Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013

Thursday 10th May 2018

(4 years ago)

Grand Committee
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Question for Short Debate
Asked by
Lord Faulkner of Worcester Portrait Lord Faulkner of Worcester
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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what was the outcome of their review of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester Portrait Lord Faulkner of Worcester (Lab)
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My Lords, I start by expressing my appreciation for all noble Lords and the right reverend Prelate who will be contributing to this short debate, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, for she was the sponsor of the Private Member’s Bill that became the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013. Almost exactly a year earlier the House was able to accept an amendment that I moved to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill that made it illegal for a scrap metal dealer to make payment in cash. That was the first step along this road of solving the problem of metal theft. The cash-free provisions, and a great many others, were incorporated in the 2013 Act.

Noble Lords may recall that at that time there were almost daily reports of lead being stolen from church roofs, metal plaques being stolen from war memorials, manhole covers disappearing, signalling cables being ripped from our railway lines, the theft of which led to trains being delayed for thousands of hours, and in one case in Dulwich, a complete metal sculpture being ripped off its plinth. The number of metal theft offences recorded by the police in England and Wales peaked at just under 63,000 in 2012-13. The Act came into force in October 2013. As well as making it illegal to pay cash for scrap metal, it set out ID check requirements and gave the enforcement authorities, such as the police and the Environment Agency in England and the Natural Resources Body for Wales, powers of inspection and access to premises. A scrap metal dealer was required to hold and display a licence issued by the relevant local authority. The lead for tackling metal theft was taken by the British Transport Police, who built on the success of Operation Tornado. That started as a pilot in January 2012 and required scrap metal dealers to request identification for every cash sale—such sales were, of course, legal until December 2012.

I pay tribute to the BTP for the effectiveness and dedication of its continued work in this field. I make the point in passing that its activities in combating scrap metal theft cover not just England and Wales but Scotland too—another powerful reason for the Edinburgh Government to abandon their attempt to remove the British Transport Police from Scotland. Its efforts were supported in the first year of the Act’s implementation by a dedicated and specially funded metal theft task force and there was a significant fall in the incidence of metal theft. This trend was assisted by a dramatic drop in world scrap metal prices. However, funding for the task force ended in October 2014 and since then there has been no funding for continued enforcement by a dedicated group. Enforcement interventions are now carried out on an ad hoc basis. For example, on 17 November last year I took part in two unannounced visits—I would not wish to use the word “raids”—by West Mercia Police and the Environment Agency to dealers in Malvern, Worcestershire.

A number of preventive measures have also been taken. A cast iron manhole cover in the street close to my home in London has been replaced by one made of plastic which carries the words “Non-metallic—no scrap value”. St Blaise Church in the Oxfordshire village of Milton had the lead on its roof stolen five times and has now replaced it with stainless steel. There are many similar examples.

The House was supposed to be adding a sunset clause to the 2013 Act but your Lordships decided not to pass that amendment to the Bill. A sunset clause was not applied but the Government were obliged, under Section 18 of the Act, to review its effectiveness within five years. At the request of the industry, that review was brought forward and the outcome was published last December. This is the first time, I think, that the review has been debated by your Lordships. The most important conclusion is on page 10:

“The overwhelming view of those who responded was that the Scrap Metal Dealers Act had improved regulation of the scrap metal industry and, by doing so, had helped to achieve reductions in the level of metal theft. The overwhelming view was that the Act should continue in force. The Government agrees with that view”.

I am sure we will have no difficulty in agreeing with that conclusion. However—and this is a significant “however”—I urge the Minister to look behind the headline figures and think seriously about a range of issues which, if they are not addressed, could fatally undermine the effectiveness of the Act in future.

Let us look first at the statistics. The Home Office review states that the number of metal theft offences recorded by the police in England and Wales in the year ending March 2017 was 12,970. That is a huge reduction compared to the 62,997 recorded in 2012-13. But the latest report from the National Police Chiefs’ Council, published by the BTP as recently as 2 May, says that there was an 11% increase in 2017-18 and notes a clear correlation between the price of copper and lead in particular and the number of incidents reported. A further indication of the seriousness of the problem is contained in figures obtained from Network Rail under a freedom of information request by the British Metals Recycling Association. These show that 62 cases of railway cable theft were recorded in 2017, which contributed to train delays amounting to 36,286 minutes.

A particular issue is the degree of enforcement. An article in the trade journal Materials Recycling World by Robin Edwards, who was the project leader for Operation Tornado and operational lead for the national metal theft task force, said:

“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”.

That view is strongly supported by the British Metals Recycling Association, which represents the ethical and law-abiding part of the industry. The association has told me that for the ban on cash purchases to be effective, it needs to be enforced properly, and it is disappointed that its requests for the Act to be strengthened have so far been ignored by the Home Office. Examples of what it says are needed include the introduction of a new offence of receiving cash for scrap metal, strengthening the requirements to identify the sellers of scrap metal, expanding police enter-and-inspect powers to include stop-and-search provisions for mobile collectors, and the re-establishment of the metal theft task force.

The increase in severity has not been captured by the official figures, as the ONS data simply record the number of metal theft incidents and not their value or impact. The data do not show that the nature of metal theft has changed from predominantly a high number of small, opportunistic thefts to fewer but far larger, often gang-organised, crime-based thefts. The number of churches having lost half of their roof lead in a single night is evidence of this.

In addition, thieves are now targeting new sources of scrap metal, including foundries, with legitimate scrap metal dealers often stealing £30,000 to £40,000-worth of copper-based materials in a single night. I also hear that, while in the past thefts were seemingly opportunistic and involved small quantities, now, 50 cubic metres of lead or two kilometres of cable are being stolen at once. Worryingly, these larger crimes are more likely to be the work of organised crime gangs and may lead to the stolen items being sent overseas in secure containers. I believe that metal theft is again on the increase in part because the criminal element knows that there is no longer a dedicated metal theft task force and that metal theft is often seen as a victimless crime. But the impact of metal theft goes far beyond the cost of replacing the metal. In some cases, the theft of lead from churches is not noticed immediately, leading to far more damage to the church’s fabric.

The perception that there is little danger of detection has another consequence: we are seeing an increasing number of operators choosing openly to break the law and pay cash for scrap metal. Not only does this create an uneven playing field for the legal operators but, assuming that an operator who is willing to act illegally by paying cash is more likely to do so in other ways, it creates an easy means for thieves to dispose of stolen metal.

I conclude by reminding the Minister of the statement on page 5 of the review of the Act. It says:

“The Home Office will give further consideration to the case for strengthening the legislation in the future, in consultation with the industry, the police and interested parties, building on the representations received in response to this review”.

I hope she may be able to give us some encouragement in that respect this afternoon.

Lord Cope of Berkeley Portrait Lord Cope of Berkeley (Con)
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My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, for launching this debate and for the expertise he displayed, once again, in doing so. My interest in these matters stems from my involvement with the War Memorials Trust. I was a trustee for 20 years and now I have been moved to be the president. As noble Lords will realise, we are concerned with all kinds of vandalism to war memorials. That certainly includes the theft of plaques and other features made of bronze and other materials. By their nature, war memorials are often in public places and therefore vulnerable in the dark hours of the night.

However, I am delighted to tell your Lordships that there has been a considerable decline in the theft of metal from war memorials in the years since the Scrap Metal Dealers Act and other measures in 2013. There had been a spike in 2011, corresponding to the figures that the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, gave us, when 40 such cases of theft from war memorials were known to the War Memorials Trust. In 2010 and 2012, there were 14 and 16 cases respectively. By contrast, in the whole of 2017 only two cases in the UK were known to the War Memorials Trust. In Nottingham last September, lead was stolen from the roof of the Memorial Gardens colonnade, which is the centre of the remembrance celebrations in that city. In the same month, in the village of Bunbury in Cheshire, two bronze plaques on the church gates, listing the names of the fallen of the village, were stolen. Last week, the National Trust reported that the brass plaques listing the local dead had been prised off the war memorial in Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire and stolen.

These are tragic cases. There is something particularly sickening about stealing from war memorials. Of course, it is very distressing for the communities concerned when it happens. However, the fall in the number of cases is obviously welcome and coincides with the coming into force of the Act and the other measures. I believe that is one reason why there have been fewer cases. Another reason, we believe, is the scheme that the War Memorials Trust has had in place in recent years to protect war memorials by painting them with a special chemical known as SmartWater. I recommend it to anyone who has metal at risk of being stolen from church or house roofs, or wherever it may be. If the metal is stolen and later found in someone’s possession, it can be chemically identified and the police can prove—and have proved, in various cases in court—where the metal came from, even if it has been melted down in the meantime. That fact is well known, particularly to organised thieves—the sort of gangs the noble Lord was talking about. They are often deterred by seeing the little SmartWater sign that is put beside metal that is so protected. It also deters scrap metal merchants from accepting metal that might have been stolen, as they do not want to be prosecuted for handling stolen goods that can be traced through this technique. I am delighted to say that the trust has an arrangement with the SmartWater Foundation whereby any war memorial can be protected in this way free of charge—but that applies only to war memorials, of course. With the exceptions I have mentioned, therefore, the news overall is good on this front.

It has not often been my experience in my political life that I can say quite so clearly that the Act is working as intended. However, in this case it is so, and it should certainly be continued and enforced.

Lord Snape Portrait Lord Snape (Lab)
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My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Cope, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester for the opportunity to say a few words on this matter, and I commend him for the diligence with which he has pursued this matter over some years. I do not want to sound as though I am prejudging the Minister’s response before she has made it, so I will not yet accuse her of any complacency. However, the Government do not take this problem as seriously as they should, and I hope that when she comes to reply, she can ease some of my fears. Given the time constraints, I shall confine my remarks to the impact of metal theft on the railway industry, in which I spent my working life.

Fifty years ago I was a passenger guard, as it was known in those days, at Manchester Victoria. One of my first duties after I took over at that station was to work a train on the old Lancashire and Yorkshire main line from Liverpool Exchange via Wigan to Leeds. On the first day the train was 35 to 45 minutes late, as it was the whole week, due to the theft of signalling cables between Liverpool and Wigan. I tell that story not, I hope, to bore the Committee unduly, but to show that this problem is far from new. Moving to the present day, anyone who watches that excellent Channel 5 programme “Paddington Station 24/7” will know that metal theft, particularly from alongside the railway, still has an enormous impact 50 years on. I watched an episode the other night which detailed the theft of some signalling cabling in the Bristol area, which again caused hundreds of hours to be lost by thousands of passengers. Although there is nothing inherently unsafe so far as the railways are concerned, you have to plan contingency arrangements for when metal thefts take place. Obviously, it means that trains are enormously delayed and passengers massively inconvenienced.

I fear that the Minister will say in her reply that the 2013 Act is working perfectly adequately and there is no particular need to strengthen it. That view is not shared by other people in the industry. The British Metals Recycling Association, to which my noble friend referred in his speech, said in a statement at the end of last year:

“If Government was to reinstate the Metal Theft Taskforce, and use it to tackle cash-paying operators, it would quickly reduce the number of disposal outlets for stolen material”.

I hope the Minister can reflect on that and decide to reinstate that task force, which, in the opinion of many people in the scrap metal industry, was responsible for the dramatic fall in thefts following the passage of the Act in 2013. Of course, some in the industry say that that dramatic fall was caused not only by the activities of that task force but by the fall in commodity prices. As we are seeing commodity prices increase at present, it is conceivable—more than conceivable; it is very likely—that these thefts will rise in future.

It is all very well for Governments or local authorities to say that cash payments for scrap metal have been banned. However, on the fringes of this industry—which extend quite a way—it is possible to receive a cheque for stolen metal in a scrapyard and then be told where to take the cheque to exchange it for cash. Any legislation, as all of us who have served in either House of Parliament know, is only as good as its enforcement. Given local authorities’ lack of resources, I would be interested to know from the Minister just how many inspections have led to prosecutions over the past year or so, and whether instructions can be sent to local authorities to strengthen the operation or implementation of the Act and ensure that, whatever happens in future, there is an improvement in the number of people prosecuted for the sort of behaviour I have just outlined.

It is of course not just the British Metals Recycling Association that has expressed concern. I shall not repeat anything my noble friend has said, but one of the recommendations from the Chartered Institute of Waste Management, to which he did not refer, talks about creating a more rigorous local authority licensing regime to ensure transparency and consistency by harmonising renewals procedure, improving the application process and strengthening the requirements for local authorities to provide data. All these matters would go a long way to tackling this problem; I hope the Minister will take them seriously.

I end on one quote, from someone to whom my noble friend referred—Robin Edwards, the project lead of Operation Tornado, which had such an enormous and beneficial impact on metal thefts. He says:

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

I hope the Minister will agree that more needs to be done and that she can offer some hope and consolation that the Government take this problem far more seriously than they appear to have done so far.

Earl of Clancarty Portrait The Earl of Clancarty (CB)
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My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, for initiating this debate. I agree with everything he has said.

I will concentrate on heritage metal crime. You have only to think objectively for a few seconds and you realise that dealing in scrap metal is an extraordinarily important recycling initiative. It is a green project and therefore an activity that should be held in the highest regard by the public. It is a great shame that the old stereotype still to an extent prevails, although this has been admirably countered by organisations such as the BMRA.

It has to be stressed that we are talking about a small minority of criminals who have a significant effect. It is good that the Government are happy that the 2013 Act remains in place. There are, however, clearly reasons why the Act should be strengthened. If a number of firms are trying to get round the Act and are successfully doing so, for instance by providing cheque-cashing facilities on-site, it is essential that these loopholes be closed, most obviously because it is important that all companies should adhere to the spirit of the law, which is to stop theft. However, every company in this industry also has a responsibility to promote trust, whether or not it is breaking the law. This is not just in the country’s interests, but in the interests of the industry that there should be a better perception of it, not least because it will affect its own business. Another thing that can be done, and which the BMRA is in favour of, is a national licensing scheme, which could be administered by the Environment Agency rather than by local authorities.

I notice that the review lists the number of offences for particular years, but we do not get a detailed sense of the nature of the crimes committed, although there is a general sense that offences are individually of greater value than they used to be, with, for example, whole roofs of churches being taken, and even drones being used to locate them. There are a number of issues around this. Historic England is very keen that heritage crime is perceived as such. I understand that sentencing can now include a heritage element, which can increase the severity of the sentence—but there is not the accompanying consistent input through the system to that point, either in the charge made, or, going further back, in the way that crimes are currently recorded by the police, which does not specify heritage metal crime. Is this something the Minister could look at?

There needs to be a proper differentiation between heritage and infrastructure crime, such as the theft of railway copper cables. We need a better understanding of the kind of crime, its location and its prevalence to build up a more precise picture of what is going on, both geographically and historically. Scrap metal, of course, by definition a metal that can be further worked, is not a heritage asset—which scrap metal dealers should then not normally be in contact with.

This brings me to my second point, which is the need to involve dealers and work more closely with them. Again, Historic England’s team, led by Mark Harrison, head of heritage crime and policing advice, alongside others, very much favours this, as do the dealers themselves. Such an initiative involves dealers becoming heritage “watch yards” and becoming actively participatory, as we should all be in the protection of our shared cultural heritage. While good work is being done and progress is being made with these new initiatives around intelligence and awareness, better police resources would be extremely welcome. It is important that heritage crime is seen as just that. Thieves need to be made more aware that the crime they are committing is not just the stealing of an object, but has much greater ramifications in terms of cultural damage and destruction. Sometimes it is not only the theft of a church’s roof tiles, but the further damage that may be done inside the church, through exposure to the elements, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, pointed out.

Taking a longer-term view, one reason why this is a modern crime is that our society has lost respect for establishment and authority. That contract has been broken. This has had some good effects on our society in that we are more questioning, but also bad ones, as shown by the concerns raised in this debate. What needs to replace that contract in part is one where respect is held throughout society for our shared culture and heritage, which means better education about our cultural environment in schools and improving maintenance of our shared public spaces—both things that, I am afraid to say, are going in the opposite direction to how they should. The recognition of heritage crime as a specific crime of which we are all victims, including heritage itself, would be a step in the right direction.

Lord Bishop of Chester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Chester
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My Lords, I echo the thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, for initiating the debate, and to the whole process that led to the Act being enacted, which is a good example of legislation that makes a difference. I suspect that we will all be singing from the same song sheet this afternoon to some degree. Orchestras can, of course, have two people playing the same instrument, so I shall be second fiddle in my own heart to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, who had a big involvement in this when he was Bishop of London.

This is good legislation. It provided for a review within five years, but the review started rather earlier, after about three years. I question whether that was entirely wise. In some senses, the Act arrived at the right time. Metal prices were falling, but I am told that they are now 65% above their low point, so obviously the crime has become more attractive. Also, the Act had an initial impact on the police and local authorities, who know that they will have to do something about it because it has just happened. One of the key things is keeping up the sense of momentum and pressure.

Of course, crime and criminals mutate and evolve. We have heard a little about how there might be fewer offences, but it would be good to have some facts on the size of the crime. Indeed, things seem to be moving around the country. The Cathedral and Church Buildings Division tells me that there is more of an organised character to it, particularly in the south-east, and in Leicestershire and Northamptonshire. There is a bit less in my part of the world, although I share with the noble Lord, Lord Cope, the view that what happened in Bunbury was dreadful. It was not just a plaque that went. It was probably put there when there was a service of dedication. That bit of metal has a meaning. It is almost irreplaceable, even if you get a physical replacement.

One of the things we need more information on is what happens to the lead that is stolen. How is it getting to wherever it goes to? There is very little in the review about that. Is it going abroad? Is there some way around the SmartWater technique? It would be good to have more information on that in particular. We also need to recognise that police resources are under ever greater pressure. Particularly with the fall in the number of recorded crimes, this crime could easily slip down the order of priority for police forces. Renewed attention is needed to the whole process of enforcement and a further review at some point. To think that we have now reviewed and that is it would surely be wrong. There must be some ongoing process of review because, as I said, the underlying crime will mutate and evolve.

This crime is deeply anti-social. While I can speak especially from the point of view of lead from church roofs, there is also the impact on rail. I have come across this in the north-west, where I live. If it happens outside one of the main London stations it causes absolute havoc. One wonders what the cost of making good is in relation to the value of what is stolen. It makes the whole crime even more senseless.

Our churches are typically maintained by a small band of very dedicated volunteers. On Sunday, I celebrated the 50th anniversary—he was eventually retiring—of a churchwarden. He had worked as a churchwarden for 50 years, since I was still at school, which is the longest I have known. His wife said that whenever someone phoned the house she would always say, “He’s down at the church”. The churches are maintained by volunteers like him, and to find water coming through the roof because somebody has pinched relatively small amounts of lead flashing or whatever is utterly dispiriting. So not only is there a monetary cost, there is a social and personal cost that goes with everything. When the Minister replies, will she say whether sentencing takes into account some assessment of the aggravation in relation to heritage assets, or whatever? Half our listed buildings are churches, so it has a disproportionate impact. I do not want to make special pleading for the Church in this regard, but something about the impact of this particular type of theft should be taken into account in the judicial process.

At the same time, the efficient recycling of scrap metal is a very important part of our national life, and we should acknowledge that. I have recently built a house for retirement, and twice I went to the scrap merchant with bits of scrap lead that I had carefully assembled—and, indeed, disposed of other things. Let us acknowledge that there is an important process of recycling scrap metal, but we must not be at all complacent because there is more to do in enforcement. I hope very much that the Government recognise, too, that this review should not be the first and last but the first of a series.

Baroness Browning Portrait Baroness Browning (Con)
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My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, on bringing this debate to the House today and on the vital role he played in bringing this Act on to the statute book. I remember it very well, and I was very grateful for his support and all the work he did towards it.

I spent a very short time, unfortunately, as a Home Office Minister, but in the list of my personal responsibilities in the department was “scrap metal theft”. I did not have a lot of knowledge about it at the time, but I was soon informed by many people of the problem. I was aware of the difficulties with things such as cabling on railway lines, but the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, as Bishop of London, soon came knocking on the door and explained very clearly to me how important it was and how it went across many sectors.

My first question to my noble friend is whether there is still a Minister in the Home Office who has personal responsibility for this. I see from the beaming smile that I am receiving that I am talking to the right person. I am delighted to know that, as there is now an Act on the statute book, the Home Office has not just put it in with all the general stuff, but it is still regarded as important enough for a Minister to take responsibility. Moving on from that, as I think I have now established that we are talking to the right person, I appreciate that operational decisions and day-to-day policing must remain with the police and not with Ministers, but this is an area that needs some leadership to keep the momentum going, with all the things that have come out—not just in today’s debate but in the review and the responses to it.

On the question of lead on church roofs, the Government’s response in the review says:

“While the Government cannot commit to further legislation in this area at the present time, the Home Office is keen to work with those who advocate this, to identify whether there is more to be done within the existing legislation to address some or all of these issues”.

I noticed that one response to the review was about changing the smelting regulations for lead. I am not somebody with any particular technical knowledge on this, but changing regulations is not quite the same as asking the Government to find time for primary legislation. If my noble friend does not have the answer to that today, can she look at why that recommendation was made? It could be something to do with the SmartWater—I do not know—but, clearly, somebody who knows a lot more about the smelting of lead than I do can see that the Act would be enhanced, which would particularly bear down on church roofs and, possibly, on some of the appalling accounts that my noble friend Lord Cope has given us today. I find it quite appalling.

I am fortunate enough to live near a cliff top on the south coast, where very often people pass on having looked at the wonderful view. Their relatives then donate a bench for other people to sit on. I regularly sit on those benches myself as I get older. There is usually a little metal plaque on them that says, “Doris enjoyed this view”—all lovingly put there by relatives. There was a period when I noticed that people had unscrewed those tiny pieces of metal. It seemed so petty and so horrible that someone had gone to the lengths of bringing a screwdriver into the open air just to remove little dedications such as that. All that would possibly have been sold on.

I ask my noble friend to encourage leadership on this within the department. For example, we now have police and crime commissioners—who I hope are fully briefed about the importance of metal theft. The department could ensure that they have knowledge of such issues and understand the wonderful result of this legislation in terms of reduction in crime. I notice that the report said that, at the same time as the figures came forward, the Government were aware that an increase was coming. We are now seeing that increase in metal commodity prices. I hope my noble friend will see this as a time to start the ball rolling again and use her good offices to make sure the momentum is maintained.

Lord Chartres Portrait Lord Chartres (CB)
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My Lords, I am glad to support the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, and the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, as I did in a previous incarnation as chairman of the church buildings division, first and foremost to celebrate the passage of an Act which has made a difference—which is hugely encouraging.

I remember during the debates on the Bill lead and metal theft being described as second only to terrorism as a major threat to the infrastructure of the country. So we were very clear about the size and significance of the crime when the Act was passed, and it has been illustrated powerfully, but perhaps a sense of quite how significant and serious it is has abated partly because of the success of the legislation.

We noticed in the church buildings division an initial reduction in the number of the crimes, but, as Robert Fell, the chief executive officer of the organisation, which has been mentioned by other noble Lords, has said—this is a telling and simple phrase: “The number of thefts has been reduced, but they have got much bigger”. He has called, as have noble Lords today, for the reinstatement of the metal theft task force. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester has already indicated the need to establish more clearly, which such a task force would be able to do, the disposal routes for various kinds of metal—lead smelting, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, would be part of that—to establish how the routes operate, because there is considerable suspicion up and down the country that victims of this crime find themselves buying back the metal and lead which have been stolen.

Coming at this point in the debate is rather like Ruth attempting to glean after a combine harvester, so I shall not delay noble Lords excessively by recapitulating all the points that we have already heard. But I have been asking around, and St Albans—for example, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire—seems to be one of the worst affected areas. There have already been four major incidents this year. I refer to the experience of the parish of Eyeworth, a small parish that was kept going, as the noble and right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester says, by a handful of dedicated volunteers who were trying to maintain the community’s inheritance in terms of their parish church. The lead roof was entirely stripped 18 months ago and they decided to replace it with zinc. However, the little lead that remained was very recently stripped off and, as we have already heard, the damage done in removing it was such that the organ was damaged. There was a great deal of additional deterioration of the building and the costs for a very small parish look as if they are going to be considerable.

I modestly add my voice to that of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, and other noble Lords. We need to underline the need to enforce this excellent Act, to reinstate the metal theft task force and particularly to investigate and identify rather more clearly the disposal routes for the lead and metal that has been stolen.

I notice that we are also suffering from stone theft in the church. A lot of stone is being taken off—and perhaps this is an appropriate Room in which to meet to consider these matters.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op)
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My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester on securing this debate on the review of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act. As noble Lords have said, it is a very good piece of legislation and we are all very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, for getting it through Parliament.

The Act has made a significant difference and dramatically reduced the number of thefts of lead from roofs, as we have heard, as well as war memorials, manhole and drain covers, and other items from the public realm. As my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester said, public art is also at risk. The noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, spoke about heritage metal crime. I agree with his comments—this cultural crime is much more than the theft of the metal.

In November 2011, the statue of a local GP, Dr Alfred Salter, was stolen in Bermondsey. He was a social reformer, a mayor of the borough, and elected the MP in 1922. The statue was stolen from Cherry Gardens in Bermondsey and replaced only in 2014, when local people raised £60,000 to replace it and the borough council matched the sum. It was a terrible thing to happen. I grew up in Walworth in the London Borough of Southwark. On the Brandon Estate, the old London County Council bought a Henry Moore for £8,000 in November 1962, the month and year that I was born. It is called, “Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 3”. There were several attempts to steal it in recent years before the Act came into force. Even today, the sculpture is only there because it is protected by the enormous bushes and cameras that the council has placed around it. When I was a child I used to sit on it and eat ice-cream and play there. No more—no kids can go anywhere near it today. Of course, Henry Moore would have been very happy for children to play on the statue without causing a loss to people.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, reminded us of the threat to our war memorials. I know the memorials in Clumber Park and Nottingham to which he referred. I lived and worked in Nottinghamshire for many years. I pay tribute to noble Lord’s work for the War Memorials Trust, a fantastic organisation that does great work preserving and protecting our memorials. I often read its magazine, which is really worth reading, and I thank the noble Lord for the trust’s very worthwhile work.

My noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester raised the important issue of the effect of the Act in future. He made the important point about cable theft on our railways costing the industry vast sums of money, producing delays and adding to the misery of the travelling public. I use the railways, and it can be a struggle on some days. There were 62 cases of cable theft on the railways, as my noble friend said. There has been an 11% increase in metal theft in the last year, which has been brought about by a number of factors, including the rise in price of copper, lead and other commodities, but also by a lack of enforcement. It is important that we deal with that, too. My noble friend Lord Snape spoke about his experience with the railway industry and the problems with that lack of enforcement. People who are prepared to break the law, cut corners and pay cash for scrap metal will be encouraged to do so if they realise that the law is there but there is no effective enforcement. That is a very important point for us all to look at carefully.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, that it is important that the Home Office is clear that this is a priority for action. The role of PCCs is important, too, which they understand. Perhaps the Minister can speak about that and also about my point on regulations on smelting lead. Can the noble Baroness tell the Grand Committee why there is a reluctance in the Home Office to support calls to strengthen the Act? Perhaps I am wrong about that, but if it is the case she should let us know. This is something that the law-abiding, overwhelming majority of the industry want to happen. When the Government do not support these calls, in effect they make it more difficult for legal operators to operate fairly.

The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, made reference to the number of thefts being smaller but the thefts being bigger, because the law-abiding scrap metal dealers are being targeted themselves for theft by organised gangs. That is a new offence and, again, the Government need to respond to it.

We have heard about lots of issues here today. This is a despicable crime. Although the Act has achieved many good things, more needs to be done. I hope that we can get a positive response from the Minister today. In conclusion, I thank my noble friend, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, for asking this important Question today.

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, for securing this debate. We have had a few debates on this matter over the last couple of years. The reason that I was smiling at my noble friend Lady Browning, when she mentioned a Minister responsible for scrap metal, is that in your Lordships’ House I am responsible for everything to do with the Home Office—hence, I have particular responsibility for scrap metal, among other things. I thank noble Lords for all the contributions they have made.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Snape, we do take metal theft seriously. That is why we have retained the Act and continue to work with police and industry through the metal theft working group.

The Question concerns the outcome of the Government’s review of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Browning for securing that Act through your Lordships’ House. The review was conducted during 2017 and the Government’s report on it was published on 11 December last year. I will speak to the conclusions that we reached following the review in a few moments. First, though, it might be helpful to set out a little of the background to this important legislation, and why we looked at it in some detail last year.

The Scrap Metal Dealers Act was introduced to help to tackle rising levels of metal theft, as noble Lords have pointed out. These are the thefts of items for the value of their constituent metals, rather than necessarily the item itself. The thefts affect tele- communications, transport services and power supplies, as well as cultural and heritage assets, as the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, pointed out—and as my noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley mentioned, in talking about war memorials. I join the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in paying tribute to all the work that my noble friend does as part of the War Memorials Trust. The noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, asked about our doing more to protect the country’s heritage assets—for example, the lead on church roofs. We recognise the impact that these crimes can have on our communities and heritage. In terms of sentencing, which one noble Lord asked about—I am desperately trying to find out which one, and will do so in a moment—the Sentencing Council has published guidelines relating to theft offences which specifically recognise that, when an offence involves the theft of historic objects or the loss of the nation’s heritage, that should be considered an aggravating factor when considering the sentence. That can include damage to heritage sites or thefts from the exterior or interior of listed churches.

The Act focused on tackling the trade in stolen metal. At the time, global metal prices were high, as noble Lords have pointed out, making metal an attractive commodity to thieves. The Act sought to change this, in particular by making it more difficult for thieves to dispose of stolen metal. It did so by strengthening the regulation of the metal recycling sector through the licensing of scrap metal dealers. It prohibited cash payments for scrap metal and introduced requirements relating to record keeping and the verification of the identity of those selling scrap metal to dealers. Alongside the improved regulation of the metal recycling sector, the Act included a specific requirement to review the legislation within five years, which is why we are discussing it today. This was to enable the Government to take a view on whether the Act had met its objectives and whether it should be retained or repealed, whether in full or in part.

The statistics on metal theft paint a compelling picture. The most recent statistics were published by the ONS last December and show that there were just under 13,000 metal theft offences recorded by police forces in England and Wales in the year ending March 2017, to answer in part the question from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester. That was a reduction of 22% compared with the previous year and a staggering fall of 79% since 2012-13, as my noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley pointed out. To answer the noble Lord, Lord Snape, the Government do not collect data on numbers of inspections or prosecutions, but I shall ask the MoJ if it has any figures on prosecutions that might throw further light on this. There will be a number of factors that contributed to this fall, including falling global prices which will have reduced the attractiveness of metal to thieves. However, the Government are clear that the legislation made a contribution and that it provides a solid foundation for continuing action to tackle this form of criminality.

This is the context in which the review of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act took place. The review commenced in December 2016 and the Home Office wrote to interested parties and relevant representative bodies to seek their views on the Act. More than 50 individuals and organisations wrote to the Home Office with their views, and these informed the report that was published last December. The overwhelming majority said that the Act should be retained. Some wanted the legislation to be extended further—including some of your Lordships—which was beyond the remit of this review, while others made the point that neither the Act nor the effect of falling metal prices had eradicated metal theft altogether. We were told that crimes such as the theft of lead from church roofs suggested that there was a shift from opportunistic crimes to more serious and organised criminality where entire roofs were being stolen: fewer crimes but more serious criminality. The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, mentioned this.

Against the background of significant reductions in numbers of metal thefts, and a strong body of support for the legislation, the Government took the decision that the Act was effective and should not be repealed. Since conducting the review, we have heard our partners’ concerns that rising global metal prices, as the noble Lord, Lord Snape mentioned, are now beginning to put upward pressure on metal thefts. We do, of course, take these warnings seriously.

So, where are we now? First, we recognise that having this important legislation in place is only half the story. The other part of the equation is effective enforcement, as the noble Lords, Lord Snape and Lord Faulkner, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, mentioned, to keep up the pressure on those who would readily flout the law as metal prices make the theft of metal more attractive to criminals. Enforcement is, of course, a matter for individual police forces and police and crime commissioners, as my noble friend Lady Browning and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, pointed out, and it is the role of local authorities to issue or to revoke the licences that all scrap metal dealers need in order to conduct their business. We do, however, have to recognise that enforcement of this legislation is one of a number of pressures and priorities that the police and local authorities face, and they will prioritise according to need. That is not an apology for patchy or inconsistent enforcement; it is a recognition of the realities of the situation.

I mentioned earlier the concerns that were expressed to us about the potential shift to more serious and organised criminality that manifests itself in crimes such as the theft of church roofs, which the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, mentioned. A number of recommendations were made to us about what more might be done to prevent these crimes happening, such as the use of permanent chemical markers, which make the stolen metal more identifiable, as my noble friend Lord Cope pointed out. We recognise the value of such markers, but there may be a question about how resilient they are—for example, when metal is melted down. Nevertheless, it is of course a good idea for dealers to check for them when they receive scrap metal, to ensure that they are not inadvertently handling stolen goods.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester talked about sentencing, which I have already dealt with in my remarks. However, he asked also about a further review of the process. We will continue to measure the impact on metal theft, using the national statistics. That is why the national metal theft working group is so important.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and my noble friend Lady Browning talked about extending the legislation and, in particular, smelting regulations. It was not covered by the legislation, but we can discuss it with the industry through the national metal theft working group.

My time is about to run out, but my final point is on the reinstatement of the metal theft task force, as was mentioned by a number of your Lordships, including the noble Lords, Lord Faulkner of Worcester and Lord Snape, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres. It is important to note that the task force was set up when the number of metal thefts was rising; it was funded by the Government to allow sufficient time for the reform provided through the Scrap Metal Dealers Act to become well established and embedded within the normal business of police forces and local authorities, and it was never intended to be a long-term arrangement. However, as I hope I have explained to noble Lords this afternoon, the police-led national metal theft working group now brings together the police, government, industry, local authorities and others to ensure that collaborative working across these sectors continues. We do not have any plans to re-establish the task force at this time.

The final question from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, was on the lack of enforcement of the Act, and enforcement has been mentioned several times. I reiterate that it is important that the police continue to support the Act, but, as I mentioned earlier, it is important that police chiefs and police and crime commissioners decide how best to deploy their resources to manage and respond to crime in their areas and what their local priorities are.

I conclude by thanking all noble Lords for their part in the debate.

Sitting suspended.