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Metal theft – the history so far…

Metal Theft was the single largest threat to the UK’s infrastructure, heritage and transport systems between 2009 and 2013.  It was never far from the headlines costing the UK economy hundreds of millions of pounds a year. Back then metal theft was spiralling out of control with little being done to tackle it. No sectors were exempt and national infrastructure, industry and heritage suffered thefts, disruption and the inevitable associated costs.

Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964

The previous outdated laws allowed criminals to operate openly in an unregulated scrap industry. The scrap industry was not only resistant to change, but rarely asked any questions about what was passing through its gates. The legislation was rarely enforced and the powers were so weak and ineffective that prosecutions were almost non-existent. Cash was plentiful and this fuelled the growth in offending, attracting those who wouldn’t normally be involved in criminal activity.  It also encouraged the inevitable money laundering that resulted from an unregulated cash trading environment.

Scrap Metal Dealers were reluctant to self-police adding to the problem, they just accepted whatever passed through their gates. They were more interested in making money than reducing the misery inflicted on communities, commuters and our heritage. It was difficult to convince the industry that they had a shared responsibility to reduce metal theft alongside the Police. It became clear at an early stage that too many Dealers were opposed to the changes that were being asked of them.  They resented the ever increasing level of scrutiny they were facing.

Operation Tornado

Operation Tornado was rolled out across the UK in 2012. It became the first voluntary step towards introducing long term measures to control the scrap metal industry. The enhanced measures were a significant step forward and made it much harder to sell scrap metal for cash. Operation Tornado helped close the door on the illicit routes for stolen metal. The enhanced measures were however voluntary; although they introduced traceability they could be ignored and were unsustainable in the long term.

Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013

A great deal was achieved with Operation Tornado and it opened the door to the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013.  Unfortunately after the introduction of the new legislation enforcement plans weren’t fully embedded in business as usual. This left the owners of metal vulnerable. Whilst the new Scrap Metal Dealers Act gives enforcement agencies the tools to tackle metal theft, the reality is that the pressure on police and local authority budgets means the resources are not available.  This allows unscrupulous and unregistered dealers the opportunity to operate again with impunity.

It has been suggested that stolen copper and other non ferrous metal is directly leaving the UK in containers. This has never really been fully substantiated and in reality the majority of stolen metal is leaving the UK; but only after it has been laundered through the multiple scrap recycling tiers that exist within the industry.  Anyone who has visited a traditional scrap dealer will realise how easy it is to conceal stolen material amongst the large bins and piles of scrap metal. Do the dealers at the top of the chain ask or even care where and how the metal entered the system? Experience suggests not and again the levels of criminality experienced before Operation Tornado are re-emerging with little or no enforcement action being taken to prevent it.

An attack on our Heritage

Since 2014 there has been a swing from petty criminals stealing small quantities of metal to much more organised groups cashing in on this relatively low risk crime. You only need to look at our heritage to see the extent of the problem. Theft of lead from churches and other historic buildings increasing at an alarming rate and the quantities being stolen appear to be much larger than they were at the height of the problem in 2011/12. The theft of all the lead from a church roof is far more common than it was.

Opportunist or Organised?

An analysis of metal theft prior to Operation Tornado placed opportunist thieves at the top of the list of suspects. The majority involved in theft were opportunists with organised criminality making up a much smaller proportion of the overall level of offending. However, the opportunists were the first ones to extract themselves from this form of criminality, and interestingly other acquisitive crime categories didn’t increase which introduced an interesting possibility. Were these people normally on the right side of the law but as a result of the risk to reward which was leaned heavily towards reward persuaded by easy wins with very little chance of being caught?

It would be naive to believe that those who steal metal and as a result destroy our national heritage, disrupt our transport systems, communication and utility networks will not drift back as the risk of being caught diminishes. Unfortunately this prediction is becoming a reality as the level of offending creeps ever higher and the misery that results from metal theft re-emerges. If the low level offenders see an easy win opportunity and return to metal theft we could find ourselves in a very difficult situation similar to where we were in in 2012.

Long term enforcement

The long term future of enforcement is uncertain and if you link this to metal theft falling off the list of current priorities then it’s not difficult to work out where this is heading. The Police can’t keep up the pressure due to resourcing constraints imposed on them and as a result the responsibility for preventing theft sits squarely with the owners of the metal. How effective they will be in terms of protecting their assets is a completely different question and one that only they can answer.

Cash is back

The number of scrap dealers offering to purchase scrap for cash is on the increase and this is particularly prevalent on social media. The opportunity to offer on-line services and items for sale appears to be a recent phenomenon and was not catered for when the Scrap Metal Dealers Act was introduced in 2013. Who is policing social media and what measures do they have in place to ensure the services these individuals and business offer are legal? It would be safe to assume that social media is not on the radar of enforcement agencies and it’s unlikely that any meaningful action will be taken to challenge this loop hole. How much help will the social media companies offer and what action will they take to address the growth in illegal activity? I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest they will offer very little…

Freedom of Information Requests

A number of Freedom of Information requests have been undertaken, the response was good with 72% of councils responding. However, an analysis of the data didn’t paint a particularly positive picture of the situation, 34% of mobile collectors have failed to renew their licenses, in addition the data showed that visits from Local Authorities were woefully lacking in many areas throughout England.

During a recent day of action all the Mobile Collectors checked had failed to renew their licences and were trading illegally. Clearly this isn’t a true reflection of the overall situation but it does provide an insight into the mind set of certain Mobile Collector’s and raises a serious question in terms of the national picture and the numbers operating illegally.

The price of commodities declined and remained low between 2014 and 2017 which had an impact on the both the industry and the theft of metal. It is acknowledged that as the price of commodities rises so does offending and it was through the introduction of Operation Tornado and the SMDA in 2013 that the correlation was broken. However, this success was only achieved through the use of effective enforcement which ensured almost full compliance was achieved.

‘I can’t be expected to comply with the Act’

This rigorous enforcement of the act played a significant part in reducing offending and this ensured that the Scrap Metal Dealers Act delivered the positive outcome that it was intended to achieve. However, long term sustainability can only be maintained through effective and sustained enforcement, which unfortunately is no longer in place.

Scrap Dealers are rarely being visited by the Police or Local Authorities and as a result compliance with the legislation is no longer a priority for sections of the industry. This has been witnessed first-hand and the feedback from the dealers visited ranged from; ‘I didn’t realise I was required to do that’ to ‘I haven’t got time to do all of that, its onerous and I can’t be expected to comply with the act’. It didn’t take long for sections of the scrap metal industry to realise that they were no longer being visited and if they were, the people attending didn’t have the depth of knowledge to challenge their activities. This resulting lack of compliance was an inevitable consequence.

The future of metal theft sits on a precipice

I have said on previous occasions that the future of metal theft sits on a precipice and this is more relevant today that it has been for a long time. Reported crimes are on the increase, sections of the scrap industry seem to be sliding back into their old ways and cash is re-emerging in an industry that is being left to its own devices. The expertise that was in place within the National Metal Theft Task Force has moved on and front line officers have little if any knowledge of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act. I would even go as far to suggest that enforcement agencies don’t have the resources, the knowledge or the will to investigate and enforce it.

The scrap metal industry fuelled the rise in metal theft because it failed to challenge behaviour which was at the root of the problem and was on the whole reluctant to move away from cash. The industry was given the opportunity to self-regulate and unfortunately missed an opportunity for reasons which I’m sure on reflection they may regret. However, it seems that those who were most opposed to change have drifted back into questionable business practices.  They will only be compliant if the new legislation and acceptable standards of business are strictly enforced.

With the correct expertise and resources in place many of the challenges we currently face could be addressed. However, in reality resources are in short supply and while the focus of law enforcement is directed away from metal theft we are unlikely to see any improvement and in reality, a continual increase is the likely outcome. The same can be said for the other agencies involved in the management of scrap dealers.

The responsibility for protecting metal is firmly back in the hands of the owners and it’s unlikely this will change in the foreseeable future without additional funding which is I suspect will not be forthcoming.