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Laws to prevent metal theft are failing

It has now been over a year since the Government announced in a Parliamentary Question that they would be “shortly” publishing the review of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013, and metal theft is again becoming a major issue.

We still have no review and there are worrying signs that the Act is crumbling under growing pressure. If the Government do not take the action needed now we will no doubt see a return to the heights of metal theft seen in 2011-12.

The vast majority of those who operate in the scrap metal market do so by following the rules set out in their industry and the laws set by Government. But the few that do not fuel the fire that is metal theft. This has brought misery to thousands of people: be it the removal of signal cables from train track, causing delays and putting their own lives at risk, or by stealing lead off the roofs of churches.

It is clear that there is a direct correlation between the price of metals and the desire of those operating outside the law to steal metals. After the Act was passed the price of metals was declining. We seemingly have reached base price in summer 2016. Now prices are increasing the police and security services will have to increase their presence, but as we know they have 20,000 fewer officers since 2010 and their central government precept has been drastically cut. This leaves the industry vulnerable to exploitation.

There are some police forces which have launched detailed inquiries despite the cuts, such as Gwent police. But this is the exception, not the rule. What is becoming apparent is that oral evidence is pointing to growing concern that legitimate dealers are seeing stolen metals passing into the system as the law is not being maintained.

When the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 was progressing through the House of Commons I was Labour’s shadow police minister and I was responsible for ensuring the then Bill was the best it could possibly be. One of the points that I focused on was for a review to be inserted into the law and for the eradication of cash payments in the scrap metal trade.

We know that the review is not forthcoming, and I have tabled yet another Parliamentary Question to the minister responsible to inform the House of Commons when it will be published. Not only that, but to provide a definition of “shortly” as it has been the term of choice by the Government when kicking something into the long grass.

That leaves us with questions over cash payments. Under Section 12 (1) of the Act it states that:

A scrap metal dealer must not pay for scrap metal except –

(a) By a cheque which under section 81A of the Bills of Exchange Act 1882 is not transferable, or

(b) By an electronic transfer of funds (authorised by credit or debit card or otherwise).

The law is clear. Cash is no longer an excepted method of payment except in the rarest of cases. But anecdotal evidence points to cash still being used. A good four years after the Act was passed. How can the police be expected to chase down disreputable metal dealers and those committing metal theft if there is no paper trail to be found? A comprehensive review would have uncovered such failings and sort to rectify them post-haste.

Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) are responsible for how police resources are used in their force area. I urge people to contact their PCCs to enquire what they are doing to tackle metal theft and dodgy metal dealers. If they respond that they would take action if they had the police resources to do so I would urge you to write to your local MP asking what action they are taking to rebuild our police force back to pre-2010 levels.

Robert Fell, Chief Executive of the British Metals Recycling Association, summed up the situation well. He said that with the restrictions on resources the police face it is even more important to protect the legitimate metal recycling yards. They can act as our frontline against criminal activity: working hand in hand with the police so that we can stop this truly disruptive crime.

The Government has sat still while the world has changed. No action is not acceptable and I will be pushing for change. We might have won the battle to curb metal theft in 2013, but the criminals will continue their campaign of metal theft in the face of inaction.

David Hanson is the Labour MP for Delyn

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