On Friday the House of Lords took a huge step forward in tackling the scourge of scrap metal theft. We agreed to pass without amendment an excellent private member’s bill originally introduced in the House of Commons by Richard Ottaway MP, and skilfully steered through our House by Baroness Browning, which will completely rewrite the out of date and discredited Scrap Metal Dealers Act of 1964.
This bill builds on and substantially widens the new law contained in the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act to outlaw the use of cash to settle transactions for scrap metal sales. These new cashless arrangements came into force at the beginning of December and are the result of amendments which I tabled to the LASPO bill at a late stage.
Getting the new Scrap Metal Dealers Bill through the House of Commons was not without its difficulties. At the very last minute two Conservative MPs appeared ready to talk out the bill by tabling over 70 amendments on a single day – even though tackling metal theft was seen as a huge priority by everyone, the government included. They were only persuaded to drop their filibuster by a promise that ministers would table an amendment in the House of Lords which would add a so-called “sunset clause” – a measure which would have caused the Act to expire altogether after five years.
Ministers kept their promise and Earl Attlee moved the amendment on Friday. Speaking after him, I pointed out that it was up to the House of Lords to decide whether to accept the sunset clause. I argued that the amendment would damage the bill in two ways.
First, it would delay the Bill’s enactment, as it would have to go back to the House of Commons to get the amendment agreed. Given the track record of a small number of Conservative MPs who routinely try to use procedural devices to block Private Members’ Bills, who could be certain that those who threatened to talk out this Bill on 9 November – or some of their friends- would not attempt to do the same thing again? If, however, the Lords passed the Bill unamended, it would not need to return to the House of Commons and could obtain Royal Assent almost immediately.
My second objection to the sunset clause was that it sent the worst possible signal to all those who are desperately attempting to tackle and defeat the metal thieves. Heroic efforts have been made in the last year by the British Transport Police and the civil police, local authorities, trade associations, reputable scrap metal dealers, the churches, the War Memorials Trust, the energy companies, Network Rail and the train operating companies and the Home Office. They have all worked tirelessly to bring down the incidence of metal theft, catch the offenders and ensure convictions, with the effect of producing a decrease in reported metal theft of 52 per cent.
I asked the House how it could possibly make sense to agree an amendment which would take this vital new law off the statute book altogether in five years’ time and give whoever is in government then the headache of having to pass such a law all over again.
In a House that was surprisingly full for a Friday, my opposition to the government’s amendment was shared by speakers in all parts of the chamber, with the Conservative Lord Forsyth and the Bishop of Exeter making particularly telling speeches. In the vote “not-contents” totalled 89 (including all the cross-benchers who were present and voting and many Liberal Democrats), with the “contents” amounting to 31.
The way is now clear for early Royal Assent; Parliament has shown that it takes metal theft seriously, and is determined to help those who are determined to tackle it.