Insurer Ecclesiastical welcomes legal move after worst-ever year for theft from churches

The government looks set to introduce legislation to crack down on the metal theft that is increasing insurance premiums for churches and other historic buildings, Insurance Times has learned.

Labour MP Graham Jones’s bid to introduce a Private Member’s Bill on preventing metal theft was blocked in the House of Commons last Friday.

But Jones said government sources have indicated that the bill’s contents will be tacked onto the Legal Aid and Sentencing Bill currently going through the House of Lords.

Jones’s bill suggests a ban on scrap metal dealers paying cash for metal and tightening regulation of the scrap yards where many thieves offload stolen metal.

The problem costs the UK economy £770m a year, according to the Association of Chief Police Officers.

Jones said: “It’s such a serious issue that the government wants to be seen to be acting on it.”

Leader of the House of Commons George Young said the government is “concerned” about metal theft and takes the problem seriously.

But Hyndburn, Lancashire MP Jones said melding the bills together would create procedural headaches, as the legal aid bill has already been passed by the Commons.

Specialist churches insurer Ecclesiastical direct insurance services director John Coates welcomed the news that the government looked set to act on what he described as a nationwide “epidemic” of metal theft.

He said: “The political arena seems to be waking up to the fact that this is not a victimless crime.

“We remain hopeful of imminent changes to legislation in this area despite the news from last week regarding the Private Member’s Metal Theft (Prevention) Bill failing to get the government’s backing. The government is well aware of the urgency of the amendments that must be made to the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 and the need for tighter regulation of the scrap metals industry.”

The mooted legislation will also come under the spotlight at the 8 February meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Committee on Combating Metal Theft, which is chaired by Jones and Conservative MP Chris Kelly. Ecclesiastical plans to use the meeting to lobby the government on the issue.

Last year was Ecclesiastical’s worst for metal theft, with around 2,500 recorded claims, according to statistics published earlier this month. The insurer has been struggling particularly with claims for lead taken from church roofs.

Chelmsford diocese in Essex was the worst hit in the UK, and the dioceses of Lincoln and Lichfield in the Midlands were the second- and third-worst affected.

Aluminium, brass, bronze, copper and lead are the most commonly stolen metals, with the worst-affected counties overall being Durham, Kent, Lancashire and Nottinghamshire.

A lot of stolen metal is recycled for use in construction or used to make car batteries and bicycles.

The cost of metal has spiked due to a growing demand from China and India. This led to a rise in theft as criminals saw an opportunity. The price of copper reached an all-time high of £6,200 per tonne in August.

As a result, much of the metal stolen in the UK is shipped overseas. A clampdown on scrap dealers in the UK may lead to thieves exporting stolen metal directly, Coates said.

“There’s a lot of metal that goes into the back of containers and goes overseas straightaway,” he said.

“Our concern is that if we stop it legitimately in this country and we make it harder to dispose of, is it going to drive it underground?”

In November last year, the Home Office set up a taskforce, led by the British Transport Police, to investigate metal theft. The unit will target metal thieves and scrap metal dealers that accept stolen metal.

Talking points …

● Ecclesiastical has fitted alarms to church roofs and sprayed them with an invisible marking liquid in a bid to cut down metal theft. But how long can insurers struggle with the symptoms without a government cure?

● A lot of stolen metal is shipped overseas to meet demand in emerging economies such as India. If these economies slow as predicted this year, will metal theft fall?

● Thieves are resourceful and quickly find new sources of metal once insurers and the police crack down on their activities. Trends have included war memorials, catalytic converters and extractor fans. What are the emerging trends?