Monday, November 21, 2011

Beating the metal thieves

It is comparatively rare for a Labour MP to put forward something which I strongly approve of, but it has happened with this week when Graham Jones MP proposed the Metal Theft (Prevention) Bill in the Commons under the Ten Minute Rule.

Bills proposed under this mechanism very rarely become law, but are a useful opportunity to highlight a problem, and the one Graham Jones has drawn attention to needs urgent attention. I hope the government will take the opportunity to implement something along the lines he is suggesting.

As Mr Jones himself pointed out, metal recycling is a valuable industry, it is a sustainable means of reusing an increasingly important commodity. But we need to put this industry onto a regulatory basis which does not provide an incentive for thieves to steal metal which is still in use.

It's not a new problem, but it is one which has become vastly worse over the past few years.

About twelve years ago, around the start of my second period as a councillor in St Albans, metal thieves broke into a redundant NHS building in that city which was about to be transferred via the council to become an Emmaus centre providing a home and work for some of the most vulnerable members of society. They stole some copper piping and wires worth at most a couple of thousand pounds at black market rates, but caused water leaks which did well over a HUNDRED THOUSAND pounds of damage, (in 1999 money) to the building.

Who paid for it? In the short term, I suspect it was the NHS's insurers, but in the long term of course, the incidence of this sort of cost falls on you and me, the long suffering taxpayers - oh, and the vulnerable people who the building was to house had to wait that much longer before the Emmaus centre eventually opened.

This made my blood boil at the time, but metal theft has become a much worse national problem with the growth of the legitimate recycling industry and with the increased price of metals.

An example of just how persistant and disruptive these thieves can be occurred recently in Essex when a section of BT cables was attacked twice within days, with the second attack occurring hours after engineers had finished repairing the damaged caused by the first theft.

About 4,800 phone and broadband connections were damaged in the first attack and 3,500 in the second. Apart from cutting off many local residents and local businesses, a call centre for American Express that helps customers make travel arrangements was completely isolated, and incoming calls and staff had to be transferred to a London office.

People who steal the cables which provide phone service, electricity, or railway signals are not just causing cost and inconvenience to innocent people, they are also putting lives at risk. Unless the trade in stolen metal is stamped out and the people responsible put where they belong, which is in prison, they will sooner or later create the situation where someone can't make a vital 999 call, where damage to a railway signal is not discovered until too late, or where loss of power causes an industrial or medical accident, and innocent people will die as a result.

The other despicable aspect of the trade in stolen metal is that some lowlifes have been stealing war memorial plaques to melt them down for the metal they contain.

Mr Jones said while proposing his bill that theft of metal, particularly from war memorials and signalling cable from the railways, had reached "crisis point", having risen on the electricity networks by 700% in the past two years alone. He added that the national cost of metal theft has been estimated at £770 million, while there were 2,712 cable thefts on the railways in the last financial year, which had led to 240,000 minutes of delays for passengers.

This has got to stop. Companies like BT - and I'd better declare an interest, I work for and am a shareholder in BT - have been spending millions of pounds on initiatives to assist the police in tracing metals stolen from our network. These have resulted in some arrests and convictions. But we need more effective regulation of the metal market so as to make it harder for metal thieves to sell what they have stolen.

Proposals in Mr Jones' bill include a ban on metal trading in cash, stiffer penalties for those caught trading in stolen metal, and for the thieves themselves when caught and convicted to be sentenced not on the basis on the value of metal they had stolen, but on the cost of the damage and disruption they had caused. (As we have seen this can be fifty to a hundred times higher.) Stolen metal would also be classed as stolen assets.

As I said at the start of the article, ten minute rule bills rarely become law, but what sometimes does happen is that governments pick up the ideas and act on some of them. I really hope that happens this time.

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