My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it is why I wanted to highlight this issue. The problem is of epidemic proportions in my constituency, where we have so much wonderful stone, whether it is on pathways or stone walls, or on buildings and places of worship. That is why I wanted to bring the matter before the House.
A constituent from South Crosland has told me how distressing it was when just two weeks ago vehicles pulled up in the middle of the night at their farm and thieves took away the topping stones of their boundary walls. Those walls have marked the boundary of their farm for hundreds of years. The toppings on the walls are very old black-faced local sandstone and hard to replace.
Another constituent from Colne Valley told me that the theft of stone slates is totally out of hand in the valley and has asked for the sale of stone to be registered in the same way as scrap metal. I shall come to that in a moment. Meanwhile, just up the road in Leeds, in the past year, Leeds City Council has replaced £50,000-worth of York stone stolen from pavements across the city—an increase of more than 50% on the previous 12 months. That comes at a time when local council budgets are tight. It is costing tens of thousands of pounds, and as I have said, these are far from victimless crimes.
I am proud that the coalition Government acted very quickly to tackle metal theft. The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013, which requires dealers to hold a licence to trade and gave councils powers to deal with rogue businesses, slashed the number of metal thefts. The targeted operations against unscrupulous scrap metal dealers, in conjunction with police and local agencies, resulted in more than 1,000 arrests for theft and related offences, and police seized more than 600 vehicles involved in that kind of criminality. Statistics show a 40% fall in the number of offences in the first three months after the passage of that Act, to the end of March 2013, compared with the three months to the end of June 2012, so the action taken then was incredibly successful against metal thefts. We are looking at that sort of action to try to curb the crime of stone theft.
I would like to praise West Yorkshire police for their action so far in tackling the epidemic of stone thefts in my part of West Yorkshire. They have launched a campaign using SmartWater. The Kirklees safer communities partnership acquired funding to protect walls in the area with SmartWater—for those who do not know, that is a uniquely coded forensic liquid that shows up under an ultraviolet lamp. It means that stone merchants or police can easily identify whether stone is stolen, and if so, it can be traced back to its original location. Letters went to hundreds of homes, warning residents of the dangers of stone theft and advising ways to protect their home and property. A similar project that operated in my area recently led to a temporary reduction in incidents of stone theft.
Many of these thefts take place in broad daylight with thieves posing as workmen—sometimes they are even brazen enough to wear dayglo jackets—so vigilance is definitely required. In the last week, West Yorkshire police have had a publicity campaign with Yorkshire’s world-famous landscape artist Ashley Jackson highlighting that the theft of stone from our beautiful stone walls causes great damage to our countryside and our heritage. I have the leaflet here, which says:
“Yorkshire Stone. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Our landscape is not replaceable so let’s stop the thieves from taking it. Stone theft and the removal of old stone tiles from roofs might look innocent activity. Examples of where this could be happening include a rural location, outside a church, from someone’s garden or in the middle of a town or village. You have no way of knowing if it is a job of work or a theft.”
The police advise:
“See it, note it, let’s hang on to our Yorkshire.”
That is the scale of the problem. I appreciate that this is not as straightforward as tackling metal theft, as the materials are not always sold on immediately for cash. However, I will finish with three specific policy requests. First, I would like there to be a dedicated stone theft taskforce, like the one that was set up to tackle metal theft in 2011. Secondly, I would like there to be a national and regional awareness campaign so that householders and businesses that deal with stone, tiles and paving slabs check where they are from, and so that the public can challenge those who pose as workmen in dayglo jackets, whether they are ripping up stone pavements or taking off roof tiles. Finally, I would like to see an increase in the fines that are handed out to those who are convicted and the introduction of exemplary punishments to deter these extremely antisocial criminals.
Our heritage is being stolen, brick by brick. Let us tackle the scourge of stone theft, as we did metal theft.