On 5th November 2019, Dame Caroline Spelman, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, answered a written question from Gregory Campbell MP, about trends in thefts from churches:
Gregory Campbell (DUP): 4943 To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what assessment he has made of trends in the level of major property thefts from Churches in the last five years.
Dame Caroline Spelman: The Church of England does not hold data on thefts centrally, but it is kept by local police forces, Historic England and the insurance industry.
The most prominent form of property theft from churches is that of metal (mainly lead from roofs) and of historic building materials such as flagstones. These are items with a high resale value and which, once removed, can be difficult to identify as coming from a particular place.
Because of the largely historic nature of the buildings targeted these thefts are counted as heritage crime. This issue does not just affect churches; it is so widespread that it is the subject of a joint project and Memorandum of Understanding signed by the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the Crown Prosecution Service, Historic England and a growing number of local authorities, community safety partnerships and National Park Authorities. It is an agreement to work in partnership with each other to prevent and solve crimes against historic places.
The Church of England is an active partner in identifying and tackling heritage crime, especially metal theft. The church is part of Operation Crucible, the police-led initiative investigating metal theft, and it has become clear over recent years that this form of criminal behaviour is now being undertaken by organised gangs. The earlier changes to the law did initially lead to a drop in reported incidences, but recently the issue has again become more widespread. The Church of England submitted evidence to the review of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act in 2017 asking the Government to tighten up the Act to better reflect the changing behaviour of both the scrap metal trade and the organised criminal activity.
Due to the highly mobile nature of this form of organised criminal activity and without increased resource, it is hard to see how police and heritage crime officers will be able to address the increase in thefts we are seeing across the country. Thefts are moving gradually west and north along the major transport routes. This year the Church has had the first reports of metal and stone theft in the Bath & Wells Diocese and in the Yorkshire Dioceses. Tightening up of the law, therefore, needs to be accompanied by increased police resources and greater political will.
Parish churches are maintained by volunteers on behalf of the local community. Aside from the financial impact of these thefts, the impact on communities is significant. The social and community impact of the crime, as well as the criminal damage to listed buildings, needs to be addressed at sentencing, as even the theft of small amounts of lead or stone cost has a huge impact on local people. These buildings represent our country’s local and national heritage. Due to the highly mobile nature of criminal gangs, it is essential that police and local churches work together to ensure that heritage crime does not become a decreasing priority for police forces.