Chris Kelly is the Member of Parliament for Dudley South and founder and co-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Combating Metal Theft.
I am sure I don't need to tell readers what an increasingly concerning scourge metal theft has been over recent years. The impact has included disruption to hospitals, the destruction of private property, and major blackouts affecting thousands of people. It has stopped trains, brought down emergency communications systems, and who could forget the unforgivable theft of war memorials and, in particular, the memorial to the victims of the Warrington bomb?
But lives are being put at risk as well. In July last year a 16 year-old boy died in an electricity substation in an alleged cable theft. There have been eight such deaths so far this year and at least 31 injuries. Thefts are taking place all the time against our critical national energy, telecommunications and transport infrastructure.
Despite many detection initiatives the thefts continue year after year. Every day the odds increase that an innocent member of the public will be killed or seriously injured as a result of metal theft.
That is why we formed an All-Party Parliamentary Group last year to focus a campaign on dealing with the means of disposing of the stolen metal. Without somewhere to sell it to thieves will not steal it.
The current law is from the time of Steptoe and Son, so we were very pleased when the Government listened to our concerns and began a process to update it. Firstly by banning cash from the metal recycling industry – a bold and unprecedented step – and, secondly, by providing the strongest support for Richard Ottaway's Private Members Bill which will reform this outdated law and squeeze the illegal trade out. I would like to pay tribute to Home Office ministers – in particular Lord (Oliver) Henley and his predecessor Baroness (Angela) Browning and James Brokenshire in the Commons – for their unwavering commitment on this. Their single-minded purpose has ensured its success.
The Bill received very strong support at its Second Reading on 13 July 2012 and there is a real spirit of cross-party support on this issue. The Bill begins its Committee Stage when the Commons returns at the beginning of September where it will build on amendments the Government included in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act earlier this year.
The Bill will repeal the 1964 Scrap Metal Dealers Act and replace it with an Act that empowers local authorities with a more robust and enforceable licence regime for all who deal in and collect metal. Its key features are:
- Any individual or business that carries on business as a scrap metal dealer must complete an enhanced application process to get a licence – local authorities can refuse unsuitable applicants and have the power to revoke licences.
- All sellers of metal must provide verifiable ID at point of sale which is recorded and retained by the dealer.
- The cashless offence will apply to all scrap metal dealers without exception including those who conduct house to house collections (itinerant traders).
- Police will have the power by court order to close unlicensed premises.
- Creation of a single national publicly available register of all scrap metal dealers.
- Definition of scrap metal dealer to include motor salvage operators, thereby bringing that licensing scheme within one new scrap metal licensing regime.
We are already seeing evidence, as reflected in the declining number of metal thefts, that the new cashless regime (due to be implemented in the autumn (pdf)) is putting off some illegal trade but, if things continue as they are, sooner or later an innocent person is going to be killed. Then people will ask why Parliament did nothing when we had the chance. That is why Richard Ottoway's Bill is so critical and, along with the measure already introduced, will help prevent this ever happening.