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Lack of enforcement threatens cash-for-scrap ban

A great deal was achieved with the introduction of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 along with work of the National Metal Theft Taskforce, both of which contributed significantly to the decline in metal theft. But since 2014, there has been a gradual reduction in those involved in enforcement to a point where there are very few, if any, with the required expertise left to deal with the problem. This has the knock-on effect of fuelling a gradual increase in offending and the associated problems linked to metal theft.

Metal theft did decline – and significantly so – as a direct result of the enforcement activity between 2012 and 2014. However, this decline was underwritten by a fall in commodity prices which, on the whole, was overlooked as a contributory factor.

I predicted that the opportunists would return and theft would rise without a network in place to challenge the problem and enforce the legislation. Unfortunately, this prediction is becoming a reality. It is naive to suggest that those who steal metal and, as a result, destroy our national heritage, disrupt our transport systems, communication and utility networks would not drift back as the risk diminishes of them being caught.

The expertise we built up to tackle metal theft has all but disappeared, and it is unclear how enforcement agencies could re-form the teams they dismantled.

The future of metal theft sits on a precipice, and the recent increases in commodity prices and the lack of enforcement is all that is required to push it over the edge

Since 2015 there has been a gradual increase in the use of cash within the industry. Cash played a significant role in fuelling the rise in metal theft pre-Operation Tornado [nationwide initiative aiming to reduce metal theft] and the Act, so there is no reason to believe it will not be a major factor again in fuelling metal theft in 2017 and beyond. The use of cash brings with it a number of other consequences which include the funding of organised crime and, at a time of austerity, a decline in revenue received by the Government.

I estimated the Government was losing hundreds of millions of pounds in unpaid VAT and tax in 2012 as a result of money-laundering activity from those unscrupulous individuals and companies involved in the recycling industry. It would be foolish to believe it is any different in 2017 and, without the expertise to uncover this criminal activity, it will continue to grow unchallenged.

The future of metal theft sits on a precipice, and the recent increases in commodity prices and the lack of enforcement is all that is required to push it over the edge. I predicated an increase in prices in the second and third quarters of 2017 and copper peaked around £5,300 per tonne during September – which is close to the 2012 peak. If the value of commodities continues to rise or even remains close to the current level, we will find it very difficult to prevent an explosion in metal theft and the associated problems that result from this type of crime.

The licensing of scrap dealers, both in terms of sites and mobile collectors, is an area that raises a number of difficult questions for local government. How many have actually re-licensed in 2017 and how many site visits are being undertaken by local government officers? Not many, I suspect, and it will be interesting to see how they respond if the question is asked.

There is no silver bullet and, without effective licensing, enforcement and greater controls from the owners of metal the problem is only going one way

We continue to see unscrupulous scrap dealers taking advantage of the lack of scrutiny from asset owners. If we throw in a lack of enforcement, rising commodity prices and the use of cash, we have all the conditions for an increase in corporate theft.

I have, and continue to guide industry through the complexities of corporate theft/asset management and the level of awareness to this previously hidden problem is slowly growing. Unfortunately, there are those who continue to downgrade, artificially contaminate and underweigh material on a daily basis which costs business millions of pounds annually.

However, sections of the recycling industry have come a long way and moved from a position of resistance to proposed changes to one of supporting greater enforcement. It will be very difficult to point the finger at the legitimate scrap metal industry this time. The blame for this rise in metal theft and the associated problems will sit squarely at the feet of those who continue to pursue austerity and ignore this significant threat to our country’s infrastructure.

There is no silver bullet and, without effective licensing, enforcement and greater controls from the owners of metal, the problem is only going one way. I wonder how long metal theft will be ignored this time.

The 2013 Act did make a difference, a big difference, but only as a result of the enforcement that backed it up

Will we see senior politicians championing the cause as a result of being delayed on trains that are disrupted by stolen cabling, losing the lead off their local church, the theft of plaques from constituency war memorials or as a result of trying to explain why someone’s son or daughter has been killed as a result of metal theft?

We all remember the chaos that such theft caused on our rail network: numerous trains stranded, thousands of passengers unable to make it to work, attend medical appointments or go about their daily business. The cost to Network Rail ran into millions and resulted in the taskforce funding from the Government.

I acknowledge the impact sustained Government austerity has had on enforcement and ,as a result, the increased demands that have been placed on the limited number of resources that remain. But metal theft was described as only second to terrorism in 2012 in terms of the impact it had on our infrastructure – so what has changed?

Yes, the 2013 Act did make a difference, a big difference, but only as a result of the enforcement that backed it up. The future may not be secure as some believe.

Robin Edwards, founder, Onis Consulting

Edwards was the national project lead for Operation Tornado and operational lead for the National Metal Theft Taskforce. He has spent the past three years focusing on corporate theft and developing preventative strategies for UK transport networks, infrastructure, industry and heritage. He sits on a number of expert working groups.

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