Metal theft is soaring and now new measures introduced by police to tackle the problem have hit the scrapyards. Star reporter Rachael Clegg investigates
SHEFFIELD’S scrap metal world has come under fire in recent weeks.
It’s not surprising. Nationally, 15,000 tonnes of metal was stolen last year including copper from church roofs and miles of railway track.
But in the grand scheme of things this amounts to just one per cent of the total amount of scrap metal that’s recycled daily, to build cars and supply the heavy engineering industry.
And Sheffield - one of the nation’s centres for engineering - has become a focus for the debate.
Now the Association of Chief Police Officers - ACPO - has launched Operation Tornado, which requires anyone disposing of metal at scrapyards to provide photo identity such as a passport, driving licence, national identity card and a utility bill no more than three months’ old.
Scrapyards are then required to record each document and retain a copy for up to 12 months, which will be inspected by police.
ACPO has told dealers: “Searchable records must be kept of proof of identity of the seller of scrap and any vehicles used to transport it, for example through photo ID and CCTV.”
But Sheffield’s scrap metal industry believes Operation Tornado will do more harm than good.
Walter Heselwood, one of the most established metal recyclers in Sheffield, fears Operation Tornado will simply push the illegal trading of scrap metal underground.
Company director Robin Turner has an A4 Operation Tornado poster explaining the new protocol for taking cash payments.
He said: “We were issued with this from the Association of Chief Police Officers but there are no contact details on the form so who do we deal with on this issue?”
In response to Operation Tornado, Robin wrote a letter to the ACPO in which he said: “The indications are that ACPO intend to ‘force’ legitimate traders to comply with their initiative in an attempt to reduce metal thefts.
“Your suggested voluntary scheme is not welcome and is unlikely to bring about the results you are seeking. Your request is that a new, highly problematic scheme be introduced across the industry is alarming.”
Attercliffe-based Walter Heselwood, which has been in the business of recycling metal since 1947, made 11,300 cash transactions last year - around 40 a day.
All the transactions, according to Robin, are with regular customers who are credited by governing bodies such as the city council, HM Revenue & Customs, the Environment Agency and Vehicle and Operator Services Agency.
Robin said: “We as a company do not trade with people or companies which do not already have an established relationship with us. We do not allow ‘walk ins’, which we have identified as the likely source of stolen materials.
“All transactions and trading at Heselwood’s is monitored by CCTV. If there is no vehicle movement - be it a car or van - the company will not trade.”
And due to the vast number of cash transactions that Walter Heselwood makes, Robin believes Operation Tornado’s move towards a ‘cash-free’ system is unworkable.
In his letter to the ACPO he wrote: “We respectfully suggest that your scheme is unworkable and will not assist your plans for metal thefts.
“Someone removing one inch of copper from the rail network has the same disruptive outcome as someone removing hundreds of meters of cable. Can you stop the one inch being removed? We think not. Can you prosecute someone with no income, no fixed abode and probably many years of similar thieving activity? We think not.”
Robin said the new system will ‘drive the crime further underground.”
David Clarke, manager of DAC Metals, also in Attercliffe, agrees. “A lot of yards already take ID and are registered with the various governing bodies but this will create a huge black market for scrap metal.
“There will be people who’ll carry on disobeying these rules but it won’t matter to them because they can pack-up and move on but for a company like us, who are registered, pay taxes and employ people, we can’t do that.”
David, who has worked in metal recycling since the age of 16, said: “We’ll give it a go but I have big concerns about it.”
Geoffrey Flint, from Tashcole Services Ltd, which deals in scrap metal, has more practical concerns about the scheme.
“A small company like us doesn’t have the finances to buy the equipment - we’d need a new computer and scanning equipment and CCTV cameras cost around £1,500 each. And that’s not to mention the staff training required.”
Geoffrey estimates the cost to equip the company with the necessary computer and camera equipment, the staff training and extra time for each business transaction, would cost around £25,000.
“It’s such a big outlay for a small company,” he said.
Dealers also say a problem with the Operation Tornado scheme - especially where Walter Heselwood is concerned - is the widespread misconception the yards are dealing in old bedsteads and battered bicycles from anyone off the street.
Many of Sheffield’s registered yards are processing and storing materials important to industry - and the majority of sellers to Sheffield’s scrapyards are also involved in industry, whether manufacturing, engineering or demolition.
Walter Heselwood buys its scrap metal from some of Sheffield’s biggest engineering companies. It then processes the metal and transports it to other parts of the country, such as Cardiff, for use in other sectors, such as the car industry.
But Chief Supt Bill Hotchkiss of South Yorkshire Police, Regional Strategic Metal Theft Coordinator for Yorkshire and the Humber, said: “A high proportion of scrap metal dealers have already signed up to the scheme.
“The new standards should be a breath of fresh air for the scrap metal industry, which is governed by some archaic laws and a no-questions-asked approach.
“We will continue to focus on the few who remain reluctant, encouraging them to sign up in the next few weeks and are hopeful that the scheme will have a significant impact on the ability of local criminals to convert their stolen metal to cash as we will have removed their avenues to sell metal on.”
The scrap metal industry is valued at around £5 billion and has evolved over the past decade as a result of environmental directives from Europe. It’s believed that using recycled scrap metal in place of virgin ore yields a 75 per cent saving in energy output and a 97 per cent reduction in mining waste. Recycling ‘end of line vehicles’ redirects them from landfill to production line.
This humble-sounding industry, one of the few sectors to have flourished in the recession, has been booming across Sheffield.
Operation Tornado involves the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Home Office and British Metals Recycling Association. Measures to tackle metal theft include:
A licensing regime with clear requirements on scrap dealers to take steps to reduce the risk of purchasing stolen goods.
A licence fee for scrap metal dealers.
Property obtained by breaches of the legislation to be classed as criminal assets.
Police powers to close scrap metal dealers and police authority to search and investigate scrap metal dealers’ premises.
Measures to restrict trade in scrap metals to cashless payments.
A requirement that scrap metal must be held for a certain period before being sold or processed to allow payments to be processed.
Searchable records to be kept of proof of identity of the seller of scrap and any vehicles used to transport it, for example through photo ID and CCTV.
Magistrate powers to add restrictions on to licences and to prevent reopening of closed yards until conditions have been met.