As I was cycling to work the other day, I found myself behind a tat-wagon. I normally see two or three of these vehicles on any journey around the Black Country. We all know the kind of thing; a dirty white transit pickup; previous owner’s logo painted out on the side, blowing clouds of smoke smelling faintly of cooking oil. It was laden with the detritus of modern life – a couple of old, cheap kids bicycles, a dented microwave. A couple of fridges were slung carelessly in the back, along with some metal fencing and a knot of bright metal swarf. Out of the open passenger window came the familiar, sickly sweet smell of dope smoke. These are the termites of modern life – collecting what they can, however they can, dragging it into scrap yards across the region and weighing it in for the price of a few beers. I watch my neighbours answer the calls of these young men for scrap, and shake my head wearily as they gladly give them old domestic appliances that they’d otherwise have to pay to dispose of. I’ve noticed other residents leave stuff for these people at the end of their drives. Salt of the earth types, clearing away what we no longer need and making a bit of cash. Out of sight, out of mind. Some regard it as recycling.
Meanwhile, in recent weeks the problem of metal theft has once again come to the fore locally. Copper piping is ripped from derelict buildings, lead from roofs. Fencing is cut down, and scavengers are killed and injured attempting to steal live cabling from substations. War memorials, commemorative plaques and statuary are looted, as are anything metallic left near factories and in dark corners. All of it disappears, carried by thieving scum to scrapyards, who exchange it for cash. From here, the metal is sorted, cleaned and processed through a number of tiers of the metal reprocessing trade before being sold, usually to supply industry’s continuing hunger for raw material.
Rightly outraged by this destruction of our heritage, infrastructure and architecture, the public want action. Desperate to end the crime wave, lots of people have been advocating a legal ban on cash transactions in scrapyards, theoretically forcing them only to pay by traceable means. It has been asserted that this would prevent the tide of theft, and our public assets would be safe again. Spotting this bandwagon, Walsall Council Area Manager for Bloxwich, Blakenall, Birchills & Leamore, Donovan Bailey has started an e-petition on the government’s website, requesting such legal measures be enforced. Currently, at the time of writing, the petition has just over 12,800 signatures and everybody – including a meeting of full council in Walsall who head nodded to a man – think this is a spiffing idea. It’s not, it’s damned silly, and nothing more that a diversion.
Let me state this loud and clear: I loathe this crime and it’s effects. My hatred for those who thieve metal and cause all the attendant distress that goes with it is immense. These scumbags are beneath contempt. The difficulty arises when the matter is considered at anything more than the most superficial level. I’m familiar with the scrap metal business. I have been for most of my working life. Scrap yards, and their close relatives building reclaimers, car breakers and skip operators are amongst the most difficult to regulate industries in existence. A host of regulations apply to them – everything from requirements on groundwater pollution to accounting methods and traceability directives. Waste transfer laws in this country are justifiably and satisfyingly tight. Laws cover who you can give waste to, how it should be carried, who it can be passed on to and how it should be stored and processed. These regulations are pursued with vigour by trading standards officials, environmental health officers and the police. This small, but dedicated band of enforcers work incredibly hard to try and catch the bad guys. Sadly, it’s nowhere near enough.
A significant portion of this industry is run by people who know the law and how to circumvent it. They are skilled in deceiving officials. They keep multiple sets of paperwork. They understand the wiliness of the characters they buy metal from, and the sharpness of those they sell it on to. They can recognise undercover investigators at a glance. Their industry thrives on the black economy of cash and barter.
When we consider banning them from dealing cash, we clearly fail to understand that many of these businesses are already operating so far outside the law that any further ruling is insignificant. Banning cash transactions may well lower the cash price of metal for a short while, and lead to a new generation of dealer, but cash would still be paid. Evidence of it though, would be scant. Anything dodgy coming through the gate would likely be reprocessed very quickly, possibly illegally. Proving a cash transfer under these conditions would be next to impossible. If a metal dealer is prepared to buy lead flashing off a bunch of scallies, he knows what it is and probably where it has come from. He’ll still pay cash as long as there’s not a copper sat on his shoulder, and it’ll be reprocessed just the same. He’ll just illegally billet it himself before it can be found.
The fact is that the tatters I saw – charming rogues to a man – are part of the problem, although, as a society, we seem to be trying to ignore the fact. The Express and Star has a curious editorial attitude to them, for instance – bravely defending their trumpets from nasty noise regulations, whilst condemning the related crime wave on the other hand. These people are breaking the law, as are the people who give them scrap, be it an old ironing board or a discarded cooker. The simple fact is that it’s illegal to give waste of any kind to an unlicensed carrier. By doing so, both you and they can be prosecuted. Further, the waste you give them will end up at some point – after being carried, usually on an overloaded, unshed truck (also illegal) – in a heap somewhere. The tatters know that they get more money for sorted scrap that contains few contaminants. Plastic and non-metallic parts will be smashed away and discarded, often by flytipping. Insulation may be burned off cables, or cut off and discarded. Finally, the metal will end up in a backyard metal dealers and exchanged for a relatively small amount of cash.
That cash – with the competition form other tatters and the limited availability of scrap – has to be supplemented. You can’t make a living at this if you rely on what the public give you. So they take what they can, where they can. Very often whilst claiming benefits. These helpful chaps who you consider to be recycling your rubbish for free are, in all probability, the same ones stripping lead of your church roof. They take everything from security fencing to drain covers and traffic signs. All of which is accepted and processed by scrap dealers who are largely beyond the reach of the authorities who don’t have enough officers to get round even a small percentage of yards. They’re swamped, and now we expect them to police a ban on cash deals. No, I can’t see that working either.
The only way to deal with this whole sorry situation is to invest more public funds into more manpower. There are already plenty of laws being broken by these corrupt, unscrupulous parasites. Waste transfer regulations, handling of stolen goods. Transfer of waste and environmental pollution. Benefit and tax fraud. You name it. We need a heavy crackdown on everyone involved – and that includes the people who allow their waste to be taken away. We need to stop the vehicles like the one I found myself behind, and ask to see the drivers details. We need enough police to raid yards and impound stock. None of this is achieved by signing an e-petition.
If Donovan Bailey gets 100,000 signatures on his e-petition, it may be debated in parliament. In a few months or so. Motions may be tabled. Something may just happen within 2 years or so. Or it may not. Loads of people have and will sign his petition, because metal theft is disgusting, and signing a petition online is easy and takes seconds to do. The trouble is, I tend to think that acts of protest are proportional in effectiveness to the the time we spend on them. How many of the signatories of that petition have given tatters their junk? How many have actually wondered how you can enforce an unworkable law that hasn’t worked on drugs, betting, prostitution or casual manual labour? There’s a word for this; slacktivism. It’s the concept that you click a link or agree to something with little effort, which gives you the feeling you’ve taken a positive action, when in reality, you’ve changed nothing and invested no time.
The Tory councillors in particular nodding and supporting the Donovan campaign are equally guilty of this blindness. To a man, they have acceded to a series of cuts that will render trading standards in Walsall virtually impotent, thus rendering them further unable to deal with the problem. Their government itself is insisting on cutting police funding, which will surely worsen their effectiveness. Yet this is all lip service. The Donovan Bailey petition – from a man who bears some curiously superficial opinions about those whom he ‘manages’ – will achieve nothing except improve his CV and dilute support for a real crackdown instead. Until we clear our heads and think carefully about our role in this, and what we need to do to stop it, the desecration will continue.
It’s not pointless, easy petitions we need, nor is it new, ill-thought out laws. It’s real, immediate action to enforce the laws we have. Now.