Pictured: St Mary's Baconsthorpe. Scene of a £100,000 lead theft. Credit:Corrine Youngs/Archant
A metal theft crackdown is failing to protect heritage buildings from thefts by organised gangs, the Church’s official insurer has warned.
The Government’s attempt to bring scrap metal thefts under control is not working, as criminals have become more brazen and there has been a rise in gangs making off with entire church roofs, according to the specialist church insurers, Ecclesiastical.
This week the Home Office said the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 “continues to be a powerful weapon” against metal theft, as it completed its review into the legislation.
The Home Office quoted figures from the Office for National Statistics, which showed that the number of thefts fell by more than three quarters in the four years since the legislation came into effect.
But critics warn that these figures paint a misleading picture, as they show the number of thefts but not the severity.
They say that while there has been a decline in low-value “opportunistic” scrap metal thefts, large scale pilfering is on the rise.
There has been a spate of thefts of church roofs, including St Blaise Church in Milton in Oxfordshire which earlier this year which in September replaced its roof with stainless steel after having lead plundered on five separate occasions.
All Saints, a 13th century Leicestershire church has been targetted by metal thieves three times over the past two years.
Michael Angell, church operations director for specialist church insurer, Ecclesiastical, said: “During 2015 we saw an increase in large thefts perpetrated by organised gangs, which involved the removal of entire church roofs. This trend continued during 2016 and 2017.”
He said that as the value of lead continues to rise, “it is fair to assume that the volume and severity of incidents of metal theft will also increase”.
“Ecclesiastical believes that weaknesses in the control environment created by this Act continue to be exploited by those involved in the theft of metal from our community, places of worship and heritage buildings,” he added.
Mr Angell said he hopes to continue working with the Home Office "to ensure that the current legislation is implemented effectively, particularly when it comes to enforcement".
The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 was bought in to curb the rising ride of metal thefts by making it harder for the thieves to sell their stolen metal undetected.
It introduced a formal licensing regime for scrap metal dealers, made it a criminal offence to buy scrap metal with cash, and required dealers to keep full receipts and record on disposal of scrap metal.
Robert Fell, chief executive of the British Metals Recycling Association (BMRA) said that a lack of effective enforcement of the Act means that criminal gangs remain at large and operate with impunity.
“The Home Office are hiding behind flawed data,” he said.
“The number of crimes has reduced but they have got much bigger. If you looked at value or impact [of thefts] it would show a very, very different story.”
As well as church roofs, telecoms cabling and cabling for railway signalling are being stolen, he added.
“A lot of infrastructure is at risk it is high value copper. We are so dismayed by the Home Office report,” he said. “The value of metal is continuing to rise, so it will get worse.
“The Government has just published a document saying we won’t do anything different, so the thieves will be thinking ‘great, bring it on’.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “During our review of the Act, some organisations told us that they were aware of a shift from smaller, more opportunistic thefts, to larger-scale and more organised crimes.
“We recognise that the nature and scale of these crimes can vary and we will continue to work with the police and other partners, including through the police-led National Metal Theft Working Group, to understand better the current nature of metal thefts and what more can be done to prevent them.”
Pictured left: A Trace-in-Metal Forensic Microdot which is carrying data relating to the exact location, day, date, time of installtion, the identity of the installer, when it was infused into the lead substrate, that has survived a complete meltdown of the lead, with the data remaining intact. This provides traceability of the lead throughout the metals recycling processes.
Said Managing Director John Minary: "We have been saying this for the past 5 years. You can legislate all you want, if there is no one to enforce the law, criminals will continue to steal."
"Recyclers need to buy metal, it is their business to do so. If they don't know where the metal is from, they will buy it. If they know it is stolen, it will still get bought, because there is no way of tracing that metal. Trace-in-Metal changes this, by indelibly marking metal with forensic tags that survive the temperatures used in metal reprocessing, we provide traceability throughout the food chain, and this is a STEPCHANGE"
"Maintaining the status-quo is not an option. All lead assets on roofs, on the sides of buildings, in public parks are at risk. The threat is very real, and by providing traceability that targets rougue scrap metal dealers you get a very strong deterrent against stealing the metal in the first place. It also gives the diminishing law enforcers a fighting chance of detection, even after the metal has been melted down."
"Insurance companies and specifiers must see this happening. We have developed this technology, it is now time to embrace the Trace-in-Metal system to benefit everyone, especially communities."