The Van Watch campaign has set its sights on tackling tool theft. Professional Builder’s Lee Jones talks to the organisation’s Chair, Ray Stafford about just how they’re going to do it.
It is the scourge of hard-working tradespeople with an estimated 58,000 incidents of tool theft in 2022 alone. In monetary terms – taking into account the equipment itself, damage to vehicles, and loss of earnings – that’s a staggering £1 million a day lost and, for self-employed builders in particular, when you’re suddenly deprived of the means to ply your trade it can have gravely detrimental financial consequences.
“There has been an explosion in tool theft,” declares Ray Stafford, one of the founders and Chair of Van Watch, “but what really bugs me is that, because of the fragmented nature of the building industry, this issue has been largely neglected. Imagine if a million pounds a day was being stolen from banks. There would be questions in the House of Commons, and no doubt a special police task force. The large financial institutions have the ear of government, and can make themselves heard, but the construction sector is populated by hundreds of thousands of self-employed people who are effectively voiceless.”
Established earlier this year, Van Watch is a on a mission to change all that. This not-for-profit, cross industry campaign, is bringing stakeholders together with the ambition to reduce tool theft, mitigate its impact and, through a range of practical, financial and emotional support mechanisms, minimise victim distress.
So just how can tradespeople get involved in the campaign, and what should they be doing to protect their tools? “Builders can sign up at www.vanwatch.org.uk and we’ll provide you with the latest local and national updates on the issue. In terms of deterrence, we would encourage every tradesperson to register their tools, retain proof of purchase, and forensically mark them with a tool marking or smartwater system. Park your vehicle up against a wall in a well-lit area. Only around half of thefts are in front of a home so make sure you’re vigilant wherever you stop, and when the van is outside the job. You should also consider investing in after-market locks and security measures.
“Perhaps most importantly, we would urge every tool user to refrain from purchasing second hand equipment unless they’re really confident of its provenance. This is an economically motivated and profit driven crime. If we can suppress the market for stolen goods, then fewer criminals will be encouraged to steal them in the first place.”
Taking it seriously
A common lament is that law enforcement and the courts do not take the issue anywhere near seriously enough, and this is another active area of lobbying for Van Watch. “We’re all very familiar with the experience of reporting an incident to your local constabulary, obtaining a crime number and that’s it – case closed. At a senior level, that is starting to change with a greater recognition that the public should expect the police to tackle all forms of lawlessness.
“In terms of the available prison terms for these offences they are actually reasonably prohibitive, with a maximum of seven years in prison for theft and 14 years for handling stolen goods. The problem is that magistrates will refer to the sentencing guidelines and these invariably result in very low-level custodial terms or a community-based punishment. We’re not necessarily asking for legislative changes but a modification of the sentencing guidelines. There are aggravating factors that can be listed on those guidelines and, given its impact on the victim, we want one of those to be the theft of tools from tradespeople.”
For much of his career Ray was the Managing Director of a leading plumbers’ merchant, and has brought that industry experience to the Van Watch initiative. “Even though we’re a relatively new organisation I’m pleased to say that we’ve already recruited a diverse group of over 40 significant organisations as supporters. It’s a wide-ranging coalition, comprising trade associations, such as the Federation of Master Builders, merchants, manufacturers like Bosch and Draper, as well as governmental organisations that include the National Business Crime Centre.
“They each contribute in their different ways,” explains Ray. “The Builders’ Merchant Federation has very good political contacts, for instance, and were able to organise a meeting with the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman. Our friends at charities like The Rainy Day Trust, Band of Builders, and the Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity, have stepped up to provide financial and emotional support to victims. In addition, we have commercial enterprises that are donating end of line, or ex demo equipment to tool libraries and loan schemes that can quickly resupply tradespeople who suddenly find themselves bereft of the equipment they need to earn a living. We would like to see these initiatives extended, because they can be an invaluable lifeline for a self-employed builder.”
The electrification of light commercial vehicles has also resulted in another unintended consequence that is detrimental to security. Any extra weight on EVs will adversely affect the range so there is some resistance to adding additional locking mechanisms. “What we would like to see is the whole of the motor industry coming together to find solutions,” continues Ray, “with a separate and independent rating for loadspace security.”
There is equally a perception amongst builders that it’s either not worth being insured, or trying to claim on the policy, and this has become an active area of interest for Van Watch. “Our research has found that a third of tool users are not satisfied with their insurer and we’re just about to publish a summary of the top ten in terms of positive approval ratings. Having said that, if you go for a very cheap policy then clearly there will be more exclusions. Tools won’t be covered in van overnight, for example, or the cover might require signs of forced entry.”
“There are no sliver bullets,” concludes Ray, “and it’s going to be a long haul. We’re not under any illusions that it will be eradicated completely but our aim is to halve the incidents of tool theft within five years. If we are to realise that aim, the overriding message is that we must work together.”
For further information on Van Watch visit Driving Down Tool Theft To Protect Trades – Van Watch.
Alternatively, you can listen to the latest episode of the Professional Builder Podcast, where we talk with Ray Stafford and more about Tool Theft.