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Law needs to get heavy over metal crime

2000 west midlands police

Four years ago, a crime wave of metal theft led the Government of the day to introduce the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 with two core measures: most dealers had to be licensed by the local authority in the area they operated and it became illegal to pay cash for metal.

The Act also included a provision for review, and a consultation was carried out earlier this year. The Home Office response was still awaited as MRW went to press and patience is wearing thin within the recycling industry.

Officials and ministers were praised for agreeing to review the law earlier than the original provision of 2018. More than 50 businesses, organisations and individuals chipped in, and one of the biggest concerns has been the cut in funding for the police-led metal theft taskforce in 2014.

The metals recycling industry and MPs are now warning that metal theft is on the rise again and not enough is being done to stop it.

A metal dealer sent us a detailed and damning personal view of how the Act was working – or not working: “A customer and friend of almost 30 years, the owner of an engineering company, has just informed us he sold his cast aluminium for cash. He also rang us for a guide price just to make sure he was getting a reasonable amount. You couldn’t make it up – this is what we are up against.”

When law-abiding operators take time from their busy schedules to share concerns over an issue, they are almost always genuine and need to be heard. Too many, however, are wary of speaking without the protection of anonymity in this challenging environment.

The official body, the British Metals Recycling Association (BMRA), awaits the Home Office’s response more in hope than expectation. It is concerned that the Act did not make it illegal for those selling metal to receive cash, meaning that even legitimate businesses can take the money without sanction.

In August, the association’s chief executive Robert Fell was sufficiently frustrated to write in a BMRA blog: “Like a live hand grenade, responsibility is seemingly being tossed between the Home Office, local authorities and even the Environment Agency. We know there is appetite among the police to roll their sleeves up but not the funds to achieve it.”

Fell told MRW that Government claims that enforcement was a matter for police services and councils was “unfortunate” because austerity budgets meant tackling cash-paying operators were low on the priority list.

He said: “We believe that operators who are willing to break the law and openly pay cash for scrap metal are, by default, more likely to accept stolen metal. If the Government was to re–instate the taskforce and use it to tackle cash-paying operators, it would quickly reduce the number of disposal outlets for stolen material.” 

In September, the former operational lead for the taskforce, Robin Edwards, wrote an article on the issue for MRW, saying: “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.”

Since the scrap metal Act, dealers with their own sites have been mandated to hold a licence or face a fine of up to £5,000. Many of these licences are due for renewal, but anecdotal evidence from MRW’s unattributed conversations with dealers to gather pricing data is that council practice is inconsistent, and some dealers are ignoring the requirement because they do not expect to be chased up. 

The debate thus far has been around how paying cash is tax evasion – with obvious links to crime and fears of growing interest from organised gangs. What has changed in 2017, according to observers, is a growth in metal theft as prices have picked up.

The BMRA, individual dealers and David Hanson, a Labour MP who sat on the committee which oversaw the introduction of the 2013 Act, are in no doubt that theft has been on the increase this year. The UK’s annual crime figures, which include metal theft, are not due out until December. According to Hanson: “There is a direct correlation between the price of metals and the desire of those operating outside the law to steal metals”.

Read his article for MRW here

We might have won the battle … but the criminals will continue their campaign of metal theft in the face of inaction.

David Hanson MP

But until the 2017 figures arrive, ministers can continue to quote those from 2016, when prices were lower. For example, on 2 November, Labour peer Lord Faulkner of Worcester asked Home Office minister Baroness Williams: “Is she aware that, in the past two years, from the second half of 2016 and through this year, the incidence of theft has been growing again, particularly of high-value items, through the work of organised gangs? 

“The increase is due also to the rise in the value of scrap metal – copper is now worth more than £5,000 per tonne. Should not the Act be strengthened and the taskforce reconstituted?”

Williams replied: “Between 2012-13 and 2015-16, we saw a decrease of something like 74% [in incidences of theft], which is very pleasing. We will not know the latest figures for a while, but the Government will certainly be looking at them.”

She added in response to another Parliamentary question: “That huge decline in the number of offences tells me there has been a huge decline in the number of thefts.”

A cynical but pragmatic view ex- pressed to MRW is that, with no police specifically tasked to tackle such offences, why wouldn’t there be a fall in recorded crime?

The next few weeks will be crucial to the debate. The Home Office’s consul-tation response has been promised “later this year”. It seems implausible that, if offences have risen, ministers could ignore in their response the concerns that are being raised.

As Hanson told MRW: “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.”

  • Photo: West Midands police

Dealers’ comments

“Metal theft and illegality are getting worse. It’s mainly because of prices [going up] but also because the enforcement isn’t happening. A lot of yards are probably thinking ‘why should I renew my licence when that other yard hasn’t?’” North-west dealer

“You always hear of things going missing every now and again. But it’s always been like that and I don’t think it has got any worse.” South dealer

“Lots of companies are still paying cash. Unless they are going to police it, then it’s going to carry on. I don’t think it matters whether prices are high or low – people will still go about nicking metal.” Wales dealer

“I don’t expect any more funding to fight it because it’s not politically important. It has been forgotten about and the media has moved on. The cash ban has been mostly effective but there are still those who pay cash. It tends to be under the radar.” Midlands dealer

“The sentences aren’t strong enough. It’s a good thing that the law has changed on this but the issue does need to be revisited.” Scotland dealer

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