Scrap Metal Theft

19 June 2012

Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): It is wonderful that so many Members are here for this important debate. Scrap metal theft is destructive, distressing and expensive. It is poorly legislated for, and we need to put that right. Every MP has their own stories about scrap metal theft and its impact. Mine are about, among other things, the desecration of war memorials; the destruction of phone services, church roofs and park benches; a school in Nottinghamshire remaining closed today, affecting 500 children aged three to 11, following thieves stripping lead from the roofs, which then collapsed into a classroom overnight, as the Priestsic primary school in Sutton-in-Ashfield bears witness to—there could have been a tragedy; the theft last week of the lead from the St Leodegarius church in my constituency, where my great grandfather was married; and my waiting at St Pancras station with hundreds of others the other week because of train cancellations caused by theft of trackside cabling not so long ago.

This even followed me on holiday to the Isle of Skye in Scotland last week, where cable thieves stupidly targeted fibre optic cables, leaving 9,000 homes and business in the north-west highlands not only without broadband and phone lines, but cut off from emergency services; a whole community was deprived of ambulance, fire and police services. These thieves are not the brightest buttons in the box; sadly for them, nine of them have died in commissioning this sort of crime in the past year. In my city of Nottingham, 590 offences were recorded in the past 12 months; some 48% of all reported metal thefts come from people’s homes and 45% were thefts of lead from buildings. That is why I was asked by my city to convene two meetings with Ministers, for which I am most grateful. One was with the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice in October 2011 and the other was with Lord Henley, the Minister in the other place, in December 2011. I went with local crime reduction officers and Councillor Alex Norris from Nottingham to put forward our proposals, some of which are now coming to fruition in this Chamber. What all this demonstrates is that the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 is woefully insufficient to regulate this crime.

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): My hon. Friend talks about thefts from the home, and he is, of course, concentrating on scrap metal theft. May I just tell the House that in Leicester the theft of gold is particularly affecting many Asian families and Asian businesses? I do not think that gold is covered by the legislation to which he just referred, so if the Minister is going to introduce proposals and take steps—I know he has been examining this—I hope they will deal with the theft of gold.

Mr Allen: My hon. Friend makes his point in his normal astute way, remaining well within the bounds of order, as we would expect.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): I do wonder whether gold is really scrap, so I think we are stretching the boundaries. But at least the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) has got it on the record and I am sure that he would want us to get back to the subject in hand.

Mr Allen: I am sure that the Minister has taken note of this new and innovative branch of the scrap metal business and may well be thinking about introducing legislation as we speak. I have certainly understood the concern about scrap metal theft over the past week or so, because I have been inundated with individuals and organisations who have become aware of this debate and who have written to me, telephoned me or e-mailed me about how serious the situation is. Changes do need to be made. These are changes that will be welcomed by the vast majority of legitimate scrap metal dealers. They operate within a £5.6 billion industry and employ 8,000 people across the UK. Most of those people will welcome some of the proposals that hon. Members are collectively putting forward.

I welcome what the Government have done to trial and now to expand Operation Tornado to cover the whole country. Operation Tornado makes those selling scrap metal to participating dealers provide proof of their identity and it was an outstanding success when trialled in Durham and Cleveland, sparking a 55% reduction in thefts. I was delighted to see Operation Tornado being adopted by the Nottinghamshire police force a few months ago.

As campaigning Members of Parliament throughout the House realise, much more needs to be done. Many colleagues who are present in the Chamber tonight have put this matter on the record in various ways. In particular, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) for what he has done in recent weeks, for his efforts and for his Bill. He should be listened to when legislation on this issue is considered.

I welcome the announcement made by the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) that he will dedicate his precious private Member’s Bill to this matter. His initial proposals, which I have had a chance to look at, are very welcome but he knows as well as I do the delicate road he must negotiate under the archaic private Member’s Bill process if he is to get his proposal into law. If he wishes to try, I would be happy to accompany him through that dark and deadly legislative jungle. I hope that the Minister will draw strength from those of us in the Chamber and from many Members who are not so that he is cast in the part of not the silent assassin of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill but the Indiana Jones of scrap metal.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): As someone who once upon a time represented the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I can empathise with his situation. I assure him that ever since I announced that I was introducing my Bill, it has received a substantial amount of support. I might be counting my chickens before they are hatched, but I am optimistic that I might be able to persuade the Government to back the Bill.

Mr Allen: I think that people from all parties will wish to support that. These procedures are full of trips, traps and minefields, but I will assist the hon. Gentleman if he wishes and I am sure that our combined experience, and that of our colleagues, will be able to placate any forces in the depths of Government that do not want private Member’s Bills to succeed. His Bill will be to the credit of everyone involved, including the Government, if it can be given a fair wind.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned metal thefts in the north-east and those of us who represent constituencies there have been particularly concerned by metal theft from churches and war memorials. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that any future law on metal theft should have as an aggravating offence—and therefore attracting corresponding sentences—the theft from churches, war memorials and children’s graves?

Mr Allen: Those offences are especially odious. There is no good theft, but when people melt down the memorial to two children who were killed by the IRA in Warrington or personal emblems and memorials to those who have passed away, often for the sake of £10-worth of scrap, the hurt and damage done massively outweighs any profit to the criminal. If the hon. Gentleman finds his way on to the Committee that considers any relevant legislation, perhaps he could table an amendment on that specific point.

Let me turn to the areas for serious reform. I will take interventions on these points, as the Minister has kindly indicated that he wants to hear the voices of hon. Members. First, the Government must replace the current registration scheme and the police should be given greater powers to close unscrupulous scrap metal dealers.

A range of sanctions should be created, perhaps like those mentioned by the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), against anyone operating without a licence or those found in breach of their licence conditions. It should be an offence for a scrap metal dealer to trade without a licence and a crime to sell metal to an unregistered scrap metal dealer.

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that the current situation, where we have the ban on cash sales, which is very welcome, but we do not have a full and proper licensing regime in place, encourages a black market, which we must crack down on with exactly the kind of licensing regime that he suggests?

Mr Allen: The hon. Gentleman anticipates my argument. I agree with him. A new licensing system must include the power to refuse an application if there are concerns about the integrity of the dealer. This is something that the present registration system does not allow, although it would make it less likely that stolen metal was sold on to scrap metal dealers. A set of conditions should be met before a licence is issued, and there should be the powers of suspension and revocation. The current inability of the police to enter the premises of unlicensed operators without a warrant in pursuit of those operating outside the regime must also be put right.

A new licence fee should be implemented to fund the regulation of the licence, and the Environment Agency should be allowed to use the funds raised from permits to fund enforcement action against illegal and noncompliant sites. Under the current regime, operators must register with local authorities, whereas the environmental permits are issued by the Environment Agency. At present there is no requirement for the Environment Agency and local authorities to consult each other, so hundreds of sites carry a scrap metal dealer’s registration but no environmental permit, and vice versa. This must end.

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): The hon. Gentleman and I, being Nottinghamshire MPs, are familiar, like other hon. Members, with this terrible problem, which has blighted churches in my constituency. Does he agree that there is a good argument to be had about who should give out and operate the licences? It could be argued that it is the police, and not necessarily local authorities, who should license scrap metal dealers.

Mr Allen: That is a very interesting point to be teased out in a Bill Committee, if the hon. Member for Croydon South is successful in getting his Bill into Committee. It deserves a great deal of attention. Any new licensing scheme should also be flexible locally, so that councils or whoever can adapt the system to the differing circumstances found in different areas. The Government must focus much more on the role of forensic markings in preventing this crime. Alan Given, until recently the chief executive of Nottinghamshire Police Authority, says that maintaining “a minimum standard in relation to longevity, retrieval and analysis” of forensic markings is an extremely useful intervention that the Government can make reliable forensic marking can make metal worthless to steal, make trading stolen metal a high-risk activity, and play a key role in ensuring the prosecution of criminals. The commercial and domestic use of forensic markings is common. Companies such as Network Rail, National Grid, BT Openreach and many others mark their metals with hidden ink. I take this opportunity to congratulate SmartWater on working with the War Memorials Trust to donate a free system to protect every war memorial in the UK by the end of the year. Last year the city council in Nottingham and our crime and drug partnership started to mark metal street furniture. They have also done outstanding work backing a property marking scheme advertised on the back of buses in the city to ensure that criminals know that metal is being marked. This has even included putting up posters in custody suites. If the trade does not seize this opportunity for sensible reform, I and no doubt many colleagues will seek to require scrap metal dealers to scan all materials arriving at their premises, but for now any legislation should allow local authorities or others to use the techniques that they consider necessary.

The final key area, as has been mentioned, is the ban on cash payments, which was introduced in Operation Tornado. It must go further and include itinerant collectors and vehicle salvagers. That is extremely important.

Parliament is so often seen as irrelevant to ordinary people’s needs and slow to act. Here, on the back of concern that has been given voice by constituency MPs of all parties and an opportunity that has been given by the fluke of the private Member’s Bill ballot and the generosity of the hon. Member for Croydon South, we have a chance to move swiftly. I very much hope that the Minister will grab that chance.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Mr Jones, is it correct that you have arranged with the Minister and the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) to speak briefly?

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): I am fine.

Mr Deputy Speaker: In which case I call the Minister.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on securing the debate. I think that the number of hon. Members who have stayed at this hour to hear his comments and intervene to make their own contribution underlines yet again the significance that many of us attach to this important issue, one that I know we will return to in the fullness of time when we might be able to debate some of the very important issues he has rightly brought before the House this evening.

The real problem, of course, is that the metal that is stolen is not scrap at all, as he has rightly identified. The metal being stolen has a very real purpose: it powers our train lines, supplies electricity to our towns and cities and commemorates loved ones. In London, 16 brass plaques from different monuments and cemeteries, including in Carshalton and Croydon and in Sidcup in my own constituency, have been stolen over the past two years. Those plaques commemorate more than 15,000 war dead. We have also seen the shameful theft of the River of Life memorial plaque to Jonathan Ball and Tim Parry in Warrington and the destruction and theft of Barbara Hepworth’s bronze sculpture “Two Forms (Divided Circle)” from a south London park over New Year. The sculpture was insured for over £500,000. Only last week it was reported that 50 metres of lead roofing had been stolen from a funeral directors in Glenrothes in Scotland. I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House have their own sad and appalling examples of such theft and the impact it has on their communities.

Graham Jones: When looking at the list of crimes, will the Minister take into consideration the several kilometres of overhead power cable stolen in east Lancashire by organised criminals in the past seven days? They are quite thick cables, as I am sure the Minister is aware, so cutting them down and transporting them requires a high degree of skill, professional expertise and equipment.

James Brokenshire: I certainly will, and I commend the hon. Gentleman for his continued interest in and focus on the issue. I well appreciate his attachment to this policy issue, which I am sure he will continue in the months ahead. He is right to highlight the fact that the damage, destruction and vandalism to our local communities, businesses and transport infrastructure are what cause us such concern and, in many cases, rightful outrage and anger when we are confronted by this particular crime. As the hon. Member for Nottingham North highlighted, these crimes can result in the needless deaths of the perpetrators—eight individuals were killed in 2011 while trying to steal metal. I assure all hon. Members in the Chamber that the Government take our responsibility for tackling and reducing this crime very seriously. Therefore, I very much value the opportunity we have had tonight to put some of these points on the record. I found the hon. Gentleman’s contribution to the debate helpful and interesting, and I am convinced that this is an area where continued co-operation and collaboration by all agencies involved will certainly go some way towards tackling this criminality, as he rightly highlighted.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the legislative action that we have taken through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which provided an early opportunity to take some initial legislative steps in support of the fight against metal theft, reflecting our belief that legislation, backed up with enforcement activity, is the only sustainable, long-term solution. Within the Act, we included measures to prohibit cash payments for scrap metal, to amend police powers of entry into unregistered scrap metal sites and to increase the financial penalties for offences under the current Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964. The 2012 Act received Royal Assent last month, and we expect each measure to be enacted in the autumn. The banning of cash payments is aUK first, although the legislation will apply only in England and Wales and the Government have not taken the measure lightly. We certainly recognise, however, that more needs to be done, and the hon. Gentleman highlighted the action that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) has very constructively taken forward. My hon. Friend is in discussions with hon. Members from all parts of the House to introduce a private Member’s Bill to revise the regulation of the scrap metal industry, and we recognise that the 1964 Act is outdated and in need of reform.

However, rather than being cast in the role of dark assassin, as I think the hon. Gentleman said, the Government intend to work closely with my hon. Friend and, we hope, to help to ensure through collaboration that his Bill delivers a stronger and more effective licensing regime for the scrap metal industry, thereby replacing the outdated 1964 Act.

Without wishing to pre-empt my hon. Friend’s Bill, I note that there is certainly a need to remove existing exemptions from which some itinerant collectors benefit, and to ensure that the Bill fully reflects the 21st century industry. I hope that it receives support from all parts of the House, but legislation needs to be supported by effective enforcement, and I am pleased to see the considerable efforts that the police service—in particular the British Transport police and their Deputy Chief Constable Paul Crowther, through his leadership on metal theft on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers—and other law enforcement agencies continue to make to tackle metal theft. In November, the Government announced an additional £5 million of funding to establish the national metal theft taskforce. We wanted it to support and to enhance existing law enforcement activity throughout the United Kingdom, building upon the good work already being done by many, and, although the taskforce is referred to as one and is co-ordinated centrally by the British Transport police, it is actually made up of various regional hubs, involving officers and partners undertaking additional proactive reduction and enforcement activities— all aligned to overall strategic objectives.

The objectives of the taskforce include to reduce metal theft and to disrupt the active organised criminal networks. As the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) said in his intervention, organised groups are involved in metal theft, and we are also looking to expand intelligence on the stolen metal market, including by visiting every scrap metal dealer. The taskforce went operational in January and it has already achieved notable results, including the arrest of almost 400 individuals and the recovery of hundreds of thousands of pounds in cash and significant volumes of stolen metals.

Graham Jones: Will the Minister give way?

James Brokenshire: I have just a few moments left. I will try to make a bit more progress, but if I can come back to the hon. Gentleman at the end, I will try to. I hope that he understands. It is important to highlight that through the taskforce we have seen the development of Operation Tornado, a voluntary scheme supported by the British Metals Recycling Association, the trade association of the scrap metal industry. The operation encourages scrap metal dealers to require and record the identification of those who sell metal. It was launched in the north-east of England in January and is now being rolled out across England and Wales. I was pleased to hear that it has been rolled out in Nottingham, and I know that it is moving further across the country. Initial results have been exceptionally positive, with metal-related police-recorded crime reducing by half in the first three months of 2012 across the three north-eastern police force areas of Northumbria, Cleveland and Durham.

I am aware of the interest of the hon. Member for Nottingham North in the use of forensic property markers. The Home Office certainly welcomes their use and we consider that such products can be an important tool in the fight against crime. Although I am unable to endorse any particular commercial products, I am aware of the considerable progress that continues to be made in this area of innovation and would welcome their use when it is proportionate and reasonable. We have seen some notable successes when such products have been used, including their application on national infrastructure.

Such products can equip police forces with information to identify the origins of particular metals, as well as providing essential evidence potentially to bring a conviction. The hon. Gentleman also highlighted the role of the Environment Agency. Although Treasury rules mean that the Environment Agency cannot use income from the regulated sector to pay for its enforcement work against the unregulated sector, the agency does use DEFRA grant in aid for this purpose; it currently allocates a little over £17 million a year of its core budget to tackling waste crime, which includes identifying, investigating and taking action against illegal waste sites.

I also highlight the fact that the Environment Agency has been allocated additional funding over an 18-month period to create a taskforce that it hopes will bring about a lasting reduction in the number of illegal waste sites of all types. In the 12 months to the end of March 2012, using its resources the agency stopped 759 illegal waste sites from operating, 190 of which were scrap metal yards. The hon. Gentleman made an important point about co-ordination and how we can ensure that the enforcement agencies, the police, the local authorities and the Environment Agency work together effectively. I am sure that we will return to that issue in our consideration of the Bill be to presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South. I hope my comments today go some way to answering the issues raised this evening and provide some reassurance that the Government are committed to preventing and tackling scrap metal theft. Time is short tonight, but I look forward to a longer and further debate to allow more contributions on this important issue. There is more to be done and I am certain that the Bill being introduced by my hon. Friend will go even further in tackling these damaging crimes.

Question put and agreed to.

10.33 pm 

House adjourned.