Deal or no deal: Metal theft

Written by: Robin Edwards | Published:
Robin Edwards,director, Onis Consulting

We should all be familiar with the success achieved in tackling metal theft from early 2012 and how difficult it was to persuade large sections of the scrap metal industry to self-regulate, writes Robin Edwards.

They appeared to be content to accept whatever passed through their gates and seemed to be more interested in making money than reducing the misery communities suffered on an almost daily basis.

I found it almost impossible to convince scrap dealers that they had a shared responsibility to reduce metal theft alongside the efforts of the enforcement services and this reluctance resulted in the introduction of Operation Tornado, the removal of cash and in 2013 the new Scrap Metal Dealers Act (SMDA). Unfortunately following the introduction of the new legislation enforcement plans weren’t fully embedded in business as usual and this left industry vulnerable.

Whilst the SMDA 2013 gives forces the tools to tackle metal theft, the lack of police resources and dwindling budgets means metal theft is no longer on their radar. I know how effective regular police visits, road side checks and covert operations were at focusing the minds of those involved in money laundering and handling of stolen metal and they were crucial in supressing the problem.

The current complacency from enforcement agencies is allowing the unscrupulous dealers the opportunity to drift back into the illicit practices of pre 2012 and the inevitable return of the misery commuters and communities suffered on an almost daily basis.

It has been suggested that the level of incentive is low for those involved in metal theft; in reality, we are seeing an increase in lead theft from churches and historic buildings, and in some locations it’s at levels that are as high as they were in 2011/12. Copper theft is also on the increase as unscrupulous scrap dealers turn a blind eye to what’s passing through their gates.

I work closely with Alchemy Metals who have campaigned tirelessly to highlight the problems and impact of corporate theft, the benefits of new legislation and effective enforcement. We have seen a significant increase in the use of cash which is becoming much more wide spread and on its own will incentivise those involved in the theft of metal.

The long term future of enforcement is rather bleak; the opportunists will return, organised groups will continue to flourish and the term ‘cash is back’ is becoming all too familiar in the absence of any coordinated enforcement. It would be catastrophic to allow the problems to re-emerge; however, I see little interest from enforcement agencies to acknowledge this.

It’s important to appreciate the impact the commodities market has on metal theft. The correlation between the price of metal and the level of theft is a well-known and acknowledged indicator. This correlation was broken by Operation Tornado and the new legislation, but it’s also important to acknowledge the impact the depressed commodities market is having on the level of offending. Operation Tornado broke the link for the first time, cashless introduced a degree of long term sustainability and the struggling commodity market suppressed theft as enforcement dried up.

It has been suggested that when prices were high and profits were large scrap dealers did little to help themselves by failing to plan for the future. It could also be suggested that sections of the industry are paying the price for questionable business practices that fuelled the catastrophic rise in metal theft.

What happens next?

The future of metal theft sits on a precipice. Reported crimes remain low, sections of the scrap industry appear to be compliant with the new legislation and enforcement agencies are patting themselves on the back for a job well done. However, this in my opinion will change very quickly with an absence of coordinated, and in some areas any enforcement activity at all. We are seeing an increase in offending, cash and associated money laundering is becoming much more widespread, our heritage is suffering badly and sections of the scrap metal industry are reverting to pre legislation and Tornado business practices.

Yes, I accept there are faults with the SMDA 2013 and these should be resolved, preferably before the five year sunset clause comes into effect in 2018. However, with the lack of interest from politicians and government, I suspect this is unlikely to happen and we may stumble towards a hasty review that amends and ultimately achieves very little.

The scrap metal industry which was at the root of metal theft will change and become fully compliant only if the new legislation and acceptable standards of business are stringently enforced. Unfortunately enforcement in England and Wales has now moved onto more pressing problems so unless there is a significant change in direction and metal theft moves back up the priority list, we are stumbling towards a resurgence in offending and those dark pre legislative days.

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