A few weeks ago, I was among a group of ecstatic officials each congratulating the other over the success of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act. I was less jubilant. I waited until the hubbub lessened before pointing out that the price of lead was steaming past £1,600, showed no signs of stopping, and ‘heritage crime’ was starting to return.
I showed them the correlation between the rise in the price of lead and the increasing reports of lead theft, be it from church roofs or artefacts such as statues. Similarly, as the price of copper tentatively begins to rise, we have seen some electricity substations being targeted for their copper earthing straps.
While there is no denying that the implementation of the Act did, and has, reduced metal thefts since 2013, it should also perhaps be recognised that the low prices which dominated the same timeline are equally as likely to have served as an effective deterrent.
We cannot afford to be complacent and to assume that the Act is working as expected. There is a danger that the economic situation could also be skewing the data when it comes to assessing the true effectiveness of the Act.
In fact, while recent data released by the Office for National Statistics state that metal theft reports have declined by 38% in 2015-16 compared with the previous year, this is not really a figure to celebrate and again does not look at external influences. Furthermore, the data contains figures that could be skewing it such as those attributed to vehicle offences.
When the Scrap Act was implemented it was done so in a hail of publicity. But earlier infrastructure fears surrounding the Olympic Games, changes to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act and the well-funded Operation Tornado (the police operation supported by the BMRA), meant that visible levels of enforcement when the Act was launched were already extremely high. But that visibility was funded only for a limited period.
When the funding ended and enforcement levels dropped, it is more likely that plummeting metal prices and not residual enforcement legacy became the driver behind the metal theft figures.
And this perceived lack of enforcement is having an unrecognised side-effect in terms of metal theft: we are seeing illegally operating yards paying cash for scrap metal quite openly.
One can only assume that individuals who are prepared break the law and pay cash for scrap metal are more likely to be the ones who accept stolen metal. Furthermore, by paying cash, these illegal yards can divert materials from legitimate yards thus potentially put-ting law-abiding companies out of business.
There remains little impetus to increase levels of enforcement unless there is an increase in metal thefts, which we will undoubtedly see as prices go up, so it seems that prevention is the best option.
Recognising this, the British Metals Recycling Association forged relationships with groups such as Historic England and the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, as well as commercial companies, to investigate ways to tackle metal theft from a different angle: by making it harder, if not impossible, to disguise and therefore less tempting to steal in the first instance.
Some systems involve marking the metal visibly so that just one glance would be enough to tell legitimate yards that the materials being offered for sale could well be stolen. Other systems see materials being marked at a forensic level, which can even survive the metal being melted down and reformed before being presented for sale. They clearly make it easier for legitimate scrap metal dealers to identify stolen metal should it end up in their yards.
However, to be truly effective when combating metal theft, there needs to be a concerted effort from all the key stakeholders involved, working in partnership. We therefore welcome news that the Home Office has initiated a review of the Act, with the deadline for submissions set for 30 January.
Hopefully, we will not find ourselves in the position where we have to wait until something gets worse before the Government takes action to make the situation better.
Robert Fell is chief executive of the British Metals Recycling Association