Last night, I discovered that someone has stolen the plaque from my Dad's grave in Beckenham Cemetery.
Theft of any kind is distressing but when you lose something of emotional significance it is particularly difficult to bear. My Dad suffered for a long time with Alzheimer's. For most of that time, until he became very unwell, my Mum struggled to care for him at home, watching him fade away day by day. She thought long and hard about the inscription on the plaque. I cannot put into words how angry I am that she should have to endure further distress as a result of its theft.
Of course, we are far from the only family to suffer this crime. And it's not just plaques from graves and war memorials - people are stealing things like telephone cables. Whilst this doesn't have the same emotional impact, it can have very serious consequences - vulnerable people living along depend on their phone to call for help if they need it. The Association of British Insurers says that metal theft has doubled in the past five years to about 1,000 reported incidents a week, costing the UK economy about £770 million a year.
The Government has already taken some action - it is now a criminal offence for scrap metal dealers to make cash payments for metal and fines for dealers found trading in stolen metal have been significantly increased - but more needs to be done. I raised the issue in the House of Commons this morning. Here is the full exchange:
Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): "Last night I learned that the plaque marking my father’s grave has been stolen, along with a huge number of other plaques in Beckenham Cemetery. I am sure that all Members share my utter contempt for people who would steal, and trade in, such memorials. The Government have taken some action in relation to the scrap metal industry, but may we have a debate on what other measures might be needed, and in particular the proposal raised by my Honourable Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions on whether this should be an aggravating factor in sentencing?"
Sir George Young: "I am very sorry to hear of what happened to my Honourable Friend’s father’s tombstone; I understand how distressing that must be. He will know what the Prime Minister said at yesterday’s PMQs. We have already taken some steps in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, but we recognise that other measures may well be needed. The Government are actively considering what further steps we might take, such as increasing the penalties and having a better regulatory regime for scrap metal, in order to avoid distressing incidents such as that which my Honourable Friend described."
If one of the MPs above me in the ballot doesn't do so, I may make this issue the subject of my Private Member's Bill.
PS After my Mum had told me the news last night, I tweeted, "To the scumbag who took the plaque from my Dad's grave: if I ever find out who you are, you are going to regret it". A few years ago, I would have waited till the next morning to blog about it, by which time I would have calmed down a bit; for better or worse, Twitter is a more immediate means of communication. A few people replied to say that it was wrong for someone in my position to react in that way. I understand their point of view but MPs are human beings and most people seemed to appreciate me saying how I felt.