At the height of the offending, the theft of live trackside cabling from the rail network was causing significant transport delays and having impacts far beyond the rail network. Emotive items such as plaques from war memorials and public art were being pilfered. The Government pledged £5m to the Metal Theft Task Force, a proactive unit lead by the British Transport Police which co-ordinated multi-agency activity across the country. Best practice in the shape of Operation Tornado was rolled out and scrutiny fell onto the recycling industry where some had shown scant regard for the origins of the metal they were buying.
Clearly an accepted driver behind metal theft is recognised as those willing to buy stolen metal in for profit. Traceability of both the metal asset and the transaction often thwarted criminal investigations, and the Act has certainly helped with the latter if not the former. Removing the ability to reward thieves with cash is seen as a major benefit to all but a few within the recycling industry. The legitimate market has shown an ability to adapt and compliance is seen as a positive element in conducting an ethical business.
Two years on, there is little doubt that the Act has helped in the reduction of metal theft, although to what extent will always be open to discussion. Crime and its causes are never straightforward, and any reductions in offending must always be viewed in the light of the excellent proactive enforcement that took place and the motivation of the criminal in committing the crime. Copper prices are currently at a low level, mainly as a result of the slowdown in China, and the correlation between prices and levels of offending is generally accepted.
There is also little doubt that recorded metal theft has fallen, some say by as much as 36% (Source ONSNov2014). However, metal theft is still a major problem across the country and across different sectors. One change that has resulted from the introduction of the Act is a move from opportunist offending to crimes being committed by more organised criminal gangs. The series of lead theft offences currently taking place across Suffolk provides a good illustration of this.
Whilst we no longer see cases involving the theft of small amounts of flashing or plaques from memorials, we have witnessed offences that involve the theft of huge amounts of sheet lead, and these must by their nature be planned, have logistical support, with established routes in place for the disposal of the stolen metal. The Act has done little to dissuade these offenders, who have now committed 12 such offences in Suffolk alone since July 2015.
The Metal Theft Task Force now exists in name only, with enforcement activity being embedded into normal police business. It will be interesting to see what the enforcement picture looks like in another 12 months’ time. Indeed the next crime figures will make interesting reading. Hopefully scrap metal prices will remain flat. Any increase in global demand for metals may well see the metal theft trend reversing and with the current climate of resourcing within our police forces, there may well be some difficulty in maintaining any meaningful enforcement activity.
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