Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is not a victimless crime.
The many utilities, train companies, councils and other organisations that have given evidence to the all-party group have all been clear that they do what they can to improve security and mark their property, but there is simply no way to secure all the metal at risk from theft and police every part of the network of which it forms part. Likewise, residents and constituents who might have taken every effort to secure their home and its contents cannot secure the metal fittings on the outside of their home or the lead on their roof in the same way. That is why it was so vital for the Government to act fast to ban cash payments, and I welcome the move to do so through amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.
I am particularly grateful that the noble Lord Henley has agreed to meet the all-party group, and it is positive that even ahead of doing so he has taken action on one of our main points. Quite apart from the main benefit of closing down the prime channel for metal thieves to dispose of their goods easily, as the hon. Member for Hyndburn pointed out, there is also potential for huge savings to the Treasury by closing down one of the main ways in which some scrap metal dealers have avoided paying VAT.
However, there is considerable concern that a straight ban on cash payments, in the absence of better regulation of the industry, could lead to an increase in black market metal recycling. The industry bodies have made it clear that they feel a proper licensing regime is needed, as have local legitimate scrap metal dealers who have spoken to me. That would protect the good businesses that go to great lengths to check that the source of their metal is legitimate, and ensure that those who failed to do so were put out of business.
It is right, too, that metal theft should be made a specific crime in its own right and it is reasonable, given the many additional problems that it can cause—not least danger of death—that there should be a significantly higher penalty for metal theft than for other thefts. Energy companies have provided a number of examples to the all-party group of power exchanges being attacked, and in Worcestershire gas heating systems for swimming pools were attacked, and had that not been swiftly discovered and repaired it could have resulted in horrific or deadly injuries to innocent passers by. The group estimates that the number of deaths already caused by metal theft stood at around six last year, but the total number could be much higher. This is a crime that, quite apart from its enormous economic costs, has literally been killing people.
I am therefore grateful to the hon. Member for Hyndburn for setting out in the motion a comprehensive list of measures to deal with the issue that speak for themselves as a comprehensive, common-sense approach to regulating the industry. Having discussed them with police officers, councillors and scrap metal businesses, I am confident that they can be implemented in a way that works.
It would be wrong to pretend that the police have no powers to deal with metal theft already and I pay tribute to the excellent work of West Mercia police in Worcester in targeting this crime and recognise that they have succeeded in a number of instances, most recently making arrests, seizing stolen goods and £3,000 in cash while closing down an illegal scrap metal merchant in a targeted operation last week.
Today’s debate is urgent as we can do more on this issue. It is an example of Parliament working as it should, addressing an urgent problem through cross-party action and a co-ordinated effort through representatives in both Chambers. I congratulate the hon. Members who have contributed to the debate so far and welcome the decisive action that the Government have already taken, but I urge the Minister to consider carefully the well-researched and detailed recommendations in today’s motion as well as the support for them from so many in industry, in transport and in the vital utilities that keep our country going. The economics of metal theft have changed, making it more attractive for people to take a risk and break the law. It is up to this House and this Government to change the equation and put an end to the rise of this crime.