Britain: A nation stolen for scrap

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Soaring metal prices have led to a remarkable epidemic of theft that, police claim, poses a serious threat to the UK's infrastructure

Phone networks, electricity pylons, train power lines, gas pipes, bus shelters and even manhole covers plundered on a daily basis – the theft of copper and other metals for scrap from around the country has become so endemic that it now represents "a significant threat to UK national infrastructure", senior police officers will warn Parliament next week.

In some police forces, metal theft now represents 10 per cent of total recorded crime and 50 per cent of thefts.

The Association of Chief Police Officers will tell MPs on Tuesday that forces have become unable to reduce the crimewave because of spiralling global metal prices and inadequate legislation. They will call for reforming antiquated scrap-metal laws.

Last week, in a special operation,police forces from across the country raided hundreds of scrap-metal dealers and seized tonnes of suspected stolen material – mainly destined for China and other developing countries. Despite increased public awareness of the problem, officers say they have been unable to bring down the stubbornly high crime rate.

"The risk-to-reward ratio is simply not in our favour," Deputy Chief Constable Paul Crowther told The Independent. "We can track what's going to happen to the crime rate by what's happening to metal prices. It's almost as if criminals are sat there tracking the market."

In one of the most dramatic examples of the phenomenon, two homes were blown up over the summer and four more set on fire after copper thieves cut down a piece of cable from an overhead line in Castleford, West Yorkshire. About 30 people had been evacuated by the fire brigade just moments before the explosion, which was caused by the earthing of the electrical network in the area which, in turn, ignited the gas pipes within the properties.

Last week, televisions exploded, microwaves caught fire and an entire village was left without power for 12 hours after thieves stole copper cable from an electricity sub-station near Rainham in Essex.

These are just two examples of many. In the last 12 months, 10 people have died attempting to steal copper cabling – mainly from overhead pylons.

In terms of disruption, it is the theft of cabling from railways and telecommunications firms that is most widely felt. In 2006, 622 incidents of metal theft were reported on the railways. By last year, that had risen to 2,765, causing over 15,000 hours of delays to train travellers over two years.

Network Rail recently started employing former Gurkha soldiers to guard vulnerable signalling infrastructure. G4S Gurkha Services, which employs more than 600 former servicemen, offers what it describes as "an enhanced strategic military solution". "We use Gurkhas because of their commitment, vigilance and robustness," John Whitwam, managing director, said. While infrastructure is the most damaging aspect of metal theft in terms of its impact on the economy, thieves have also hit more emotive targets. Earlier last month, thieves targeted the Carshalton War Memorial in Sutton, tearing down 14 individual brass plaques put up in 1921 and featuring the names of more than 240 local men killed in the First World War. The plaques were worth less than £50. In Surrey, thieves stole a 125-year-old bell from a village school. In Kent, a 20ft slide at a half-finished children's playground was cut down and stolen. In Caithness, a half-ton Salvation Army clothes bank was stolen.

Frances Moreton, head of the War Memorials Trust, said that they were getting reports of two or three war memorials being stolen each week.

On Tuesday, the Transport Select Committee will begin taking evidence on metal theft from the railway network – but the committee hopes to make recommendations affecting the whole scrap-metal market. One of the first people to give evidence will be Mr Crowther, who said it was vital that legislation was changed to keep up with the times. Under the Scrap Metal Act brought in during the 1960s, firms collecting metal for sale had to register with the local authority – but only faced fines of up to £1,000 if they didn't. Premises that were not registered could not be inspected by police unless they had evidence that a crime had been committed.

On top of this, a recent trial of a voluntary scheme to stop anyone bringing scrap metal to a dealership without proof of identity failed miserably. One company lost 50 per cent of its cash trade over night.

"Some of these companies are just not doing due diligence. How can someone arriving with a flat-bed truck with a bus stop on top of it without any documentation be legitimate?" Mr Crowther asked.

"The Scrap Metals Act is beyond help. We have exhausted all the powers that we have at our disposal and we need something new."

Louise Ellman, the committee chair, said while its principle concern was the damage to the rail network, it would be looking at making specific recommendations covering all metal theft. "We realise this is a wider problem," she said.

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