BTP officers conduct searches for stolen cable in Colchester

Legislation to tackle metal theft scourge

A Bill that tackles escalating levels of metal theft from the UK’s rail, energy, and communications infrastructures was passed.

The Scrap Metal Dealers Bill, introduced by Conservative MP Richard Ottaway, proposes ‘whole-scale reform of the scrap industry’, which Ottaway says is the principal outlet for stolen metals.

The provisions of the Bill will clamp down on unlicensed dealers and cash-in-hand trading, as well as impose compulsory vehicle and site badging, and the creation of a single publicly-available register of scrap metal operators.

The Association of Chief Police Officers estimates that metal theft overall costs the UK economy some £770m a year.

The replacement and repair cost to energy networks alone is estimated to be at least £60m a year (Deloitte, 2010).

Increases have been primarily driven by hikes in the price of raw materials over the last 18 months – especially copper, steel, and aluminium.

Trackside cabling, electricity substations, and even high-voltage overhead cables have been targeted by thieves almost nightly in some areas of the country.

The British Transport Police experienced 2,000 railway incidents in 2010/2011 compared with around 1,500 in 2009/2010.

Installation of security surveillance equipment is adding to other costs arising from damage repairs, downtime losses, and penalty payments under service-level agreements.

The total costs of metal theft to ‘UK plc’ could be even higher once the knock-on effects of cross-sector service outages are factored in, says Tim Field of the Energy Networks Association (ENA).

“Making the power infrastructure secure is important, but this Bill is about addressing the prime incentive for metal thieves – easy cash,” he said.

“The price of copper has gone through the roof, but although the scrap value may be quoted as around, say, $7,000 a ton, thieves find that they receive only a few hundred pounds when they offload it to an unscrupulous dealer.

“However, the damage that’s been caused can runs into hundreds of thousands of pounds – and that extra cost is passed on to a degree to energy retailers and consumers.”

Some parts of the rail and energy infrastructure are reporting as many as 21 different attacks in one day.

Although Network Rail can call on the British Transport Police to respond to incidents, the energy infrastructure owners – with pylons and substations often located in remote areas – have to rely on local constabularies.

The lure of rising returns is causing criminals to take insane risks, resulting in deaths and injuries from electric shocks and burns.

Affected organisations have been working for improved legislation through a cross-industry and charity group that includes ENA, BT, Network Rail, the Church of England, the War Memorials Trust, the British Metal Recyclers Association, and others.

Technical solutions also have a part to play. 

Asset protection specialist TEWPlus has been working with Network Rail to supply rapidly deployable products to tackle the problem, ranging from cable tagging to detect movement via SMS, covert ‘rock cameras’, and systems that record and detect early intrusion and streams live video to manned central stations.

“Live audio challenges to intruders relayed from central station to site have also proved effective,” remarked TEWPlus product development manager Les Beverley.

“The attackers always depart rapidly.”

The Bill is expected to get Royal Assent before next Easter.

The Scrap Metal Dealers Bill key features in full:

1. Any individual or business that carries on business as a scrap metal dealer must complete an enhanced application process to get a licence – local authorities can refuse unsuitable applicants and have the power to revoke licences.

2. All sellers of metal must provide verifiable ID at point of sale which is recorded and retained by the dealer.

3. The cashless offence will apply to all scrap metal dealers without exception including ‘mobile/itinerant collectors’ who conduct house to house collections.

4. Police will have the power by court order to close unlicensed premises.

5. The worst breaches of the act including trading in cash, failing to keep an accurate record of deals and trading without a licence, would face unlimited fines.

6. Creation of a single national publicly available register of all scrap metal dealers.

7. Definition of scrap metal dealer to include motor salvage operators, thereby bringing that licensing scheme within one new scrap metal licensing regime.

8. Compulsory vehicle and site badging.

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