Norman Baker: Cable theft has become a full blown national epidemic


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The Independent Online

In the space of just a few years, cable theft in Britain has grown from a small scale regional problem to a full blown national epidemic.

Attracted by rising scrap metal prices, organised gangs are plundering trackside cables and other parts of the rail infrastructure. And with around eight new cases being reported every day, they are not only costing the industry dear - they are also causing widespread disruption to services and massive inconvenience for the travelling public.

Earlier this month, for example, tens of thousands of commuters were left stranded after thieves struck at Needham Market, Suffolk. On June 9th, around 60 rush hour trains were brought to a standstill after an attack in Woking. Some passengers took a huge risk by walking along the track to the nearest station. Fortunately, no-one was injured.

But, the mindless criminals who engage in this modern day great train robbery don’t just pose a threat to our railways, they are also putting their own lives in tremendous danger. Over the past year, at least six people have died trying to remove live cables from both rail and power networks. Ironically, the rewards for this life endangering criminality can often be relatively small. A scrapyard might pay around £5,000 for a tonne of copper – but that would require hundreds of metres of cable. Industry insiders say most attacks raise well below £100.

As the Minister responsible for rail performance, cracking down on cable theft is among my highest priorities. That’s precisely why I am working closely with other Government departments and the British Transport Police. We are collaborating and co-operating to look at a range of options to deter the thieves, improve security, and raise penalties for any individual or business involved in this unlawful activity.

But the Coalition is clear that to tackle the broader scourge of metal theft, 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. So we rule nothing in and nothing out – including strengthening the law.

Already this year we have seen significantly longer jail sentences for cable theft. But it is not enough. By taking co-ordinated action across Government, 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.

Norman Baker is a Liberal Democrat transport minister