Ministers are to expected to launch an assault this week on "crooked" scrapyards in an attempt to curb the "full-blown national epidemic" of metal thefts that threatens Britain's transport network.
The Treasury is concerned about a sharp rise in thefts at a time when the economy can least afford large parts of the rail and road network to grind to a halt. Cash payments for scrap metal are likely to be banned, cross-Channel intelligence stepped up, scrap metal merchants more closely regulated and tougher fines and jail sentences introduced.
Norman Baker, the transport minister, said the Government would "rule nothing in and nothing out – including strengthening the law". Writing for The Independent on Sunday, the Lib Dem minister said that "we need to close down the market for all illegally sourced metals – whether they come from our railways or our graveyards, our war memorials or our communications networks.
"Already this year we have seen significantly longer jail sentences for cable theft. But it is not enough... we are determined to clamp down on crooked scrapyards, and send out an unequivocal message to cable thieves that we will not tolerate their wholly unacceptable activities any longer."
According to the Energy Networks Association, six people have died in the past year attempting to steal power cables. But despite reports of the high value of some metals, most hauls are worth less than £100. "It's just simply not worth the risk," Mr Baker said. "I am working closely with my Home Office colleagues and am delighted they are now taking action."
Scrapyards pay around £5,000 for a tonne of copper, but many other metals are stolen too. This month tens of thousands of commuters in Suffolk were left stranded after thieves stole railway cables. Lead worth £70,000 has been stolen from churches in Cornwall.
Network Rail and Crimestoppers are offering a reward of up to £1,000 for information that leads to a conviction. Chris Curtis, Network Rail route general manager, said: "The only way to significantly reduce metal crime is to take away the illegal market, and more robust legislation and police powers are needed to achieve that."