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No ‘silver bullet’ for metal theft

Metal recyclers have warned against a “knee-jerk” regulatory reaction to the problem of metal theft, saying it would drive legitimate business into the illegal trade.

Network Rail cable theft poster

Network Rail cable theft poster

Metal theft has been bumped up the mainstream news agenda as more incidents of stolen cables alongside rail tracks have disrupted train schedules. In the latest, on Monday, delays of up to two hours to services between London and East Anglia followed theft of cables at Needham Market in Suffolk.

Network Rail says there are up to eight attempts at cable theft on the railways every day. Metal theft is seen as a lucrative and relatively risk-free crime because of the little verification that is required from sellers and the anonymity that affords them.

There is growing support for a cashless system – part of a package of measures that Network Rail is calling for - but scrap merchants have warned that this would be counterproductive.

Concern over a growing public clamour for action prompted the warning from British Metals Recycling Association director general Ian Hetherington when he appeared before the Commons Transport Committee, which was discussing cable theft.

Hetherington said: “There is a political feeling that if you banned the trade with cash you would solve the problem. We have consistently made the point that that wouldn’t be the case.

“It would drive the legitimate business into the illegal trade. So you would seriously disadvantage the legal metal recyclers and advantage the illegal metal recyclers.

“Our concern here is that it’s tempting for politicians to reach for new law to demonstrate their power. There is a danger that Government under stress will reach for what they think is a silver bullet. The reality is, it is a much more complex issue. We are very worried about a knee-jerk reaction from Government.”

Instead, the BMRA wants to see photo ID used to confirm the identities of those selling scrap metal and will trial such a scheme in the North East in the new year.

Hetherington argued that the Scrap Metal Dealers Act should be reformed to make presenting photo ID on the sale of scrap metal a legal requirement. He would also like to see the Environment Agency take over issuing merchant licences from local authorities.

Hetherington also called for a crackdown by the Environment Agency and police on unregulated and illegal operators. He said: “At the heart of all this is that there are illegal unregulated operators out there who have very nearly a free reign to flout environmental regulations and provide an outlet for stolen material.”

Network Rail director operational services Dyan Crowther agreed with Hetherington that there was no one cure-all. She told the committee: “It’s a system approach [that is needed] and if there was one thing we could do, believe me, I would have done it.”


  • 4m: passenger journeys hit last year
  • 6,000: hours in delays for trains
  • £40m+: Cost to rail network over past four years
  • £2m annual cost of extra policing

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