The Government have conducted a review of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 to assess whether it has met its intended objectives and whether it should be retained or repealed. A report of the findings of this review will be published later this year.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Only organised criminal gangs would like to see the Act repealed. It was immensely successful initially thanks to rigorous enforcement, led by the British Transport Police, and the work of the scrap metal task force. Is she aware that in the past two years, from the second half of 2016 and through this year, the incidence of theft has been growing again, particularly of high-value items, through the work of organised gangs? The increase is due also to the rise in the value of scrap metal—for example, copper is now worth more than £5,000 per tonne. Should not the Act be strengthened and the task force reconstituted?
My Lords, in terms of thefts going up, as the noble Lord has said, between 2012-13 and 2015-16 we saw a decrease of something like 74%, which is very pleasing. We will not know the latest figures for a while, but the Government will certainly be looking at them. He is absolutely right about high-value incidents. We recognise the impact that they have, particularly on heritage assets. On enforcement, obviously the police and local authorities deploy their resources as they see fit, but certainly this type of theft has a broader impact on society, not only on those from whom the material has been stolen.
I am afraid I cannot tell the noble Earl how often chemical markers have been used, particularly on heritage assets. However, I can write to him about it.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the impact on churches of such theft, particularly from roofs. It has a devastating effect on church communities and knock-on effects for important local amenities. Can she clarify what the Home Office can do to encourage enforcement of the need to register scrap metal dealers with local authorities, as well as not selling on scrap for cash?
My Lords, buying scrap metal for cash is now an offence. I declare an interest in that I was chairman of the Heritage Lottery Fund for the north-west, so I recognise the totally disproportionate impact that these crimes have on communities and on heritage. The Sentencing Council has published guidelines relating to offences of theft which specifically recognise that where an offence involves the theft of historic objects or a loss of the nation’s heritage, these are to be considered aggravating factors when sentencing. This can include damage to heritage sites or theft from the interior or exterior of listed churches.
My Lords, what discussions have the Government had with Gypsy and Traveller traders about the Act as currently implemented? It has caused them considerable difficulties, almost amounting to restraint of trade.
I am just turning to my noble friend Lord Henley, who was involved in the Act, as was my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach. I understand that during the passage of the Bill and prior to that, the Gypsy and Traveller community made representations. However, there is an overriding point here, which is that the trade in scrap metal must be lawful, and therefore the full force of the law should come down on people who steal metal and attempt to sell it.
My Lords, noble Lords have spoken about the top level of illegal trade and theft. What tends to happen in towns in the north of England is that people drive up and down the backstreets in unregistered vans or trucks with no identification on them. They pick up and take away anything that is left on the street. They also look into backyards and if no one is living in the house, they might take material away. If there is someone in the house, they will offer them a couple of quid. But even if these people are not paying money for the scrap, they need waste carrier licences. Much of this is going on at a low level that is just below the radar. What will the police do to stop it?
My Lords, the noble Lord mentions a number of different events, which may or may not be theft. Some people might be quite grateful to have scrap metal that has been lying in their backyards for years picked up. Going back to the Scrap Metal Dealers Act, it is now unlawful for someone to buy scrap metal for cash, and therefore there is now a better audit trail of where scrap metal is going.
I can tell my noble friend that there were 62,000 offences in 2012-13, which came down to 16,000 in 2015-16. That huge decline in the number of offences tells me that there has been a huge decline in the number of thefts.