing sentencing, taking into consideration aggravating factors and more co-ordinated police initiatives on the back of Operation Tornado in the North East.

Whilst Operation Tornado is being rolled out nationally to much aclaim, it is a voluntary localised scheme that requires a lot of tax payer input which will need to be constant. What it isn't is a national taskforce that could combine intelligence, share best practice, provide a focus for industries affected or assist industries that could design out some of the problems.

The Governments partial approach shows little sign in reducing the incidence of metal theft. Metal thieves have graduated and are experienced in stealing what are easy pickings from Britain's widespread metal estate.

It is going to take greater resources and greater action by the government, authorities and industry to combat the criminals.

The incentives and market forces which make metal theft such a profitable crime will continue over the long-term in an upward direction. High prices and demand from growing economies make the export of stolen metal a potentially lucrative crime.

Measures are now needed to regulate the scrap metal dealers who on far to many occsions have been found to be the handlers of stolen metal. Whilst the 1964 Scrap Metal Dealers Act remains the legal basis for tackling the problem, authorities will be frustrated by the legal loopholes offered to criminals.

Then there are the professional thieves who circumvent the entire legal regime. Stolen metal can easily be stuck in a container, never checked and leave the country – if this hasn’t already began to flourish, it soon will.

The first thing the Government could do is to at least begin collecting information. I recently tabled a written question to Damian Green, the immigration minister, who informed me that no information is being collected on the number of containers being seized at our borders full of stolen scrap metal. Intelligence is key to policing.

DEFRA ministers themselves estimate that 8 million tonnes of scrap metal is exported from the UK every year. This is a phenomenal amount of metal, and it is difficult to believe that it is all legitimate; even if the Government apparently does. According to the Government, no containers have been inspected since 2009 – however since then prices have rocketed, peaking in 2011, before stabilising. But today our policy in this area is based on the Ministers’ acceptance that there is “no intelligence to suggest that scrap metal has been being illegally exported since this date [2009]”.

The Government either know there hasn’t been any illegal exports of stolen metal, or they have stopped looking. That there is an absence of any intelligence.

This is seen as a real problem by those working in the responsible agencies, by the police and by organisations aimed at reducing metal theft. At a recent seminar held by Pol-PRIMETT – a public-private partnership focused on ending metal theft – there was a discussion held on precisely this topic. Delegates from the Environment Agency, from the private sector, from SOCA and from the Police discussed methods of tackling the illegal export of metal. I recently met with a representative of Calor Gas who told me of a seizure of 1500 stolen gas bottles at Thamesport; companies are suffering already due to displacement.

It is obviously on the radar of those who work in this area, but when I raise this issue in Parliament, Ministers will not even entertain the fact that there may be a problem. I seriously hope they aren’t ignoring this solely to avoid having to find a solution, and make the difficult decisions that may result from it. This isn’t a problem that is going to go away, and weak policy isn’t the answer.

The market price of metal and its relationship to crime in the UK is a complex and dynamic one. We need innovative solutions to its problems – but we also have some basic methods that we need to employ properly, such as policing our borders and protecting our infrastructure and national heritage. At the very least we should be collecting information.