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New ideas needed to crack down on rise in metal theft

Metal theft is on the rise once more, both here in Dorset and across the rest of the country.

As the county’s Police and Crime Commissioner, I regularly hear from people whose businesses have been affected by this crime, or from those in charge of churches or other historic buildings who have been left with bills in the tens of thousands after having lead stripped from their roofs.

Across the UK, thefts from construction sites have caused huge amounts of damage while gangs of thieves taking copper cable from railway lines have caused misery for commuters.

British Transport Police data shows that live cable theft rose from 85 cases in 2016/17 to 158 in 2017/18, while non-live cable theft rose from 172 to 265 in the same period. Correspondingly, last year was the worst for train delays and cancellations since records began, with the equivalent of 448 years lost to significant rail delays. 

We see increases and falls in this type of crime depending on the fluctuating price of scrap metal, but there are other factors at play and there have been serious attempts at national legislation to crack down on the problem.

The Scrap Metal Dealers Act was created in 2013 following the Home Office’s Operation Tornado, a nationwide initiative aimed at reducing metal theft.

The idea behind the Act was to put stricter controls in place across the scrap metal trade, making it harder for criminals to sell their stolen metal, turning around what had until then been an increase in the number of thefts.

Licences for buyers, IDs for sellers, and a ban on buying scrap with cash – these were all part of the effort to modernise and regulate the trade, and up until recently it was thought that the Act had done its job.

In 2017, a Home Office review found there had been a 75% decrease in metal theft, and concluded that the robust measures put in place had successfully ‘deterred people from stealing metal or dealing with stolen scrap metal’.

But despite all this, the problem is back.

The regulations might have deterred petty thieves, but they haven’t stopped the organised criminals who are now doing this in some parts of the country on a much larger scale. And the councils – responsible for enforcing the Act – have limited powers and no funding to tackle unlicensed operators.

One worrying element of the new rise in metal theft is that, like all organised crime, there have been cases of victims being forced or coerced into carrying out these activities.

A conference taking place in Birmingham today will feature a talk from Stephen Chapman, the Welsh Government’s anti-slavery coordinator, on the hidden exploitation associated with metal crime.

The event, entitled Metal Crime – the Hidden Cost, will also include presentations on new efforts being made to deal with the problem.

Delegates will also hear about Operation Opal, the new national intelligence unit dealing with serious, organised theft, while SelectaMark – who supply property marking and forensic coding systems – will provide case studies about innovations and prevention tactics.

From transport and telecommunications to protecting our national heritage – metal theft has the potential to create serious problems across the UK.

We need a major rethink of how we are going to tackle it, with new approaches and perhaps even new legislation required.

Hopefully today’s event will provide an opportunity for those involved to talk seriously about the problem, get a deeper understanding and examine what we need to do about it.

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