METAL THEFT: MP Jones outlines new bill to tackle metal theft

A private members’ bill tabled in the UK House of Commons last month will propose harsher sentencing for scrap metal thieves and make enforcement of the law easier, MP Graham Jones, who introduced the bill to the House, told Metal Bulletin.

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“The best way to look at the current law is that it’s like a Swiss cheese. It has so many holes in it that it’s difficult to enforce,” Jones said. “The new regulations will put in more robust sentencing for those caught stealing and also tighten some loopholes that exist.”

The issue of scrap metal theft is not a new one. Metals recyclers have been dealing with it for as long as they’ve been in business, but there is no doubt that the incidence of theft is increasing, as well as the sophistication of the methods used by the thieves.

When introducing his bill, Jones pointed to thefts from network rail companies that saw the volume of such incidents increase seven-fold between June 2009 and June 2011. There is now an average of eight metal thefts per day of network rail property, while 50 serious injuries and six deaths have been attributed to the crime in the last year.

The British Metal Recycling Assn (BMRA) website lists reported incidents of metal theft, and the number of those reports has also risen this year.

“The BMRA figures indicate horrendous increases in the incidence of theft,” Jones said. “By all evidence, from all bodies affected by this, we’re moving from ‘level one’ offenders – people that are stealing for casual money or drugs – towards serious, ‘level two’ offenders, meaning organised crime.”

Jones’s bill lists six changes to the current law that seek to reduce the incidence of metal theft by making it harder to sell stolen material by increasing the penalties on those that do.

First, it seeks to amend the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 by introducing a robust licensing regime, rather than the current registration scheme, so that all scrap metal dealers will be required to pay a licence fee to fund regulation of the system. Property obtained through theft will also be regarded as criminal assets, allowing provisions in the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to apply to scrap collectors and dealers.

Jones is also seeking to give the police more power to search and investigate all premises owned and operated by a scrap metal dealer, and to close dealerships where criminally obtained materials are discovered.

Similarly, the bill would give magistrates powers to add licence restrictions and prevent closed yards from re-opening.

“The police have the power to search books, but not necessarily to search premises fully, so there’s an ambiguity there that needs clarifying,” Jones said. “Magistrates need to take a tough line on individuals handling stolen goods. It may require a sentencing bill down the line.”

The sentencing of convicted criminals will, under the proposed bill, reflect not the scrap metal value, but the consequences of the crime, which for a small amount of copper wiring can run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Lastly, Jones is seeking to do away with cash payments for scrap metal and introduce a requirement that the metal must not be sold on or processed until payments have been cleared.

Many within the industry, including the BMRA, have voiced concerns that ending cash payments will simply push more of the trade underground, as sellers that, for the most part, collect scrap metal legitimately, may continue to seek buyers that are willing to pay cash, regardless of the legal status of the buyer.

Jones contends that such effects will be minimal, and that there is little excuse not to have a working bank account that can process cheque payments.

“It’s always a concern [that more trade will be pushed underground], but changes in banking mean that most people can now open bank accounts,” he said. “There will always be those that escape the law for a while, but under the new regulations they will, hopefully, get caught.”

With the exception of some concern over ending cash payments, the bill has received widespread support from the industry. But even if the bill passes, the authorities must show the will to properly enforce the law and to more effectively punish those that break it.

“Magistrates need to take a tough line on individuals handling stolen goods,” Jones said. “It may require a sentencing bill down the line.”

Unless the authorities take a harder line on offenders, many in the market will remain sceptical that a great deal will change even if Jones’ bill is passed, or should it spark a debate that eventually results in a tightening of the law.

“It’s got to be enforced. It can’t be like it is now,” one scrap buyer said. “We would like to see the regulations stringently enforced all the way through the system. If not, it’s a waste of time.”

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