The sheer variety of crimes that might be described as “metal theft” makes the enforcement of sanctions difficult.
How can the same legal framework that applies to a plumber selling copper pipe offcuts that technically belong to his employer also be applied to career criminals with industrial-strength cutting tools who risk their own lives, and those of others, to steal live electrical cable from the UK’s infrastructure?
Measures outlined in a private member’s bill being put to the UK parliament by MP Graham Jones could help to create a stronger legal framework, with punishment made commensurate with the consequences of the crime, instead of the value of the loot.
But if an offender is already willing to go to the lengths that some now do, and to disregard the law so flagrantly, it is unlikely that tightening up the legislation will have much impact.
Successfully tackling this end of the metal-theft spectrum will require not only more focused legislation and harsher sentences but stronger enforcement.
The policy of law enforcement to date has revolved largely around policing the scrapyards where the metal collectors can turn their material into cash. Many yards have strong relationships with local law enforcement, and keep in regular contact over the legitimacy of their feedstock.
Until recent years, metal theft was mostly confined to non-violent, low-level offenders, and this level of co-operation between scrapyards and the authorities was seen as adequate to keep a measure of control over the problem.
But in a flagging economy, with high unemployment and lower volumes of scrap being produced from a weakened manufacturing sector, more people are gravitating towards the illegitimate side of the scrap trade.
The extreme end of the spectrum is becoming more extreme, with 50 serious injuries and six deaths attributed to metal theft in the past year.
Scrap merchants and recyclers are themselves targets of this crime, too, with robberies from scrapyards and even armed hold-ups of container lorries.
New legislation for the minor offenders must be balanced with more aggressive policing in order to combat audacious criminals for whom much money is at stake.