FEARS that organised criminals are already finding ways around new laws to stop metal theft were the focus a major conference of Yorkshire’s business and law enforcement leaders yesterday.
The region is recognised nationally as a hotspot for the crime, and as metal prices continue to rise on world markets, concerns are mounting that the problem will be difficult to tackle.
New rules were introduced late last year which outlawed payments in cash for scrap metal, meaning criminals find it more difficult to carry out a raid and turn their haul into ready cash.
But yesterday the conference, organised by the Yorkshire-based Business Crime Reduction Centre, heard thieves were already becoming more sophisticated and unlikely to be put off.
Centre director David Ransom said: “It is a diminishing commodity and criminals are very much price-driven. If you look at the metals market around the world prices are going back up.
“All the experts are saying the problem will not go away. Although the police have done a lot and although there has been a lot of new legislation, as the price goes up the crime goes up.
“It has been said at the conference today that the new laws will probably get rid of a lot of the opportunist metal thieves, but it will not deter everyone, particularly organised criminals.”
Mr Ransom said major crime groups were now amassing large amounts of stolen metal and then either selling it abroad through unscrupulous shipping agents, or using it in complex tax frauds.
Superintendent John McBride, force lead on metal theft for British Transport Police, agreed the type of criminal involved in metal theft was changing, requiring a new approach to the problem.
He said: “There are two types of criminal, the opportunist and the more serious, organised criminal and that is group that we now need to target – the transporters and freight forwarders.
“We need to target the whole supply chain, and we have already used the £5m national metal theft task force funding to begin that work, with £4m spent locally in the Yorkshire region.
“Our operations range from the kind of action that was taken last year when raids were carried out on scrap yards, and covert operations which follow the actions of the organised gangs.”
Supt McBride said that although levels of metal theft crime had fallen by 38 per cent in Yorkshire in 2012 because of new legislation, the industry and law enforcement could not rest.
He said: “The issue has really risen to prominence with the public because essential services have started to be affected by the actions of these thieves, particularly in the Yorkshire area.
“Power companies here have been more adversely affected that elsewhere in the country, and the same applies to telecommunications companies and the rail firms, with cables often targeted.”
Delegates heard a keynote speech from David Crompton, chief constable of South Yorkshire Police and the former deputy chief in West Yorkshire, both areas which have suffered high levels of metal theft.
Ian Hetherington, the director general of the British Metals Recycling Association, said the conference had been a useful way of telling government agencies about the problems faced by metal dealers.
He said: “The legislation introduced last year caused some significant issues for our members, and we feel it was not fully thought through.
“But the new Scrap Metal Dealers Act, which we hope will be introduced in October should make it easier for legitimate dealers to operate, while making for a far more hostile environment for the unscrupulous operators.”