Scrap metal law could tackle heritage crime
Politicians seek support for tighter regulations
By Riah Pryor. Web only
Published online: 23 August 2012
As a man was jailed on 15 August for stealing thousands of pounds worth of lead from the historic Newstead Abbey, once home to the poet Lord Byron, politicians called on cultural organisations to support a proposed law to tighten the regulation of scrap metal dealers.
Metal theft statistics are big: according to government research, it cost the UK economy more than £750m last year, no doubt spurred by the recession and the rising value of precious metal. More than 2,500 claims of metal theft were made by churches in 2011, leaving the Church of England with a bill of more than £10m. English Heritage also found such thefts to be the biggest threat of damage to listed buildings, while the number of metal thefts from London museums were 12 times higher in 2011, than in 2006, according to the Metropolitan police.
The proposed law calls for compulsory licences for dealers, a ban on cash payments and greater powers for authorities. It had its second reading in Parliament in July, the same week a bronze Henry Moore sculpture worth £500,000 was stolen from the artist’s estate. A similar attempt to update the existing Scrap Metal Dealers Act of 1964 ran out of time this summer and was dropped at the end of the parliamentary session.
Demand for change
Cultural heritage is not the only victim. The insurance sector, churches and the country’s transport systems are all affected. But, while support is wide-ranging, it is also dispersed. Metal theft “affects many different industries but there’s no single sector pushing hard enough, the impact of the crime is really spread out,” says Nichola Evans, a partner at the law firm Browne Jacobson, who has championed tighter regulation.
“There needs to be a tsunami of support for this bill’s progression into law,” says Richard Ottaway, the Croydon MP who is behind the latest bill. A spokeswoman for his office advised heritage organisations to write to local MPs.
Among those already offering support is the War Memorials Trust. “The charity sees [the bill] as a means to tackle metal theft and hopes that it might be successful in reducing the number of these crimes,” says Amy Davidson, the charity’s conservation officer, in a public statement. Meanwhile, Arts Council England is due to meet with government representatives to give advice in the next couple of months. Richard Calvocoressi, the director of the Henry Moore Foundation, wrote to Parliament that “metal theft undermines the cultural and artistic value of prized and unique objects. We would welcome any legislation that makes it more difficult for dishonest or unaware traders to profit from the thefts of works of art.”
English Heritage, who decided earlier this year to allow cheaper metals, including stainless steel, to replace stolen lead, has been involved in parliamentary discussions. However, as a government advisory body they are unable to lobby for the bill.
A lack of resources also seems to be preventing smaller organisations from making a noise. “[The bill] has not been a priority for us owing to a wide range of challenging initiatives from the government occupying our time, not least the VAT relief changes,” says Seán O’Reilly, the director of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation.
Is law the answer?
Others question whether tighter legislation is the solution. An estimated 60% of stolen metal is believed to be exported. “It’s one thing to regulate dealers, it’s another to recognise or identify the tonnes of metal that are going straight to ports and to China,” says Graham Jones, the Labour MP in charge of last year’s dropped bill. He says there has to be a balance to avoid over-regulating legitimate dealers and pushing illegal trade further underground. Others consider options like SmartWater, an invisible fluid that can be sprayed onto metal and later detected by scrupulous dealers or the police, as a more practical option.
Tackling the lack of co-ordination between affected sectors could also improve matters. “The main impediment to our progress is the poor links between the construction industry, where the metal is headed, and the heritage sector, from where it can be sourced,” says O’Reilly. “There are initiatives around to address [metal theft], so the need is to connect them.”
Whether this bill could play a role in rallying support remains to be seen. “You need to raise awareness of the problem to push forward legislation,” Evans says. “At the same time, you need to push initiatives like this bill to raise attention.”
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