Metal Theft and New Psychoactive Substances

Speaker: Mark Norris.

Mark Norris was welcomed to the Centre for Criminology for the third ‘Communication Skills for Criminologists’ session of Trinity Term.

Mr. Norris is a Principal Policy Adviser at the Local Government Association (LGA). His responsibilities include policing, fire, and community safety. His previous projects have included working on terrorism prevention, local government responses to the swine flu epidemic, and policy on female genital mutilation prevention.

Mr. Norris’ presentation was concerned with the work of the Local Government Association as well as two case-studies of recent policy responses to criminal justice issues that the LGA were involved with.

The LGA is a politically-led, cross-party organisation that works on behalf of councils to ensure local government has a strong voice within national government. The LGA represents the majority of local government authorities in England and aims to influence the political agenda on issues that matter to councils so they can deliver local solutions to national problems. The LGA’s work spans the breadth of local authority tasks including responsibilities for everything from taxi licensing to child protection.

The first case study Mr. Norris presented on was metal theft between 2009 and 2011. In the midst of the recent financial crisis in the United Kingdom, demand from Asian economies led to an increase in the price of scrap metal. During this period, local government and organisations as varied as the British Transport Police (BTP) and BT noted a significant increase in metal theft and its resulting impact. This led to the destruction of important cultural sites, accidental deaths, damage to railway lines and disruption to energy networks.

Over time, these offences began to seriously disrupt council services and to become more professionally organised. The cumulative financial impact of metal theft was estimated at one billion pounds per annum to the UK economy. As this was a time of austerity and cuts to local authority budgets, such losses threatened budgets for vital services such as social care, and were as a result keenly felt by councils.

The difficulty in addressing this issue was the difficulty in monitoring metal theft and the ease in disposal of stolen metal. Inspired by criminological research, BTP, the LGA and other stakeholders focussed on tackling the latter. Their approach was simple. If one can disrupt the market for stolen metal, the number of incidents of theft will decline. The existing statutory provisions relating to the sale of scrap metal did not allow for sufficient regulation of scrap metal dealers. This led to an effective lobbying campaign by the LGA and others which culminated in a new regulatory regime set out in the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013. Ahead of the legislation coming into effect targeted police intervention through Operation Tornado aimed to improve standards in the scrap metal industry. The new regulatory regime banned cash transactions and required more precise record keeping on the part of scrap metal dealers which allowed the sale of metal to be tracked to a much greater degree. Police action was employed to ensure compliance on the part of scrap metal dealers and use the new information available to enforce the law.

The second case-study Mr. Norris presented on was the regulation of new psychoactive substances (colloquially termed “legal highs”). This issue gained policy prominence because of high-profile incidents, evidence of negative health outcomes related to these substances and a concern around promoting drug culture.

The main issue with new psychoactive substances was that legal regulation could not keep up with the ingenuity of psychoactive substance producers. They were able to use publically available research into substance synthetisation to produce new, high-risk substances at an exponential rate. The existing regulatory regime could not keep up with such rapid developments, as by the time one substance was banned, another more potent product was already available. European Union agencies recorded a fifteen-fold increased in the amount of new psychoactive substances registered between 2006 and 2013.

To deal with these non-illegal substances, the LGA worked with the police and local authorities to formulate an approach under the existing consumer protection regime, but an effective solution was not apparent. An expert panel, of which Mr. Norris was a member, was set up by the Home Office to consider the best way forward. Mr. Norris provided an in-depth account of the various options considered by the panel and explained how they decided to adopt the Irish approach of banning all such psychoactive substances. He highlighted the strong comparative approach adopted in formulating criminal justice policy and how the experiences of other countries inform decision-making.

In 2016, legislation was passed to introduced a complete ban on all psychoactive substances save for exceptions made by government. At present, we do not have enough information to assess the efficacy of this policy response.

In the discussion that followed Mr. Norris’ talk, questions were raised on displacement effects, rehabilitation, prescription fraud and competition with the traditional drugs market. The common thread apparent in all of these thoughts was that measures to limit drug supply did not necessarily control drug demand. In response, Mr. Norris highlighted the various other ways in which drugs are dealt with as a social issue. The ban on psychoactive substances is part of a broader government-led response to drug use that involves elements of education, prevention, penalisation and enforcement.

Mr. Norris’ talk highlighted a number of broad issues including the role of criminological research in policy, the role of language in directing international comparative research and the political practicalities of policy-making. Most strikingly, it highlighted the role of local concerns in stimulating legislative change in criminal justice policy through bodies such as the LGA.

Paul Behan