On Thursday 13th July, I spoke in a debate about my fellow Croydon MP Richard Ottaway’s Private Members Bill to tackle metal theft.
As many of you will know, this is an issue close to my heart. Richard’s Bill would significantly improve the ability of the authorities to tackle the problem by:
- introducing a licensing system for scrap metal dealers - unsuitable people could be refused a licence or have it taken away;
- giving the police and local authorities the power to close unlicensed premises;
- requiring all sellers of metal to provide verifiable ID at point of sale, which is recorded and retained by the dealer; and
- banning cash transactions for all scrap metal dealers without exception.
It has cross party support and backing from the metal recycling industry’s trade association and the War Memorials Trust. He deserves huge credit for tackling this issue, which has affected so many of our constituents and I was proud to be in the House to give him my support. You can read the transcript of my speech below or watch the video on my YouTube channel. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about the Bill:
It is a great pleasure to speak in support of the private Member’s Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) has introduced. He referred to a number of ways in which this problem affects our home town and constituencies across the country, including through attacks on community facilities and buildings. He referred to Croydon Minster, which sits in my constituency. He also referred to the theft of telephone cables. Residents in Forestdale in my constituency have suffered from that problem on numerous occasions.
My hon. Friend also referred to my personal experience. I want to take a couple of minutes of the House’s time to talk about that, not because what my family have been through is any worse than what thousands of other families across the countries have experienced, but because it is important to put on the record the effect that this crime has on people. In the case of my family, my father suffered with Alzheimer’s for a number of years. During that time my mother cared for him at home in increasingly difficult circumstances, until he had to go into a hospice for the last few months of his life. It was an incredibly difficult time for the whole family, but particularly for my mother, who struggled with seeing someone she loved being stripped away from her day by day over a number of years. She gave a great deal of thought to the message that she wrote on the plaque to be placed where my father’s ashes were interred. Beyond my personal anger at the theft of that plaque was my anger as a son that my mother should have to go through further pain after what she had already experienced.
As I said, I mention that not because what we have been through is any worse than what thousands of other families have been through, but to show the type of crime this is. It is one thing for someone to have their car broken into and a stereo or iPod stolen, but when they lose something that is close to them on an emotional level, that is a much more devastating blow. It is a serious offence.
The one thing that perhaps goes beyond even the theft of plaques from people’s graves is the theft of war memorials. Let us think of the incredible sacrifices that generations before mine had to make for this country, to defend the freedoms that we now all enjoy. I have language to describe people who conduct such crimes, but I suspect that you would regard it as unparliamentary, Mr Deputy Speaker.
My hon. Friend rightly said that the Bill on its own would not be the silver bullet that solved the problem, but it contains a number of key ingredients that will help to do that. My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who is no longer in her place, talked about cashless payments and the need to ensure a level playing field across the industry.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who has also had to leave the Chamber, said, the licensing system is a key ingredient. Before I came into the House I was a councillor for 12 years in the London borough of Croydon, and in the last year and a half crime and community safety were my responsibilities. On one of the most interesting evenings that I spent in that job, I went out with the police licensing team. Croydon has a large night-time economy, and they showed me a range of institutions, from those that were highly professionally run to those where I feared for the physical safety of the people in them.
That licensing system, which is a pretty good parallel to what the Bill proposes for the scrap metal industry, was hugely welcomed by the good operators, because they objected to rogue operators who did not invest sufficiently in maintaining the safety of those using their institutions and were undercutting them. To respond to a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) made, let me say that the reputable establishments did not object to the bureaucracy of having a licensing system but thought it was essential to try to drive out the rogue operators, which would be to their benefit.
My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South mentioned the importance of being able to establish where material has been sourced. He mentioned what Operation Tornado was achieving in the north of the country, and I hope that it will be spread nationwide quickly. The Bill also provides for unlimited fines for those who breach their licences.
I want to end my speech by responding to some of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley made. We come from different traditions within the Conservative party, but I have a very high regard for him. It is hugely to the benefit of the House that when there are proposals to introduce new legislation, there is a voice that questions the need for doing so and makes arguments about whether that is the right solution to the problem. He is right that in politics, when there is a public concern there is an instinct to do something to respond. Sometimes, that can lead to disproportionate legislation that places a cost on businesses or overly restricts individuals’ freedom. It is important that a different voice is heard when we have debates such as this. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) may still hope to speak and will make similar points.
I felt that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley presented the House with a binary choice—either taking a tougher approach to punishing those responsible for offences under the existing law, or changing the law and introducing new regulations. My strong conviction is that we should do both those things. It is not a choice of one or the other. In the two years I have been in the House, I have often found that the polarisation in the Chamber has presented such a choice. On the wider issue of crime, we are presented with the choice of either introducing tougher sentencing or reforming our prison system to try to reduce reoffending. I never quite understand why we cannot do both at the same time.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we should go after people who steal metal, make greater efforts to catch them and punish them more severely. He is also right that there are laws to deal with those who trade in stolen goods. However, there is good evidence that the industry sees a need for a licensing system to protect the good operators. He is right that we should not send the message that the whole industry is full of criminals, because there are legitimate, proper operators who are law-abiding people, but they themselves are asking us to examine the issue.
In my own personal case, the scrap metal dealer who bought the plaques—there were thousands of them, not just my father’s—knew exactly what he was doing. I absolutely agree that we should try to bring him to justice and punish him, and that there should be stronger punishment for trading in stolen goods. However, I also profoundly believe that he should not be able to go back into the industry after he has served that punishment and start operating again. That is why we need legislation on a licensing system.
I say with huge regard and affection for the role that my hon. Friend plays in the Chamber that I believe he has made a strong case for not only stronger punishment and more enforcement effort but changes in the law that will strengthen the hand of police and local authorities to deal with a crime that has been a scourge of many communities up and down the country. With that thought in mind, I am proud to support my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South in his efforts to deal with the problem.