The enemy within: metal thieves

by Tom Watson

Had the Chinese conducted 900 hack attacks on BT’s telecommunications network, we’d be moving resolutions at the united nations.

Were Osama Bin Laden to destroy enough railway signalling to deprive Britain of 20,000 hours of the productive capacity of its commuters, there would be special sittings of Parliament.

And this level of damage is, indeed, being deliberately done to the country’s infrastructure. But because the destruction is being wrought not by spies or terrorists, but by vagabonds and thieves, the home office barely notices.

Metal thieves are eating away at key parts of the UK’s infrastructure. They are doing it day in day out, in towns and cities up and down the land. They’re causing many millions of pounds of damage to businesses and communities. Sometimes, like terrorists, they even blow themselves up. They are the enemy within and they need to be stopped.

I used to have a minor but interesting responsibility for the cabinet office team charged with the authority for our civil protection. Many of the guys in the team had military backgrounds which reminded me of my days at the MoD. They were a tiny little unit, nesting away at the heart of government, barely noticed but doing great things to keep us safe.

If things go pear-shaped, this is also the team which runs the cabinet office briefing room, or COBRA as it is better known.  The civilians in the department used to clash with them, but I held them in the highest regard. If it had been down to me, I would have instructed the honours unit to give them all knighthoods.

Every fortnight or so, the team would provide me with a threats matrix. It was a diagram of UK resilience for idiots. I think the contents of the grid remain a national secret but I don’t mind offering you a small flavour of what was on there, for illustrative purposes.

The grid had an x and a y axis. The x axis signified the likelihood of an event and the y the seriousness of impact if it happened. In the top right corner of the grid was avian flu, just above terrorist attacks.

And, when you think about it, if a discrete pathogenic entity virulently spreads through homo sapiens, the cost in human life could be much greater than a terrorist attack. That’s why I had no compunction in voting for an enormous amount of vaccines to be ordered when we had an outbreak of the H1N1 (swine flu) virus. You can’t be too careful when it comes to micro-biological threats to the nation, after all.

Sometimes, to amuse myself more than anything else, I would pencil in a cross on the grid and write next to it “metal theft”. I would put it up there near the top right hand corner, below terrorist attacks and avian flu, but above tanker driver strikes and water shortages caused by drought. I even asked the guys to put pressure on the home office to take this stuff more seriously. They humoured me. I didn’t push too hard. Life is short.

Since my time at the cabinet office, commodity prices have rocketed. Copper, for example, has more than doubled in price. These metal thieves are pinching anything they can cut, saw or dig up. Henry Moore sculptures have been lifted. Miles of copper broadband cables have been dug up and wound onto industrial size bobbins on the back of flat-bed trucks. Even West Bromwich magistrates’ court had the lead nicked from the roof – just in time for the new government to close it completely.  Plus ça change.

I’ve secured a debate in the House later today on the matter. I don’t intend to be ferocious, but I do want home office minister, James Brokenshire, to listen seriously to the issues I raise.

I will be revealing the results of months of painstaking research using the freedom of information act. The essence is that a lot of public buildings have been targeted by unscrupulous felons.

When a minister back in 2008, I asked officials what solutions there may be to this emerging problem. When none were forthcoming, like most modern ministers I turned to the oracle. I turned to Google. And that’s when I found out about governor Ted Kulongoski. I do not know governor Kulongoski, but he seems like a very smart fellow. Reading up on Oregon Senate bill 570, signed by the great man in 2009, gave me the solution: take out the cash element of the scrap metal trade and you reduce acquisitive crime.

I hit upon this idea after talking to law enforcers in the Black Country. They told me that it is not unusual to find heroin addicts pushing wheelie bins full of manhole covers into scrap metal yards. Very often, the merchants will helpfully open their doors at 5 or 6am in order to relieve the bin pushers of their ill-gotten gains. There’s a black market price list for the goods, £10 for a manhole cover, £70 for a catalytic converter (they contain tiny amounts of platinum, apparently).

So, I want to amend the scrap metal merchants act 1964, such that merchants can no longer buy scrap metal in cash, but must pay by cheque or directly into a bank account. Of course, this will not make suddenly make theft impossible, but it will be a spanner in the spokes of the black market in stolen metal. A drug addict does not steal a barrowful of manhole covers for a cheque.

This is what you do when you’re a backbencher, in opposition, representing a Black Country seat. It would make the lives of my constituents a little easier. Whether it happens is down to the personal commitment of the minister. It’s a big day for him. He doesn’t want to fall out with me, after all. The minister is James Brokenshire.

I don’t know James Brokenshire. But I googled him. It seems promising. I notice that when he’s not trying to save his local accident and emergency department from closure by the government, James Brokenshire wants to listen a lot. He’s listening to football fans about violence. He’s listening to the pub trade over licensing. I hope he listens to me about metal theft.

Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East.

Tags: , , ,

5 Responses to “The enemy within: metal thieves”

  1. cyberdoyle says:

    the sooner they pinch all the copper the better. Nobody will pinch fibre, it has no value. Then we will have a proper telecommunications network.
    Sorry to sound trivial, but I can’t miss a chance to put my X anywhere I can on the matrix.
    I do agree though, there are far too many tinkers around these days, farms are especially vulnerable and not a week passes but we get stuff nicked. Diesel, vehicles, tools, lead, roofing flags. The police can’t be everywhere, but our webacams could be. If only we had broadband. If only we had fibre.

  2. Joc says:

    Although your solution is a good first step, it’s a worry that it might cause worse problems. Firstly that more organised criminals will step in to supply the demand for stolen metals. Second, the addicts are still going to be addicts and will need to find other ways to fund their habits. Some will have to resort to burglary and mugging I guess. These problems are tough to solve but we have to be careful that were not creating new issues as a consequence.

  3. Gary Barnett says:

    Thanks for this informative peice. Metal theft used to be right at the very bottom of my “things I should be getting bothered about” list, and you’ve helped confirm its position right down there below “loud shirts” and “disney ties”.

    For Pete’s sake… we have many, many, more challenges to face that are far more critical to our future than a nerdy amendment to Scrap Metal Merchants Act (1964).


  4. Joe Mac says:

    I cannot believe the mindset of people like “Joc” What an utterly bizarre idea; that there is a demand for stolen metal that will just be filled by organized criminals if we stop the casual thieves! Forget drugs and prostitution, stealing manhole covers is where it’s at these days! Nicking copper wire etc is the low level part of the operation. Any organized crime is at the scrapyard level not the tinkers turning up with a van full of sculpture. What IS happening is that the casual thieves are themselves becoming more skilful and audacious in their scale.

    Secondly the idea that we shouldn’t stop druggies nicking metal because they’ll burgle a house or mug your granny….. oh please….on that basis I won’t stop someone mugging you because if I do they might mug me instead. the correct actoin is to stop them nicking metal and stop them burgling too. It’s not either/or.

    Metal theft is a very serious problem and scrap yards are meant to be well controlled for this very reason. The scrap yards are complicit in this crime and need to get their act in order. Payment by bank transfer only, bank statement to be produced with name/address on, ID produced and recorded for every sale. It’s not a human rights issue folks and the scale of the problem merits the action taken.

  5. Charles says:

    It’s a great shame about the Hepworth theft.

    I suppose doing something is better than nothing but I can’t see how you’d enforce this amendment. The whole point of cash is that there’s no paper trial. Unless you’re going to require metal merchants to provide an itemised inventory of every item they own and it’s payment with regular spot checks I can’t see how this changes anything.

Leave a Reply