Scrap metal dealers are fuelling theft by promoting a “no-questions asked” industry and refusing to stop cash-based transactions, Lord Henley, a minister has claimed.
‘Two Forms (Divided Circle)’ by Barbara Hepworth stolen from Dulwich Park in south east London
The Home Office minister said the scrap metal industry should “clean up its act” because it was exacerbating the rising tide of thefts.
He said as a result the government would have to â€œregulateâ€ the industry amid claims many dealers were refusing to stop cash transactions.
Authorities have voiced concerns that the Â£5 billion industry is acting under laws that are past their â€œsell by dateâ€ while police say the cash-based industry makes it almost impossible to trace thieves.
Metal theft is estimated to cost the economy Â£770 million every year as thieves target the transport system, public buildings such as schools and hospitals, and places of worship.
Ministers are considering making cash transactions at scrapyards illegal to stop thieves profiting from selling on stolen metal.
But Lord Henley, who is in charge of a Â£5 million government task force investigating the issue, said some in the industry were fuelling the problem.
It is estimated there are about 800 illegal yards operating in the UK, the same number as legal yards.
â€œI have seen advertisements indicating that some scrap metal yards are quite prepared to take things, and more or less say â€˜no questions askedâ€™,â€ he told BBC Radio 4â€™s Today programme on Thursday.
â€œThey know perfectly well that handling stolen property is just as bad a crime and in fact has a bigger sentence â€¦. than theft itself. If they know or suspect it is stolen property they should not be handling it.
â€œThe industry should clean up its act. I think it is likely we will have to regulate and will have to improve the 1964 Scrap Metal Dealers Act, which colleagues have been saying is well past its sell by date.â€
His comments come after The Daily Telegraph disclosed that metal theft has reached “epidemic” proportions in Britain with more than 1,000 offences taking place every week.
According to official figures obtained by this newspaper, the number of thefts has doubled in five years with 60,000 offences in the first 10 months of this year alone.
Thieves have targeted railway lines, church roofs, community centres, war memorials, irreplaceable works of art, manhole covers and even plaques in cemeteries.
The number of thefts from churches has doubled in the past three years. Last year was the worst on record for metal thefts from churches, according to figures released by the insurance industry.
The problem of metal theft was highlighted last week by the theft of a Â£500,000 bronze sculpture by Dame Barbara Hepworth.
Some of the worst-hit areas are Lancashire, Kent, Nottinghamshire and County Durham, each of which have recorded more than 2,500 metal thefts in 2011.
As thieves become increasingly desperate to cash in on record metal prices, it is estimated that two offenders are killed trying to steal metal every month.
Thefts of street lights from roads and copper cables from railways are putting the lives of workers and members of the public at risk.
Last week a pilot project was launched whereby metal dealers agreed to demand identification from anyone selling scrap metal.
An estimated 240 dealers in north east England have signed up to the project which could be rolled out to the rest of the country.
The six-month trial, known as Operation Tornado, is seen as a dry run for legislation which could be introduced next year. It will be officially launched on Friday.
Last month The Daily Telegraph disclosed that new laws were being held up after concerns were raised by officials from the Department for Business about red tape.
Paul Crowther, the BTP deputy chief constable and the ACPO lead for metal theft, said: “It amazes me that in this day and age, with all the money laundering regulations, that you’ve got this multi-billion pounds a year business – it’s a Â£5bn a year business in the UK – which is run largely on a cash basis with almost no checks and balances about who sells the material.”
The British Metal Recycling Association, an industry body, later told Radio 4′s The Report that it supports tougher regulation and enforcement despite being opposed to the banning of cash.
“We do not believe that the elimination of cash transactions will have any possible impact on the thefts of metal and could increase the incidents of illegal activity,” said Ian Hetherington, its director general.
“Our members do not particularly relish the use of cash. But their customers do demand they are paid in cash and their customers range from plumbers, builders, roofing contractors (to) demolition contractors (and) the whole range of people who on a day-to-day to basis sell scrap and they sell scrap for cash.”
Scrap metal dealers ‘fuelling theft through no-questions asked’ industry