It has been a long road since ENA first advocated the desperate need for a full revision of the scrap metal law. But late last week we saw the fruition of that campaign with the passing of the Scrap Metal Dealers Bill. For years we have been plagued with vicious and deadly attacks on our infrastructure – sometimes up to 20 incidents a day. And for what? To line the pockets of thieves and criminal scrap metal dealers. We begun our campaign in late 2010 and through a concerted and award winning media and political campaign we have achieved our objectives. ENA has been at the forefront of a cross-industry, cross-sector group campaigning for a change in the law. This group has included BT, Network Rail, Church of England, War Memorials Trust and many more. ENA also provides secretariat support for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Combating Metal Theft.
The Scrap Metal Dealers Bill was voted through the House of Lords last Friday 18 January and will soon receive Royal Ascent. The Bill originated as a Private Members Bill from Richard Ottaway MP and thanks to the efforts of Lord Faulkner and Baroness Browning it was steered through the House of Lords without delay. However, as has often been the case through our long journey to legislation, there were a few bumps in the road. It was back in October last year as the Bill was leaving the Commons that two Conservative backbenchers, Philip Davies and Christopher Chope sought to jeopardise it. They wanted a sunset clause after one year that would take away its powers, an untenable position. They took their threat to the eleventh hour and despite a rigorous behind the scenes campaign to move them all could have been lost. However, the pressure to some extent did pay off when they conceded in the last hour on the floor of the House an undertaking by the Government to table an amendment in the Lords stages of the Bill that would introduce a five year sunset clause. Although not ideal this was more workable. So last week the Government tabled the amendment in the name of ENA old friend Lord Taylor (a Home Office Minister now). But events were to proceed in an unexpected fashion.
At the last meeting of the ENA supported All Party Group Metal Theft Group two weeks ago Lord Faulkner posed an interesting question. What if the Government amendment was voted down? As it was the only tabled amendment to the Bill in the Lords if it was voted down then the Bill would be passed without having to go back to the Commons again, the so called ‘ping-pong’ process. However, a solemn undertaking by the Government had been made. The deal had been struck and all the heavens would fall upon us all if this was cast asunder. This despite the fact the Government didn’t want the amendment really, the Opposition didn’t want the amendment and Parliamentarians didn’t want it. Who did? Well in reality only the two MPs who had jeopardised the Bill. So it was against this backdrop last Friday that events took an interesting turn. At this point I leave it to Lord Faulkner himself to recount what happened:
“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” totaled 89 (including all the cross-benchers who were present and voting and many Liberal Democrats), with the “contents” amounting to 31.”
As Lord Faulkner said “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.”
Some might be surprised at how the Government failed to deliver a majority for what was their albeit reluctant amendment. Perhaps their enthusiasm for getting the troops to vote for the amendment was perhaps not too keen. How would the great fictional political operator Francis Urquhart have put it – we might say that but they couldn’t possibly comment!