Hi-tech move to halt lead thefts

15 November 2007

by Pat Ashworth

Common scene: reroofing St Leonard’s, Rockingham. One ton of lead was stolen from the roof earlier this year

Common scene: reroofing St Leonard’s, Rockingham. One ton of lead was stolen from the roof earlier this year

THE THEFT of lead from church roofs has reached such epidemic proportions that the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group (EIG) is giving SmartWater protection to all 16,500 Anglican churches in its care.

The non-hazardous liquid contains a DNA-style forensic code, unique to each recipient. Marked items can be traced back irrefutably to the owner, and criminals who come into contact with the liquid can be linked to the crime scene.

A high conviction rate has ensued from its use in a variety of forms by almost all UK police forces, and the existence of firm evidence has meant that many cases have not even had to go to trial.

This year alone, EIG has received more than 1800 claims, at a cost of nearly £5.8 million for the theft mainly of lead from church roofs, as well as items from within the churches. “Sadly, the local parish church has become the victim of an international demand for these materials,” said Chris Pitt of EIG. “We aren’t happy just to sit back and continue paying claims: we want to play a part in stamping this out.”

The epidemic began with isolated claims in various parts of the country, but became so concentrated in areas such as Nottingham, Sheffield, and Manchester that there is no doubt that it is being organised. The three cities have accounted for 400 claims this year. Lichfield is the worst-hit diocese in the West Midlands, with 72 claims this year at a cost of just over £200,000. There were 24 claims in 2006 and only four in 2005.

“The thieves can’t get away with the quantity of lead they’re stealing without many pairs of hands, lifting and cutting equipment, and definitely vans,” said Mr Pitt. “They’re not doing it in the dead of night on the off-chance that a church might have a bit of lead.”

The most audacious examples have seen churches hit several times, as thieves come back to steal the replacement lead. Historically, any stolen metal has been extremely difficult for the police to trace: now they will be telling scrap dealers to look out for SmartWater to ensure that they refuse to accept lead stolen from church roofs.

The Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd George Cassidy, praised EIG’s initiative, and said that experience of working almost daily with the company during two years of IRA bombing in the City of London had given him great respect for their collaborative way of working.

“They’re out to try and protect churches and keep our premiums down. We are duty-bound as Christians to try and work for crime prevention and protection, not leaving temptation in the way of vulnerable people — but also to protect our heritage properly and help our insurers,” he said.

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