The Commuters, the Churches, and the Coalition

Readers of the Industry Soundings column in Environmental Law and Management will be aware of recent attempts to improve the regulation of scrap dealers, and the apparent reluctance of government to introduce adequate controls.  The media have increased the general awareness of the issue and of the particular problems encountered by commuters and many churches as a result of thefts of copper and lead, respectively.  There have, however, been two notable developments: repeated attempts by MPs, the public, and others to secure changes to the law relating to scrap dealers; and the proactive involvement of the Church of England and its request to members to lobby their MPs.

Background

Metal theft is not a new phenomenon, and as early as 1781, the Criminal Law Act criminalized the offence which attracted a penalty of seven years’ transportation to Australia, though by the standards of the day this was not particularly severe – Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 made fraudulent alteration of marriage records punishable by ‘Death as a Felon without Benefit of Clergy’, and the irregular solemnization of marriage by transportation to His Majesty’s Plantations in America’ for 14 years.

Hansard provides ample evidence as to the unenthusiastic implementation and reporting of these and subsequent provisions relating to metal theft, [See: ‘Old and New Metal Dealers’ in the current issue of Industry Soundings] but also identifies the current problems which have arisen as a result of the increasing value of scrap metal.

–       Copper cables are the major target in the electricity industry, and on 6th September 2011, the House of Commons was informed that the number of reported metal thefts rose from 100 per month in 2009 to 700 per month in 2011.  The Association of Chief Police Officers put the annual cost of metal theft to the communications, energy, transport and water industries at £770M per annum;

–       The Fourteenth Report of the Commons Transport Committee – Cable theft on the railway, ordered to be printed on 24th January 2012, indicated that in 2010/11 cable theft caused the delay or cancellation of over 35,000 national rail services and cost Network Rail over £16M;

–       On the 19 January 2012, the Church Commissioners reported to the House that in 2011 more than 2,500 churches suffered thefts of lead, and that the cost of the resulting claims was about £4.6M. Each of those claims represents a loss to a local community and a distraction to parishes from using their resources for local community life.  Subsequent information from the CofE’s ChurchCare site indicates that: this had incurred a cost of £27.5M over the past six years; and in excess of 2500 claims had been made to Ecclesiastical Insurance in 2011

In addition to these Parliamentary Statements, awareness was raised through two Early Day Motions, here and here, a Private Member’s Bill, below, and numerous e-petitions, which included the following none too helpful Ban the Scrapman suggestion:

‘Scrapmen are a bane on society, not least because of the public nuisance they cause by blaring their horn every day.  There is a big problem in this country with metal theft and I believe stopping this practice would go some way to preventing it.

At the time of posting this had received only 7 supporters compared with the 58,374 supporters of Cashless Scrap Metal Trade – Amendment to Scrap Metal Merchants Act 1964 e-petition to prohibit cash transactions.

Graham Jones’ Private Members’ Metal Theft (Prevention) Bill, which was given a first reading under the ten minute rule on 15 November 2011, failed to gain government backing and in a Written Ministerial Statement on 30 January 2012, the Home Secretary announced her intention to bring in more restricted provisions through an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.  The Act received Royal Assent on 1 May 2012 and through sections 145 to 147 amends the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 to increase the penalties for offences relating to scrap metal dealing and create a new offence relating to payment for scrap.

Lord Rosser attempted to close a loophole in these provisions through a proposed amendment to the Protection of Freedoms Bill, which would have given the police further powers of entry to enter and inspect known or suspected scrap metal dealer premises, regardless of whether they were registered.  However, this was narrowly defeated in the Lords on 6 February by 201 votes to 195.

The latest attempt to modify the current legislative regime is through Richard Ottaway’s Private Members Bill introduced in the Commons on 20 June 2012, which will: repeal the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 and Part 1 of Vehicles (Crime) Act 2001; introduce tougher applications requirements for dealer’s licence; give greater powers to the police and local authorities to suspend and revoke licences of illegal operators; and create a single national register of licensed dealers.

Comment

Given that the Ottaway Bill has government backing, it stands a greater chance of success than earlier attempts, but raises two questions. Would this backing have been given if there had not been significant external pressure? And why was the ‘quick fix’ Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act chosen as the preferred route when Ottaway’s proposed replacement of the Scrap Metal Dealers’ Act is anticipated to come into force this autumn? [The Explanatory Note perhaps supplies an answer in its comment: ‘a period of at least six months will be required between Royal Assent and commencement to allow licensing authorities to put in place suitable infrastructure to meet the new demands’.]

With regard to church involvement, in the past the ‘Legislation and Policy’ pages of the (Roman) Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales have been an exemplar in good communications to the laity and clergy through providing with a wide range of material to use in relation to current areas of interest, including: briefing documents; parish resource packs; updates; official statements; and guidance on participation in government consultations.  [Following the site’s redesign, information is provided on an issue-specific basis, such as the response to the same-sex marriage consultation.]

The information on metal theft on the ChurchCare web pages picks up on this practice and includes: a request from the Archbishops’ Council to write to MPs by 12 July asking them to support the Bill; a link to Richard Ottaway’s web page explaining the Bill; Metal Theft Reports for 2010 and 2011; advice on security from ChurchCare and the insurers, Ecclesiastical.  In addition, the ChurchCare Summer 2012 e-Bulletin featured ‘How you can support the new anti-metal theft bill’.

One suspects that the average member of the CofE is not in the habit of writing to his or her MP, (or is necessarily a recipient of the ChurchCare e-bulletin), but this approach to greater involvement of the laity (and clergy) is to be welcomed and encouraged.

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