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Metal theft rise

While the authorities hailed the 2013 Scrap Metal Dealers Act, as a response to metal theft, it’s a job only half-done, it’s claimed. And that new law may only have encouraged a shift from petty to large-scale and organised metal crime.

The Act was the Conservative-led Coalition Government’s way of tackling metal theft which peaked in 2011-12 when copper prices were at a high and UK businesses such as telecoms and the railways reported cable theft.

In October 2013 a law banned cash payments by scrap metal merchants for goods received. The aim: to enforce a paper trail, and to make it harder for ‘no questions asked’ purchases of scrap metal by so-called rogue dealers. However, research on metal thefts between October 2012 to March 2015, by VPS, the UK vacant property contract security firm, suggests that this year has witnessed a steep increasing trend, after an initial decline in metal thefts after the Act. VPS secure 50,000 empty commercial properties, such as pubs, and homes, often targets for such crimes.

Anthony Owen, pictured, VPS’ Managing Director, says: “Since official data of actual metal thefts is hard to come by, we decided one way to gauge the impact of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act would be to record every national and regional press report on metal theft, involving materials such as cable, lead or copper. In terms of numbers, these reports run into tens of thousands but this is very likely to be an underestimate of the actual volume of such thefts, because many, if not most, will go unreported in the media. But it could at least provide some important trends – and it has.”

The analysis – still in its draft form – found that prior to the October 2013 Act, metal thefts were being reported in the media at rates of 400 to 500 a month. In the 12 months after the Act, these reports fell to around 200 to 300 a month. However in February and March this year, the figures have gone back to an average of over 400.

A recent conference by the think-tank Public Policy Exchange on Metal Theft, in London, discussed several reasons for this increase:

• Stolen metals are now being exported from England and Wales to countries which still allow untraceable cash payments, such as Scotland, Germany and Belgium.
• People who apply to become a licensed metal collector must not have criminal convictions related to metal theft – however other convictions are no barrier. At the London conference, Hampshire Police reported that all customers at some scrap metal yards had criminal convictions (just not related to metal theft!).
• A site license and a collector’s license costs can be quite similar, so some collectors are declaring their fifth floor two- bedroom flat is a scrap metal site. No check is required in the new law.
• There are few if any powers of search included in the Act. Police can’t search a suspect leaving a scrap dealer for cash for example.

Matt Ashby, a speaker at the conference, and researcher from University College London’s Department of Security and Crime Science, said of the VPS report: “Metal theft is a serious problem because stealing even a few pounds worth of metal can leave hundreds of houses without power or thousands of railway passengers stranded. The Scrap Metal Dealers Act and extensive work by the [police] Metal Theft Taskforce seems to have helped reduce metal theft in the short term, but we don’t know what the long-term effect will be as some criminals adapt to get around the new rules. It is likely that the problem has been suppressed, rather than solved, and it could worsen if the police and their partners stop focusing on metal theft.”

Anthony Owen of VPS, added: “Ironically, the introduction of tougher laws may have had the unintended impact of shifting metal theft from petty criminals to organised crime. The implication is that whole containers of stolen metals are now being shipped abroad. But we can’t tell – ports are obviously the pinch points but police say ports only have the resources to check 0.5 per cent of all containers. And how do you put a cost on power cable theft, when 50,000 people lose power, as happened to Glasgow? Overall, any costing of metal theft to the UK must include an estimate of these losses to businesses and to homes. They most likely run into the billions. The law may have helped cut the rate of metal theft, but it’s a job half-done.”


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