Could legislation soon change the face of tool theft?

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According to the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), as of the beginning of 2023, there were 5.5 million small enterprises (SMEs) in the UK, collectively employing 13.1 million individuals—constituting 48 percent of the total workforce. These SMEs generate a turnover of £1.6 trillion, contributing a staggering 36 percent to the UK economy – it’s therefore no wonder the humble ‘white van man’ has been branded the backbone of the UK economy.

Delving deeper into the statistics, the construction sector boasts around three hundred thousand SMEs, employing 2.7 million people nationwide. These enterprises play a pivotal role, contributing 9 percent to the UK's GDP, amounting to approximately £117 billion annually.

However, a shadow looms over the symbiotic relationship between these iconic white vans, their cargoes, and the prosperity of the small businesses they serve.

The proverbial ‘wrench in the machinery’ lies in the rampant levels of equipment theft from commercial vehicles, often left vulnerable to intrusion. This trend thrives due to a profitable and relatively risk-free black market for stolen tools. Its consequences range from disrupting the daily operations of countless tradespeople to potentially tarnishing their professional reputations and jeopardising future prospects.

Unable to fulfil contracts due to missing tools, they face punitive penalties and exorbitant insurance premiums when forced to replace their equipment.

Compounding the issue is the lack of a specific crime classification for such offences. Instances of theft from motor vehicles (TFMV) encompass a broad spectrum, lumping expensive and customised tools with everyday items like laptops and mobile phones in police reports. Consequently, the true scale of the problem remains obscured.

Moreover, police encounter challenges in identifying and returning recovered tools to their rightful owners. Tools seized in unrelated investigations may be scattered across different regions or even overseas, complicating repatriation efforts. Often, unclaimed tools are auctioned off, perpetuating the cycle due to the thriving black market and the absence of repercussions for those involved.

Police may suspect seized tools to be stolen, but without owners stepping forward to claim them, establishing guilt or innocence becomes a matter of conflicting testimonies.

Furthermore, the complicity of tradespeople, the backbone of the UK economy, exacerbates the issue. Their willingness to purchase unmarked equipment with no questions asked perpetuates the trade in stolen tools.

Will the tide turn through legislation?

In recent years, police and the criminal justice system have grappled with the challenge of addressing equipment theft comprehensively, extending beyond prosecution to encompass the entire trade supply chain. Efforts have been directed towards initiatives such as tool marking, secure transportation, and storage to mitigate this pervasive issue.

On June 15, 2022, Conservative backbencher Greg Smith MP (pictured) introduced the Equipment Theft (Prevention) Bill to Parliament. While initially focused on mandating forensic marking for All Terrain Vehicles (quad bikes) used in farming and agriculture, the proposed legislation garnered attention for its broader implications, particularly for highly targeted items like expensive building plant and tools.

Recognising the widespread impact of equipment theft, the scope of the Private Member’s Bill was expanded with government support. It aimed to curb the theft and illicit resale of equipment and tools utilised by tradespeople, agricultural enterprises, and other businesses, aligning with findings from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Mutual Insurance Rural Crime report, which underscored the significant financial losses incurred by customers in 2021.

Greg Smith MP acknowledged the pressing issue of tool theft among tradespeople, soliciting input from industry stakeholders, including the ORIS Forums’ DIY and Building Trade Forum, advocating for stricter penalties for boiler and tool theft. Various practical measures, such as the installation of tool safes and tool marking initiatives, have been proposed by industry experts to combat such thefts. Additionally, independent companies have developed apps to facilitate theft reporting and deter the resale of stolen tools by establishing ownership records.

The Bill successfully cleared its second reading by the end of 2022 and progressed to the committee stage in February of the following year, ultimately receiving Royal Assent. However, discussions persist regarding supplementary legislation pertaining to the compulsory marking of tools and the associated implementation costs. The outcome of these deliberations, informed by ongoing consultations with the Home Office, tool manufacturers, and the retail sector, alongside feedback from industry forums like ORIS Forums and the Builders Merchants Federation (BMF), remains pending.

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