Scrap metal theft 'on same level as drug scene'

This is a world of cash payments, where no questions are asked and the risks are high. This is the world of dodgy scrap dealers who will happily pay for stolen metal.

It's a problem that's been with us for decades.

I remember when the authorities were reluctant to talk about cable theft because the fear was it would encourage more crime. Unfortunately, metal theft has soared and it affects many people - not least you, the commuter.

Some call it a "recession crime", and economic conditions do play a part in it.

But it is also fuelled by high metal prices and an unregulated cowboy scrap metal trade, parts of which operate by a "no questions asked" code.

During our investigation we met one former cable thief and he told us: "There's a lot of money in cabling at the moment, the prices have literally soared.

"It's an easy win for people. The tracks get turned off, they know how to deal with things and it's just pick it up, cut it off and run.

"There's no shortage of scrap dealers willing to take it. It's now become similar to the drug scene, people grow drugs and take drugs and sell drugs, and there's a lot of money involved. Well, scrap metal has come up to that level, there's that amount of money involved that people take the risk for it.

"It's not just kids off the street, it's middle-aged men with families that make a very, very good living out of it."

The scale of the problem is highlighted by these figures we obtained from Network Rail.

It shows for the first time the full scale of the problem for commuters in London and the South East although it's not the worst hit region.

How many hours of delays have been caused by metal theft?

2011 - 949 hours (40 days)

2010 - 237 hours (10 days)

2009 - 148 hours (six days)

That shows nearly a 700% increase in delays.

How much compensation has been paid out (to train companies) due to metal theft?

2011 - £3,608,892

2010 - £1,175,252

2009 - £373,799

That's nearly a 1,000% increase.

How many incidents of metal theft have there been?

2011 - 104

2010 - 71

2009 - 40

That's a 260% increase in incidents.

So what can the British Transport Police (BTP) do to try to stop this?

The BTP is very clear that things need to change when it comes to legislation.

Under the Scrap Metals Dealers Act (1964) they are allowed to enter scrapyards without warning.

Image copyright Other
Image caption Network Rail has lost 40 days (949 hours) to metal theft in 2011

The Act requires all scrap metal dealers to be registered with their local authority and obliges them to maintain records of all transactions relating to scrap metal received and processed.

The penalties imposed for failure to comply are fixed fines. The fines are simply not high enough to deter someone who is currently able to get a very good price for scrap metal.

In order to prosecute, the police can also try to prove a merchant has knowingly handled stolen metal - but that can be difficult.

Another way is for the police to prosecute through the Proceeds of Crime Act which I'm told has a much lower proof threshold.

It means if the dealer is in possession of stolen goods then he can be prosecuted. The issue there is that proving the origins of processed metal can be very tough.

The BTP and legitimate operators now want much tougher legislation to make it easier for them.

They want no cash payments for scrap, and they want legislation to make it compulsory for merchants to request identification.

They also want annual licensing of scrap metal dealers similar to pubs. That would mean if an owner is prosecuted he would not be able to operate a scrapyard again.

So is the government listening?

There are some signs it is and it has allocated £5m to set up a task force.

Others say much more legislative action will be needed in 2012 to clamp down on dodgy dealers and make the issue a priority.

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