Losing Your Mettle: Is the Law failing to stand up against Metal Theft?

Contrary to the much-lauded 2013 Scrap Metal Dealers Act, new analysis on metal theft raises questions on its success and on how it has encouraged a shift from petty to large-scale organised crime. 

The act was meant to cut metal theft which peaked in 2011/2012 when copper prices were high and UK businesses alone were experiencing over 1,000 such thefts a week, with an annual haul of 60,000 metal thefts reported.

In October 2013 legislation was introduced banning cash payments by scrap metal merchants for goods received to enforce a more trackable paper trail. However, research on metal thefts between October 2012 to March 2015, raises concerns that this year has witnessed a steep increasing trend, after an initial decline in metal thefts immediately after the Act.

The research was conducted by VPS, the UK’s leading vacant property specialist, who currently secure 50,000 empty commercial and residential properties, which are often targets for such crimes.

“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,“ explains Anthony Owen, VPS’ Managing Director. “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 - discovered that prior to the October 2013 Act, metal thefts were being reported in the media at rates of 400-500 a month. In the 12 months that followed the Act, these reports dramatically reduced to around 200-300 per month. However in February and March this year, the figures have leapt back to an average of over 400.

A recent conference held by the Public Policy Exchange on Metal Theft in London, discussed several reasons why this increase could be happening:

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 100% of 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 5th floor 2 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, commented about today’s new 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 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.”

Mr Owen, VPS, also 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% of all containers.”

Concludes Mr Owen: “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.”

This story was first published by Vacant Property Services