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Forces push back on metal theft to protect infrastructure

Forces have targeted metal theft gangs in a national campaign to protect infrastructure.

Gangs stealing broadband cabling and other critical infrastructure for their metal have been targeted by enforcement partnerships across the country.

Details of coordinated operations with the Environment Agency, DVSA, HMRC and local authority trading standards teams were revealed in a bid to tackle gangs as part of Metal Theft Week of Action.

A raid executed by Bedfordshire and supported by British Transport Police resulted in seven arrests for metal theft, plant and vehicles. 

West Mercia Police carried out checks at scrap sites and used compliance checks under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act and waste carrier legislation as it trigger for investigations.

Police and Crime Commissioner John Campion said: “I am committed to ensuring West Mercia Police have the resources to tackle criminality, which often unseen but can have a huge impact. Metal theft is a one example of this, with the potential for significant damage to our infrastructure and the communities we live in.”

Telford’s Rural and Business Team executed a warrant related to the suspected theft of catalytic converters of which large quantities were seized along with batteries and other items.

Metal theft costs the UK approximately £360m per year and is often tied to other serious organised crime.

Traditionally, it’s been an issue linked to heritage crime but there’s also a civil resilience risk to infrastructure.

Gangs target railway signalling units, broadband connection boxes and utility installations to strip out critical cabling which disables vital services.

The cable is then stripped of plastic casings and the metal is then sold to scrap dealers.

According to ONS statistics released at the end of January, metal theft offences saw a 9% increase to 19,044 in the year ending September 2021, where other theft offences had decreased across the same period.

Crime levels change according to UK commodity prices – and metal prices climbed through last year due to global shortages caused by lockdown.

But it’s not just cable thefts that gangs are carrying out. Hertfordshire is one area that saw an increase of 62 per cent rise on the previous year – and car catalytic converters have been the majority of incidents.

So part of the response has been focused on cutting off their routes to market.

As part of Metal Theft Week of Action, officers from Hertsmere worked on raising awareness of catalytic converter thefts and sharing crime prevention advice.

Officers also worked alongside the Environment Agency and Hertsmere Borough to check that appropriate processes and regulations were being followed at scrap yards.

Hertfordshire also has an on-going Op Feline which allows motorists to get their catalytic converters security marked for free with participating garages.

Sergeant Noel Buckley from the Hertsmere SNT said: “Cat marking acts as a deterrent to thieves and is a quick and easy process that could prevent you the inconvenience and cost of becoming a victim of crime.”

The huge costs of damage have now alerted politicians that the legislation needs toughening.

In December Conservative MP Bob Blackman (Harrow East) called for the government action to prevent cash sales of the precious metals found within the exhaust emission control devices.

The 2007 Scrap Metal Dealers Act was amended in 2013 at a point when the offences were estimated to cost the UK £220m a year. The Act requires dealers to hold a licence and permits local authorities to charge a licence fee. It also requires scrap metal dealers to verify the identify and address of people they receive metal from.

Forces – especially those with large rural areas – have warned they can’t tackle the problem alone.

Inspector Dave King from Kidderminster of West Mercia Police said: “As a force we will continue to work closely with partners to clamp down on metal theft. This ongoing work includes liaising with scrap metal dealers, regularly conducting spot checks and visits to ensure yards are complying with legislation and organising local operations to disrupt and deter criminals.”

But he added: “We also need members of the public to help us tackle and reduce metal theft by keeping their eyes open to any suspicious activity in their areas, particularly around isolated locations, and report it to us.”

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