Metal theft & memory theft – valuing sentiment in punishing war memorial attacks

In my recent blog on metal theft [link] I argued that metal theft sees the ascendancy of ‘exchange value’ over ‘use value’. By this analysis an artefact comes to be seen as a composite of its raw materials and their respective commodity values, rather than as a stable and purposeful assemblage of materials, a ‘thing in itself’ with a functional utility.

In what follows I will briefly summarise recent UK steps towards legislating to tackle metal theft and then focus on an additional type of ‘value’ that can be said to attach to some artefacts, namely their embodied emotional – or ‘sentimental’ value. Often in everyday usage the term ‘sentimental’ is used in a pejorative sense. But that is not how I wish to use that term here. Instead – as cultural anthropologists like Miller (2008) have done for decades – I wish to focus upon the value of the symbolic and emotional life of things and consider the extent to which punishment of metal thieves can take account of that form of value (and consequent destruction or de-valuing of it via stealing and ‘melting down’ such treasured items).

I have in mind here war memorial plaques – for much of the articles stolen by metal thieves are mundane – but in their own terms important – infrastructure. Their forced removal causes physical damage and disturbance to social and economic life, but these are items rarely the focus of emotional investment and symbolic significance. War memorial plaques are different, and recent media coverage has focussed in particular upon metal theft’s impact of this aspect of emotional heritage and of the importance of defending them against this latest threat to their survival (see for example Ashley 2004 and the In Memoriam 2014 (2012) project).

The current position on anti-metal theft legislating in the UK

In January 2012 the UK Parliament rejected a Private Members’ Bill – the ‘Metal Theft (Prevention) Bill’ – promoted by Labour MP Graham Jones (Jones 2012). This Bill, if enacted, would have imposed a cashless system for scrap metal trading, required evidence of identity to be produced by persons delivering scrap to a merchant and increased enforcement powers against scrap metal yards.

Jones viewed the Government’s decision not to back his Bill as symptomatic of:

” a split in the government between Home Office ministers who want action and ideologues in BIS (the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) who think that stopping the theft of war memorials is somehow ‘damaging red tape'” (Angel, 2012)

Without Government support Jones’ Bill now has no realistic prospect of being enacted. In the aftermath of its effective ‘defeat’ the UK Government (who chose not to support the Bill) announced that they would in due course bring forward their own proposals for tackling metal theft. On 26 January 2012 Home Secretary Teresa May announced that the Government’s own forthcoming measures to tackle the £770 million p.a. estimated cost of metal theft to the UK economy (Angel 2012) would include transition towards a cashless system, plus ‘significant increase’ in the fines that can be imposed upon metal thieves (Home Office 2012).  In a ministerial statement (May 2012) the Home Secretary indicated that these provisions would be enacted by making amendments to the Government’s own Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which is currently before Parliament. In November 2011, the UK Government also set up a metal theft task force, committing £5 million of funding to this initiative as part of its ‘National Infrastructure Plan’ (HM Treasury 2011). The Home Secretary appeared to have overcome the ideological struggles alluded to by Jones, as she declared that:

“The Government considers that legislation is the only sustainable, long-term solution to the growing menace of metal theft. There is an urgent need to make stealing metal less attractive to criminals, and tackling the stolen metal market will act as a significant deterrent.”

She also indicated that further measures may be introduced in due course. And, given its strategic high profile, we might wonder whether such measures may include some of the additional steps recommended by the Transport Select Committee’s January 2012 report on the impact of cable theft upon the nation’s rail infrastructure (House of Commons 2012):

  • Increase the powers of the British Transport Police to investigate scrap yards
  • Introduce a new offence of aggravated trespass on the railway (trespass is not generally a criminal offence in the UK)
  • Requiring Network Rail (the national rail infrastructure owner) to re-double efforts to investigate and develop measures to make railway cable more difficult to steal.

Punishing theft of sentimental value

It is unclear from the Government’s recent statement whether the tougher approach to sentencing will include any specific augmentation to single out war memorial theft as particularly odious.

Whilst we await this proposed package of measures we might wish to explore existing powers of punishment. Debate has focussed upon the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 and the low maximum fines imposable upon scrap yard operators. However, we should not forget that pillaging metal from the built environment is theft, an offence in its own right under the Theft Act 1968 (and it may also be criminal damage under section 1(1) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971). Penalty maxima under these Acts are far less token then those under the 1964 Act.

Taking punishment down this avenue may achieve higher penalties (and in theory at least) greater deterrence of metal thieves (although clearly a market reduction approach focussed on the networks by which this material is ‘fenced’ into the recycling markets is still needed).

In addition, existing sentencing guidelines could be used specifically in relation to war memorial plaque theft (and perhaps also the theft of metal works of art). The sentencing guidelines issued by the Sentencing  Council in December 2008 apply to all offences committed on or after 5 January 2009, and every court is required to have regard to them. The guidelines are set out in a number of related publications – and it is the guidelines for Theft and Burglary in a building other than a dwelling- Definitive Guideline (Sentencing Council 2008) that I have in mind here. Under general sentencing principles a court is required to have regard to the ‘seriousness’ of the offence – and in doing so to identify and then weigh up ‘mitigating’ and ‘aggravating’ factors. The sentencing guidelines direct courts on how they should undertake this ‘weighing up’ process and what factors should be considered as relevant. Paragraph 12 of the guidelines tells us that the “high value” of the stolen artefact is a relevant aggrevating factor and that sentimental value is a type of value. So, an item of high sentimental value – to an individual or to a community – should be treated as ‘high value’ (even if the raw commodity (i.e exchange) value of the stolen materials is not great).

The seriousness which can be judicially attributed to metal theft is also a function of its widespread, increasing and disruptive nature and clearly in many circumstances considerable value (and premeditation) can also be attributed to the crime as aggravating factors. However, in situations where the haul itself is of relatively low financial value, the opportunity to invoke this alternative class of value is one not to be missed for assets that can credibly be shown to have sentimental value.

NB: In January 2012 the sentencing guidelines for burglary in non-domestic premises were merged into a tariff based approach for punishment of all burglary offences (Sentencing Council 2011). This revised guidance retains sentimental value as an aggravating factor but talks now in terms of that being value that attaches to the victim. This may make it slightly harder to argue that war memorial theft is a crime that attacks the sentimental value invested in a war memorial by a local community, rather than the local authority or other entity that is the legal owner of the plaques – but its still worth a try…

Angel, M. (2012) ‘Government rejects metals theft bill’,, 20 January

Ashley, P. (2004) Lest we forget, English Heritage: Swindon

HM Treasury (2011) National Infrastructure Plan 2011, HM Treasury / Infrastructure UK: London

Home Office (2012) ‘Government acts against metal thieves’ Press release – 26 January:

House of Commons (2012) Cable theft on the railway – Transport Select Committee’s 14th report (2011-12) – House of Commons: London,

In Memoriam 2014 (2012) project website – a collaboration between the War Memorials Trust and anti-metal theft technologists SmartWater’s Foundation,

Jones, G. (2012) Private Members’ Bill:

May, T. (2012) Scrap metal dealers – written ministerial statement, 30 January:

Miller, D. (2008) The Comfort of Things, Polity: Bristol.

Sentencing Council (2011) Burglary Offences – Definitive Guidance, Sentencing Council: London

Sentencing Council (2008) Theft and Burglary in a building other than a dwelling – definitive guideline, Sentencing Council for England & Wales: London,


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: