METAL theft is one of the UK’s fastest-growing crimes. Thieves even endanger their own lives and those of others to get a haul of it .
In your Argus we have covered countless thefts against all kinds of victims.
In July this year St Gabriel’s church hall in Cwmbran was targeted, as thieves took copper pipes and taps from the toilets. It flooded the hall, which was not only used for a children’s Sunday school, but also for events for families after weddings and funerals had taken place next door in the church.
Linda Prosser, secretary for the hall, told the Argus at the time that repairs to the wooden floor, which was laid in 1934, would cost thousands alone. The kitchen at the hall had also been flooded the previous year, when thieves stole lead from the roof.
The historic Newbridge Memo was also flooded in 2010, after the roof collapsed as a result of lead being stripped from it. In the same year there was a spate of drain cover thefts in Newport.
Perhaps most shocking of all was the theft of the bronze war memorial in Crumlin, commemorating the sacrifice of the 24 local men who died in the Great War.
Big companies have been hit, too.
In February of this year Christopher John Mansfield, 31, of Chaffinch Way, Duffryn, Newport, was found guilty of stealing more than £20,000-worth of telecomms cable belonging to Network Rail.
In another incident, two men in their 20s were arrested in June this year after cabling was stolen from Bishton, Newport, causing travel chaos for rail passengers on the busy south Wales to London mainline.
Mark Langman, route managing director for Network Rail Wales, said: “Metal thieves directly cost the railway around £19 million each year, with the knock-on costs and disruption to the economy around the same amount again.
“These criminals continue to deny passengers the service they rightly expect and, through the massive cost to the industry, deny everyone improvements to rail services. “ A spokeswoman for Dwr Cymru Welsh Water said: “From April to the end of September this year metal theft amounted to 59 per cent of the total number of offences reported across the company, with the value of the stolen property plus the cost of repair amounting to around £59,000.
“The implications of these thefts potentially risk loss of water supplies to customers, and pollution incidents affecting the environment.”
For Gwent Police the issue has become, therefore, a high priority, and the force has led the way in the fight against metal theft.
Sergeant Simon Clark has led the team running Operation Ignite, which has since been amalgamated into the UK-wide Operation Tornado.
Gwent Police have teamed up with local authorities and companies like Dwr Cymru, BT and Network Rail, taking their experts out on jobs with officers to help them identify stolen cable, for example.
The force also works with Smart Water, the firm behind the colourless liquid of the same name which is plastered over metal in order to help catch thieves.
“We have special torches from Smart Water which make the liquid visible. We also have Smart Water scanners at the custody cells so if some has managed to get on their clothes they will light up,”
Sgt Clark says.
Gwent Police also use a pioneering registration scheme.
In conjunction with local authorities, the ‘no ID, no cash’ rule forces scrap yards not to accept metal unless they see the photographic ID of the collector.
Police do a random spot check, posing as scrap metal collectors to check that yards are following procedures.
They also check that all yards have two books, one detailing all metal which comes into the yard, the other for all metal which goes out, with yards being fined if they don’t keep correct records.
Sgt Clark, said: “They are meant to detail the name and address of the person who brought the metal, how much they were paid, what vehicle they came in and what metal they brought. If they don’t we are fining yards.
“Some yards were simply not doing that. We allegedly had Elvis Presley collecting scrap in Gwent.
“Similarly, we are clamping down on the itinerant collectors.
They, too, have to have their ID, plus a register of which houses they took scrap metal from and what items they were and when.
“It means we can go back to those houses if necessary and check the items weren’t stolen.
“If they aren’t keeping proper records we are handing out fines or seizing the vehicles.
“We make a number of patrols where we look out for scrap vehicles, particularly those which look overloaded, stop them and ask to see their records.
“We have seized nearly 100 van loads of scrap metal in a year.
“For the most persistent offenders we are also handing out restraining orders to prevent them from collecting.
We are putting illegal scrap metal collectors on the back foot,”
Sgt Clark says he hopes that a bill currently before Parliament, proposed by Croydon South MP Richard Ottaway, will become law.
“Licensing is the thing we really need, for both itinerant collectors and the yards, because if we had the power to revoke someone’s licence it would be a much greater deterrent and that’s what this bill proposes,” he said.
In the meantime the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill will make cashless payments at scrap yards law in December, meaning the police will be able to trace a bank account if necessary.
“We have cut metal theft by 45 per cent in a year in Gwent, and have seized close to £15,000-worth of scrap metal this year, but in partnership with local authorities and businesses we hope to do more,” Sgt Clark said.