My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Coaker, I was a little surprised to find my amendment grouped with two very different amendments, both of which I am happy to support. If I were not such a collegiate person, I would probably have asked for my amendment to be degrouped and debated separately, but I suspect that the Government Front Bench and your Lordships would not have regarded that as a particularly friendly gesture at this time of night and at this late stage in the Bill.
I wholeheartedly support my noble friend Lord Bassam’s amendment. He will recall that I was a very new Member of this House in 2000, and, having previously been involved in tackling football violence, I was very pleased to give him every possible support in the measure that he took. His description of the difference it made was absolutely correct.
My amendment is something completely different. It introduces an offence of receiving cash for scrap metal by amending Section 12 of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 and would effectively close a loophole in that Act. Noble Lords with longer memories will recall that cash was removed as a means of payment with the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Its provisions created a criminal offence which prohibited all scrap metal dealers from paying for scrap metal in cash. This was reinforced in 2013, with the introduction of the SMDA—the Scrap Metal Dealers Act—and that was a significant step forward in tackling the scourge of metal crime, which was having a devastating effect on our national infrastructure, heritage, transport operators, public undertakings and communities across the country.
That legislation made it more difficult for criminals to convert stolen metal into cash and removed the opportunity for sections of the scrap metal industry to avoid taxation and launder money. Serious attention was paid to enforcement by the metal theft task force and Operation Tornado, led by the British Transport Police, and in the face of falling commodity prices, levels of offending fell and generally remained fairly low until about 2019. But then values of commodities increased significantly, and enforcement was switched to other priorities.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council metal crime lead is Assistant Chief Constable Charlie Doyle of the BTP. He requested a review of the 2013 SMDA to see how it could be improved to meet the new challenges that did not exist when the Act was written. He set up a group of representatives from all the sectors hit by metal theft and drew up a priority list for updating the legislation. The one suggestion that was universally supported was the introduction of an offence of receiving cash for stolen metal. The introduction of an offence of receiving cash would discourage those who would not normally be involved in any form of criminality, and make it more challenging for those who are.
I am afraid that metal crime is now on the rise again. It is being fuelled by ever increasing commodity prices: copper is at an all-time high, and the projections are that it will continue to rise over the coming years as demand increases. Catalytic converter theft has also emerged as a growing problem, with rhodium rising sixfold in value during the last couple of years. We know that cash continues to be used within sections of the industry and, because of reduced enforcement activity, its use has increased in line with these rises in commodity prices.
As with football violence, referred to by my noble friend Lord Bassam, the emergence of social media marketplaces and online platforms has given rise to an explosion of criminal activity linked to metal crime. A quick search on these platforms reveals page after page of adverts offering to purchase metal, catalytic converters and other items linked to metal crime for cash, with effectively no questions asked.
This amendment would allow a greater degree of leverage with the online platforms to have listings and accounts removed because they would be operating in contravention of the law. The money launderers would find it much more difficult to convert their cash into legitimate assets and it would add an additional layer of difficulty for those who continue to deal in cash.
The Minister, who I am pleased to see back in her place on the Front Bench, will recall that I raised the issue of metal theft in an Oral Question which she answered on
Last Thursday, I attended a demonstration in Worcestershire, by the West Mercia Police, of a number of sophisticated initiatives to track stolen items as varied as farm trailers, four-wheel drive tractors and bicycles. I discussed this amendment with the new chief constable, Pippa Mills, who wishes me to tell your Lordships that she supports a change in legislation that acts as a further deterrent to metal thieves or dealers in stolen metal and enables the prosecution of those involved in metal theft.