The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice (Mike Penning)
It is a pleasure to reply to my first Adjournment debate of the Parliament. The subject caused some smirks among my colleagues when I mentioned it to them, but they would realise that they were wrong to do so if they knew what was happening in their constituencies and in Colne Valley.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) on securing this debate. His comments concentrated on heritage and high-value stone. In general, stone has become a very expensive commodity. It is used in myriad different ways in our communities. Often, people do not know whether it is old or not, because it can be made to look old and it matures quickly.
Stone theft is not new, but has been going on for many years. Once, I was a young man, Mr Speaker, and as a fireman in Essex, I would go and fish off Canvey island on my off days. Many Members will know that Canvey island flooded badly back in 1952. I used to beach-cast off the point and sometimes, in the early hours, just as it was getting light, I would suddenly see some characters creeping around. I was sure that they were not fishermen, because I knew the community quite well. In fact, people were stealing stones from the breakwater—the walls that protected an area that is prone to flooding. That was some 30 years ago. Mobile phones were not available then and it was difficult to report it. When I had conversations with the police, which firemen often did, they said that it was known to them, but very difficult to handle.
This is an opportune moment for my hon. Friend to bring this matter to the House. As he said, the Government acted quickly on scrap metal and iron. Appallingly, some historic pieces of wrought iron vanished from our streets and communities, just to be melted down for scrap. In my constituency, people were injured in industrial areas when they fell down places where the grates had been removed. People walking their normal routes to work in the morning, particularly during the winter, went straight down the drains. That was very dangerous indeed.
As this is such an important issue, people would be right to assume that West Yorkshire and other constabularies are doing their best to tackle it. I will rule out nothing that my hon. Friend has asked for this evening. We are already working on two of the three things he asked for and I will touch on those in a moment. However, it is much more difficult than introducing the sanctions and licensing that we brought in for metal, as I am sure he understands.
The chief constable for my area, Chief Constable Andy Bliss of the Hertfordshire Constabulary, heads up the efforts against heritage theft in the United Kingdom on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers. I have raised this matter with him and he knows about it, not least because the milestones were stolen in my constituency. You know my constituency well, Mr Speaker. I have the great privilege of having Watling Street, the Roman road, going through my constituency. Interestingly, we got back the milestones that were stolen from it, but it was the public who were the eyes and ears in that.
We often think of neighbourhood watch as being in our towns and cities, but it is vital in our rural communities as well. Over recent years, neighbourhood watch has come together well to tackle such thefts, particularly from farms. SmartWater has helped to prevent expensive farm machinery from being stolen, often to order. I am pleased to hear that West Yorkshire police is using SmartWater, which requires infrared light to see that something has been marked.
It is not just about stone, and it is not just about heritage; it is about slate; basically, where people feel they can make a profit, they steal. Therefore, we need to ensure that we have legislation on the statute book. Across the country, police forces are aware of the problems and are treating them seriously. As Policing Minister, I say to the 43 authorities under my control that they need to take this matter enormously seriously. I expect it to be brought up and addressed at the next chiefs’ meeting.
The Crown Prosecution Service already has 14 specialised prosecutors in this area. I will meet the Solicitor General in the next couple of days to ensure that we know exactly where they are based, and I will then write to my hon. Friend. I do not want to give out too much information about where they are based, because we need to surprise some of those people who think they can get away with whatever they feel like. We need to have some high-profile prosecutions and ensure that the full force of the law is brought down on them.
The impact of this sort of theft is not isolated. It is not just a theft on a farmer or on a local authority or on the breakwaters that protect our coastline. As has been alluded to, it is about where the money could have been spent otherwise. If people are involved in this sort of criminality, they are often involved in other sorts of criminality. One thing we must ensure is that we have a publicity campaign. When people purchase these stones, they need to ask where they come from. It is often the case that if we start asking questions, the people standing on the doorstep trying to sell them to us vanish quite quickly—I was asked recently whether I wanted cash-in-hand building work done on my house, and when I told them what I did for a living, they vanished rather quickly. They were obviously not from my area. It is important to recognise that we, the public, have a responsibility as well; it is not just an issue for the police and prosecutors.