18th May 2021: Lord Faulkner of Worcester:

Here is the transcript of my webinair with regards to metal theft affecting the rail services.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you this morning about how Parliament has responded to the scourge of metal theft, and the need to regulate and license the scrap metal trade.

For me, this has been a long journey. I first asked an Oral Question in the House of Lords on 3 October 2011 – almost 10 years ago - arguing the case for cashless transactions and the necessity of amending the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964. As some of you may know, I have a long association with Britain’s railways, and I was particularly motivated then by cable theft which caused thousands of hours of delay to train services.

I said that ACPO reckoned that the cost to the United Kingdom economy in 2010 of this crime was something in the order of £770 million and that the problem was getting worse with the rise in the price of scrap metal. I argued that the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 was out of date and that it needed to be replaced by new legislation that increased maximum penalties, eliminated the payment of cash as a means of settling transactions and moved to a system of licensing in place of the registration that then existed.

The Home Office minister who replied – Lord Henley – said, and I quote:

“The noble Lord is right to point to the problems of metal theft. There is not just the direct cost but the cost to the transport industry, to the power transmission industry and to others. We will look at all possible changes that we can make. The noble Lord is right to draw attention to the 1964 Act and possible changes to bring in a cashless model. Whether that would necessarily improve matters needs looking at, but it would certainly improve the traceability of metals and might make it harder for criminals to dispose of them for cash.”

The subject came up again in the Lords just five weeks later, on 10 November, when we had a debate on Remembrance Day. A number of us spoke about the despicable theft of war memorials for their scrap metal value. I said “The situation is now almost out of control. The increase in the world price of scrap metal, particularly copper, has made it a lucrative crime. It is also one that it is easy to get away with, mainly because of the inadequacies of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964. The absence of a proper licensing system for dealers, the use of cash to settle transactions and the imposition of absurdly low penalties for breaches of the law have all combined to produce the present epidemic of crime.” On the desecration of war memorials I quoted Prime Minister David Cameron’s comment at Question Time in the Commons the week, when he described it as,

“an absolutely sickening and disgusting crime”.

I went on to say:

“In an article in the Daily Telegraph on Monday this week, the Mayor of London wrote about how the plaques on a war memorial in Sidcup commemorating the deaths of 342 in both world wars, including that of Lieutenant George Cairns, who won the Victoria Cross in an act of extraordinary bravery in the Burma campaign in 1944, had been, in Boris Johnson’s words,

“brutally jemmied off and sold for scrap”.

By then it was clear that the government was taking the issue seriously. On 29 November 2011 they set up the National Metal Theft Taskforce that received funding of £5 million for extra operational activity to tackle metal theft.

  The lead in this was taken by the British Transport Police, which set up a central team to manage the programme and provide dedicated co-ordination and support in each region of the country. The taskforce programme financially supported the pilot of Operation Tornado, led brilliantly by the BTP, and the implementation of Tornado tactics by forces and agencies across the country. This was an enhanced identification initiative agreed by the British Metals Recycling Association and the police. Of the forces providing figures, 72% of yards signed up to Operation Tornado.

It had an immediate effect on metal theft. The British Transport Police told me that there was a decrease in reported metal theft of 52%. That was particularly good news for Network Rail, as it has led to a reduction of 59% in the total amount of delay minutes and reduced the company’s compensation payments by £5.6 million.

I was told that the Ecclesiastical Insurance company had reported that the number of claims for theft of metal from church buildings had fallen sharply.

If we compared the national average reductions achieved in reported metal crime, then 38%, with the figures in the Deloitte report in 2011 in which they said that metal theft costs the UK economy £220 million to £260 million a year, then it is likely that the £5 million taskforce money had delivered harm reduction for the UK of between £83 million and £98 million. That is a pretty good rate of return, as a relatively small investment of public money seems to have led to a substantial reduction in metal theft.

To make these improvements permanent we needed changes in the law. I spotted an opportunity in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill and moved an amendment to outlaw cash payments for scrap metal in March 2012. I referred again to ACPO’s estimate that the national cost of metal theft was £770 million, to the 16,000 hours of delays suffered by rail passengers over the past three years caused by the theft of signalling cable, and to other examples of metal theft such as lead from church roofs, manhole covers, telephone wire and works of art. Numerous heritage railways wrote to me to say that scores of metal items such as rails, lamps and even a fork-lift truck had been stolen for their scrap value.

I had another press report dated 1 March saying that seven churches were being targeted and robbed every night for the lead on their roofs; and in a new twist Network Rail reports that, in recent signalling cable thefts on the Cotswold line between Oxford and Worcester, the theft of a 650-volt distribution cable had been concealed by the insertion of a short length of domestic cable in its place—an incredibly dangerous manoeuvre.

The Government accepted the principle of my amendment, but for reasons which I never understood proposed an exemption for itinerant sellers. That meant that the sale of metal to an itinerant collector will not have to be recorded, whether it is a householder getting rid of some unwanted domestic appliance or a metal thief using the itinerant as a way of getting into the chain. I warned at the time that by proposing that exemption, the Government were opening up a serious loophole that could undermine much of the benefit that their move towards cashless transactions will create.

I said to the Minister that the itinerant seller exemption had alarmed many in the industry. For example, SITA said this in its briefing:

“There is no reason why a cashless system cannot be implemented by bona fide itinerant collectors, along with the rest of the scrap metal industry … Moreover, the requirement for a cashless transaction between the itinerant collector and a scrap metal merchant will in any event necessitate the former to maintain a bank account with provision for electronic or cheque payment. It is therefore illogical to exempt the initial transaction between the seller and the itinerant collector, but to (rightly) mandate a cashless transaction for the on-sale of the material to a scrap metal dealer. Traceability over the entire chain, from seller to intermediary to dealer, will be broken along with proof of provenance of the metal presented for sale”.

Fortunately that exemption did not last long as later in 2012 we had an entirely new piece of legislation to consider – the Scrap Metal Dealers Bill. That was necessary because, as Alchemy Metals said in a briefing to me:

“the 1964 Act … is abundantly unfit for purpose. The removal of loopholes such as the Itinerant Trader and Motor Salvage Operator exemption must now pass to law as a matter of urgency. This, combined with further police powers and a comprehensive registration system will give the relevant authorities and the scrap industry itself the powers needed to combat metal theft once and for all”.

For reasons which I never understood, ministers decided that this would be a private member’s, rather than a government bill, which meant that it was at risk of ambush from a handful of MPs who either disliked the principle of changing the law by a private member’s bill, or didn’t like some of the provisions in it – or both.

We were right to be worried because that is exactly what happened. In the Commons it only takes a handful of MPs to talk out a bill, and that is what they tried with the Scrap Metal Dealers Bill. In the end they were only bought off by a commitment by the government that they would add what’s called a “sunset clause” as an amendment when it reached the Lords. Had that gone through it would have meant that the Act would have expired after five years – a completely crazy proposition, given that metal theft was never going to disappear, however effective the Act and equally, the commitment to enforcement.

When the bill came to committee stage in the Lords a minister – it was Lord Attlee – duly tabled the sunset clause amendment. I had received many representations how unwise this was. There was also the procedural point that if the bill was amended in the – Lords it would have to go back to the Commons, where it would again be at the mercy of the awkward squad who might this time kill it off altogether.

I led the charge against the government amendment, saying:

“I am aware that the Minister in another place gave a commitment to give this House the opportunity to consider the addition of a sunset clause—not to improve the Bill, but in order to buy off the two Members who habitually cause trouble for Private Members’ Bills. The noble Earl has fulfilled that commitment by moving that amendment this morning. It does mean that the House is obliged to accept it.”

Unusually for a Friday, I decided to call a division, and won by 89 votes to 31. That meant that the bill left the Lords unamended, didn’t have to go back to the Commons, and passed into law.

I would have liked to be able to say this morning that the passage of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act solved all the problems of metal theft. But we know it didn’t. During the bill’s second reading I put a question to the Minister on Operation Tornado. I pointed out that its funding and that for the taskforce were due to come to an end in March 2013. Did the Government intend that this would be renewed, at least until the provisions of the Bill were fully implemented? The danger was that if the funding stopped, police forces would start to focus on other priorities, and the momentum that they have gained would peter out. I said I could not believe that that is what the Government wanted to see happen.

It gives me no pleasure to say “I told you so”, but those fears were wholly justified, and that I suspect is the main reason you are holding this webinar today. In Parliament we still have much to do, and we have re-formed the All Party-Parliamentary Group on Metal, Stone and Heritage Crime. We would really appreciate your help in attracting MPs to join the APPG, and we’ll do our best to give the campaign our best shot.