Bishop of Chester highlights continued need to combat metal theft from churches

chesterOn the 10th May 2018 the Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Peter Forster spoke in a debate hosted by Lord Faulkner of Worcester about the Scrap Metal Dealers Act.  Bishop Peter welcomed the act and the reduction of thefts but highlighted the need to tighten up the act and questioned whether sentencing of criminals of metal theft truly reflected the impact and scale of this particular type of theft to the historic building and the local community. Baroness Williams responded for the Government, her remarks can be found below.


The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, I echo the thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, for initiating the debate, and to the whole process that led to the Act being enacted, which is a good example of legislation that makes a difference. I suspect that we will all be singing from the same song sheet this afternoon to some degree. Orchestras can, of course, have two people playing the same instrument, so I shall be second fiddle in my own heart to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, who had a big involvement in this when he was Bishop of London.

This is good legislation. It provided for a review within five years, but the review started rather earlier, after about three years. I question whether that was entirely wise. In some senses, the Act arrived at the right time. Metal prices were falling, but I am told that they are now 65% above their low point, so obviously the crime has become more attractive. Also, the Act had an initial impact on the police and local authorities, who know that they will have to do something about it because it has just happened. One of the key things is keeping up the sense of momentum and pressure.

Of course, crime and criminals mutate and evolve. We have heard a little about how there might be fewer offences, but it would be good to have some facts on the size of the crime. Indeed, things seem to be moving around the country. The Cathedral and Church Buildings Division tells me that there is more of an organised character to it, particularly in the south-east, and in Leicestershire and Northamptonshire. There is a bit less in my part of the world, although I share with the noble Lord, Lord Cope, the view that what happened in Bunbury was dreadful. It was not just a plaque that went. It was probably put there when there was a service of dedication. That bit of metal has a meaning. It is almost irreplaceable, even if you get a physical replacement.

One of the things we need more information on is what happens to the lead that is stolen. How is it getting to wherever it goes to? There is very little in the review about that. Is it going abroad? Is there some way around the SmartWater technique? It would be good to have more information on that in particular. We also need to recognise that police resources are under ever greater pressure. Particularly with the fall in the number of recorded crimes, this crime could ​easily slip down the order of priority for police forces. Renewed attention is needed to the whole process of enforcement and a further review at some point. To think that we have now reviewed and that is it would surely be wrong. There must be some ongoing process of review because, as I said, the underlying crime will mutate and evolve.

This crime is deeply anti-social. While I can speak especially from the point of view of lead from church roofs, there is also the impact on rail. I have come across this in the north-west, where I live. If it happens outside one of the main London stations it causes absolute havoc. One wonders what the cost of making good is in relation to the value of what is stolen. It makes the whole crime even more senseless.

Our churches are typically maintained by a small band of very dedicated volunteers. On Sunday, I celebrated the 50th anniversary—he was eventually retiring—of a churchwarden. He had worked as a churchwarden for 50 years, since I was still at school, which is the longest I have known. His wife said that whenever someone phoned the house she would always say, “He’s down at the church”. The churches are maintained by volunteers like him, and to find water coming through the roof because somebody has pinched relatively small amounts of lead flashing or whatever is utterly dispiriting. So not only is there a monetary cost, there is a social and personal cost that goes with everything. When the Minister replies, will she say whether sentencing takes into account some assessment of the aggravation in relation to heritage assets, or whatever? Half our listed buildings are churches, so it has a disproportionate impact. I do not want to make special pleading for the Church in this regard, but something about the impact of this particular type of theft should be taken into account in the judicial process.

At the same time, the efficient recycling of scrap metal is a very important part of our national life, and we should acknowledge that. I have recently built a house for retirement, and twice I went to the scrap merchant with bits of scrap lead that I had carefully assembled—and, indeed, disposed of other things. Let us acknowledge that there is an important process of recycling scrap metal, but we must not be at all complacent because there is more to do in enforcement. I hope very much that the Government recognise, too, that this review should not be the first and last but the first of a series.


The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, for securing this debate. We have had a few debates on this matter over the last couple of years. The reason that I was smiling at my noble friend Lady Browning, when she mentioned a Minister responsible for scrap metal, is that in your Lordships’ House I am responsible for everything to do with the Home Office—hence, I have particular responsibility for scrap metal, among other things. I thank noble Lords for all the contributions they have made.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Snape, we do take metal theft seriously. That is why we have retained the Act and continue to work with police and industry through the metal theft working group.

The Question concerns the outcome of the Government’s review of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Browning for securing that Act through your Lordships’ House. The review was conducted during 2017 and the Government’s report on it was published on 11 December last year. I will speak to the conclusions that we reached following the review in a few moments. First, though, it might be helpful to set out a little of the background to this important legislation, and why we looked at it in some detail last year.​

The Scrap Metal Dealers Act was introduced to help to tackle rising levels of metal theft, as noble Lords have pointed out. These are the thefts of items for the value of their constituent metals, rather than necessarily the item itself. The thefts affect tele- communications, transport services and power supplies, as well as cultural and heritage assets, as the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, pointed out—and as my noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley mentioned, in talking about war memorials. I join the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in paying tribute to all the work that my noble friend does as part of the War Memorials Trust. The noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, asked about our doing more to protect the country’s heritage assets—for example, the lead on church roofs. We recognise the impact that these crimes can have on our communities and heritage. In terms of sentencing, which one noble Lord asked about—I am desperately trying to find out which one, and will do so in a moment—the Sentencing Council has published guidelines relating to theft offences which specifically recognise that, when an offence involves the theft of historic objects or the loss of the nation’s heritage, that should be considered an aggravating factor when considering the sentence. That can include damage to heritage sites or thefts from the exterior or interior of listed churches.

The Act focused on tackling the trade in stolen metal. At the time, global metal prices were high, as noble Lords have pointed out, making metal an attractive commodity to thieves. The Act sought to change this, in particular by making it more difficult for thieves to dispose of stolen metal. It did so by strengthening the regulation of the metal recycling sector through the licensing of scrap metal dealers. It prohibited cash payments for scrap metal and introduced requirements relating to record keeping and the verification of the identity of those selling scrap metal to dealers. Alongside the improved regulation of the metal recycling sector, the Act included a specific requirement to review the legislation within five years, which is why we are discussing it today. This was to enable the Government to take a view on whether the Act had met its objectives and whether it should be retained or repealed, whether in full or in part.

The statistics on metal theft paint a compelling picture. The most recent statistics were published by the ONS last December and show that there were just under 13,000 metal theft offences recorded by police forces in England and Wales in the year ending March 2017, to answer in part the question from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester. That was a reduction of 22% compared with the previous year and a staggering fall of 79% since 2012-13, as my noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley pointed out. To answer the noble Lord, Lord Snape, the Government do not collect data on numbers of inspections or prosecutions, but I shall ask the MoJ if it has any figures on prosecutions that might throw further light on this. There will be a number of factors that contributed to this fall, including falling global prices which will have reduced the attractiveness of metal to thieves. However, the Government are clear that the legislation made a contribution and that it provides a solid foundation for continuing action to tackle this form of criminality.​

This is the context in which the review of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act took place. The review commenced in December 2016 and the Home Office wrote to interested parties and relevant representative bodies to seek their views on the Act. More than 50 individuals and organisations wrote to the Home Office with their views, and these informed the report that was published last December. The overwhelming majority said that the Act should be retained. Some wanted the legislation to be extended further—including some of your Lordships—which was beyond the remit of this review, while others made the point that neither the Act nor the effect of falling metal prices had eradicated metal theft altogether. We were told that crimes such as the theft of lead from church roofs suggested that there was a shift from opportunistic crimes to more serious and organised criminality where entire roofs were being stolen: fewer crimes but more serious criminality. The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, mentioned this.

Against the background of significant reductions in numbers of metal thefts, and a strong body of support for the legislation, the Government took the decision that the Act was effective and should not be repealed. Since conducting the review, we have heard our partners’ concerns that rising global metal prices, as the noble Lord, Lord Snape mentioned, are now beginning to put upward pressure on metal thefts. We do, of course, take these warnings seriously.

So, where are we now? First, we recognise that having this important legislation in place is only half the story. The other part of the equation is effective enforcement, as the noble Lords, Lord Snape and Lord Faulkner, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, mentioned, to keep up the pressure on those who would readily flout the law as metal prices make the theft of metal more attractive to criminals. Enforcement is, of course, a matter for individual police forces and police and crime commissioners, as my noble friend Lady Browning and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, pointed out, and it is the role of local authorities to issue or to revoke the licences that all scrap metal dealers need in order to conduct their business. We do, however, have to recognise that enforcement of this legislation is one of a number of pressures and priorities that the police and local authorities face, and they will prioritise according to need. That is not an apology for patchy or inconsistent enforcement; it is a recognition of the realities of the situation.

I mentioned earlier the concerns that were expressed to us about the potential shift to more serious and organised criminality that manifests itself in crimes such as the theft of church roofs, which the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, mentioned. A number of recommendations were made to us about what more might be done to prevent these crimes happening, such as the use of permanent chemical markers, which make the stolen metal more identifiable, as my noble friend Lord Cope pointed out. We recognise the value of such markers, but there may be a question about how resilient they are—for example, when metal is melted down. Nevertheless, it is of course a good idea for dealers to check for them when they receive scrap metal, to ensure that they are not inadvertently handling stolen goods.​

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester talked about sentencing, which I have already dealt with in my remarks. However, he asked also about a further review of the process. We will continue to measure the impact on metal theft, using the national statistics. That is why the national metal theft working group is so important.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and my noble friend Lady Browning talked about extending the legislation and, in particular, smelting regulations. It was not covered by the legislation, but we can discuss it with the industry through the national metal theft working group.

My time is about to run out, but my final point is on the reinstatement of the metal theft task force, as was mentioned by a number of your Lordships, including the noble Lords, Lord Faulkner of Worcester and Lord Snape, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres. It is important to note that the task force was set up when the number of metal thefts was rising; it was funded by the Government to allow sufficient time for the reform provided through the Scrap Metal Dealers Act to become well established and embedded within the normal business of police forces and local authorities, and it was never intended to be a long-term arrangement. However, as I hope I have explained to noble Lords this afternoon, the police-led national metal theft working group now brings together the police, government, industry, local authorities and others to ensure that collaborative working across these sectors continues. We do not have any plans to re-establish the task force at this time.

The final question from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, was on the lack of enforcement of the Act, and enforcement has been mentioned several times. I reiterate that it is important that the police continue to support the Act, but, as I mentioned earlier, it is important that police chiefs and police and crime commissioners decide how best to deploy their resources to manage and respond to crime in their areas and what their local priorities are.

I conclude by thanking all noble Lords for their part in the debate.

(via Parliament.UK)

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