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Hopes for new fightback against metal crimes

ROBIN EDWARDS reports on a partnership’s efforts to combat the organised crime gangs
responsible for a surge in metal theft around the country

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Metal, Stone and Heritage Crime recently published a report into metal theft. It highlighted the scale of the problem to the UK economy, with an estimated cost of £4.3bn since 2013. Metal crime is often overlooked and not seen as a priority by those who do not really appreciate how much of an impact it can have on communities, the economy and its links to organised criminality. As a member of the group and one of the contributors to the report, I fully appreciate the scale and extent of the problem we are facing in the UK. But it is not all bad news because, during the past two years, we have seen the introduction of the National Infrastructure Crime Reduction Partnership (NICRP) which goes from strength to strength in the fight against metal and infrastructure crime. The membership of this partnership has now grown to more than 350, and it is leading the fightback against those involved in such criminality. In three years, catalytic converter theft has reduced by almost 70% because of the work of the NICRP and other enforcement agencies, along with a significant reduction in the market value of rhodium, a key element in catalytic converters. An intense week that focused on converter theft, organised by the British Transport Police (BTP) and NICRP, reduced thefts by 50% in 2022 alone. This highlights the effect that targeted enforcement can have on reducing metal crime.

However, criminals are changing their tactics because of the increase in enforcement activity and scrutiny of sections of the scrap
metal industry. This change in tactics demonstrates that criminals are feeling the pressure of a more co-ordinated and structured approach
to tackling crime. Those who try to ignore their responsibilities under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 are facing a greater degree of investigation, and this can be very costly in terms of their reputation, the longevity of their business and financial impact.

The Act brought several challenges, including responsibilities for enforcing the legislation. For example, local authorities are responsible for issuing licences to scrap metal dealers and providing this data to the Environment Agency (EA). The EA, in turn, is responsible for the public register, enforcement and inspection of licensed sites. The police are responsible for enforcement against unlicensed sites and dealing with any identified criminal activity.

Such a three-agency approach resulted in a degree of confusion when it came to who was responsible and who was going to deal with
each element. Jump forward to 2019 and the UK experienced a rapid increase in commodity prices. As expected, the inevitable happened: thefts
began to increase across all sectors. But people with the knowledge and skills to tackle the emerging problem had either changed roles,
retired or had lost the skills they had learned, leaving a gaping hole in the ability of agencies and law enforcements to deal with the issue.
This lack of knowledge and the required skills to enforce legislation is not an easy void to fill because the waste sector is complex.

Licensed sites are rarely, if ever, visited and those officials who do make a visit do not always have the knowledge to identify and deal with failings. A recent freedom of information request into mobile scrap collectors, such as skip firms that specialise in metal from building sites and
households, identified a 70% drop in the number licensed when compared with 2014. This may be because of a reduction in those operating, but I suggest the figures point towards a lack of meaningful enforcement and any sort of follow-up when licences are not renewed.
The National Police Chief Council lead for metal crime, assistant chief constable Charlie Doyle from BTP, leads the strategic drive to reduce metal-related crime through a national cross-agency steering group. The value and impact this group has on the direction of enforcement and industry cannot be underestimated.

We cannot talk about metal crime without discussing the importance of training and how much impact this has on enforcement agencies
which includes licences, the police, environmental services and those who are victims of crime. There are additional challenges around
where responsibility sits when it comes to enforcing the legislation, which, even after almost 10 years, can still causes confusion and, in
many cases, a lack of any meaningful response. The metal crime awareness training that I developed and deliver addresses some of this confusion and provides participants with the knowledge and confidence to deal much more effectively with metal crime. In the past two years, more than 2,300 people have received the training, which was awarded continuing professional development status from an accreditation body. This has been a big step forward when it comes to filling the knowledge gap and we have
seen some significant results, including the discovery of £60,000-worth of cable that was identified and recovered one week after police
officers received the training. The training provides the knowledge to ensure that those covered by the Scrap Metal Dealers Act – who feel
it is acceptable to ignore their responsibilities, legislative obligations and turn a blind eye or openly accept illicit material – are dealt with
robustly. The NICRP was commissioned by Historic England to develop a heritage metal identification training programme for scrap metal
dealers and enforcement agencies. This package is currently being trialled by scrap dealers, councils and police, with the intention of rolling the programme out across these three sectors during the later part of 2024.
This, again, is a step forward when it comes to raising awareness in identifying heritage metal, but also awareness of the impact this
type of crime has on communities. If metal is difficult to sell, then we know from experience that criminals will look at other opportunities. The scrap metal sector has a moral and legal responsibility to make it difficult for criminals to convert stolen material into money. Unfortunately, this responsibility is not present across all the sector, allowing criminals and certain dealers to profit from theft. The NICRP project started in December 2021 and, over four months, brought together  partners including enforcement agencies, national infrastructure companies and affected industry sectors to establish the foundations. The NICRP is now embedded within national infrastructure companies, law enforcement,
environmental bodies and government agencies, as well as working closely with local authorities and their licensing teams. The future of metal crime enforcement activity has changed and, in my opinion, it has done so at the right time because we need to develop long-term strategies to ensure we do not return to a position where there was very little, if any, enforcement and large knowledge gaps.
We need to move from responding to crime after it happens to being much more focused on prevention. I believe this is the most effective
strategy when it comes to containing metal related crime. The upskilling of those involved in the enforcement of legislation is fundamental in terms of reducing crime and increasing compliance. This needs to be embedded in a long-term strategy and not a short-term reaction to current threats. I have said many times that metal crime is a problem that is not going to go away and the figures in the APPG report evidence the scale
of the problem we face. Enforcement agencies, the recycling sector, national infrastructure, heritage partners and victims need to continue to work together with shared objectives and outcomes if we are going to effectively tackle metal crime.

I am pleased to say we are now pulling together with shared objectives and a much clearer strategy on how we tackle the problem. Although there is still a long way to go, progress is reassuring, which should put fear into those who are not compliant. When I talk about partnership working, I include the recycling sector in the equation because a more compliant and engaged sector
will be better for all parties. A legally and morally compliant scrap sector will improve the trading conditions for those who are playing by
the rules and make it much harder to operate for those who are not.