Material matters: The mine above ground - metal theft

Materials World magazine
5 Feb 2013

Last April, the Oil Patch Warrior statue at Duke’s Wood in Nottinghamshire was damaged by thieves attempting to steal it for the scrap metal.

After failing to topple the two metre statue, they tried to cut off the arms, before being disturbed and fleeing the scene. The bronze plaque commemorating the names of the American oil men who worked at Duke’s Wood during the Second World War had been prised off several years ago, and replaced with a faux-bronze copy. Now the whole statue has been relocated to a more secure location at the nearby National Grid offices.

Sadly, this attempted theft is not unique. Soaring metal prices over the last few years have lead to a startling rise in metal theft, and nothing is seen as too risky or off-limits to opportunistic criminals. Copper pipes and cables, iron manhole covers, lead roofing and even the bronze from statues and war memorials are routinely stolen. Not without reason is the scrap metal industry sometimes referred to as the mine above ground – according to the British Metal Recycling Association it is a £5.6 billion UK industry employing more than 8,000 people.

So how can we encourage legitimate scrap metal recycling and discourage illegal fly-tipping, while cracking down on metal theft and unscrupulous scrap metal dealers? It’s a question that has been vexing the police, politicians, local authorities and the BMRA, which has lead to a major overhaul of the legislation. A new Scrap Metal Dealers Bill should be passed later this year to replace the 1964 Licensed Scrap Metal Dealers Act, which was drafted in an era when the traditional rag-and-bone man still toured the streets and there wasn’t the burgeoning scrap metal industry there is today. The new Bill will make it mandatory for anyone involved in collecting, dealing or recycling scrap metal to be licensed by their local authority, and will require much more rigorous record-keeping, in particular the name, ID, and proof of address of any walk-in trade.

One key change in the law has already come into effect. From 3 December 2012, cash-in-hand payment for scrap metal is illegal, as this is seen as one of the main attractions to the criminal element. But the ‘no questions asked’ culture also needs to change, and dealers must refuse to handle anything that is obviously suspect. Crucially, the new bill gives the police powers to search any licensed premises to ensure the law is being upheld, and local authorities can refuse or revoke licenses if the owners are found to be in breach of the requirements.

The BMRA is supportive of the Bill but has expressed concern that cashless payments will drive the illegal trade underground, but that is surely the point: by making a clear distinction between the legitimate and illegal, it will be far easier to prosecute the latter. I think a more likely consequence is that people will be less likely to collect genuinely waste scrap metal, as saying to a dealer ‘I just found it’ will seem suspicious, even if true. It will be interesting to see whether the cash ban leads to more uncollected scrap lying about the place.

Graham Jones, MP for Hyndburn, who put forward the Private Members’ Bill to amend the act has suggested that the Theft Act should be amended so that anyone found guilty of metal theft should be sentenced in proportion to the consequences of the crime, not the scrap metal value. Although what is the consequence for the Duke’s Wood oil men, and all of us who have appreciated their statue?