I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to speak on this Topical Issue, which was prompted by a recent meeting I had with a constituent at a jobs launch. I was admiring a ring on her finger when she informed me that it was the only piece of jewellery she owned following a break-in at her home. The reason it was the only piece she had left was that she was wearing it on the day thieves broke into her house and took every piece of her jewellery.
We all know that gold is a classic safe-haven investment, and demand has been strong amid the global economic turmoil we are experiencing. The value of gold jewellery is now driving criminal activity because it can be turned easily into cash. We have all become aware of the anecdotal reporting of increased criminal trade in the sale of stolen goods, jewellery and scrap metal. We have seen a large increase in the number of cash for gold advertisements on our television screens, in our newspapers and on lampposts. Such businesses are littered up and down the country, and often no identification is required to obtain money in exchange for gold. This new outlet for burglars wishing to sell stolen goods has led to some increasing the number of burglaries they carry out in which they specifically target jewellery for quick resale.
Increasingly, consumers are looking to sell unwanted or broken jewellery to cash for gold smelting firms and pawnbrokers to raise some badly needed funds. Sellers can head into a cash for gold store, offer their jewellery without being asked for information that identifies ownership, and walk out with a cheque or cash. The gold is melted down quickly, leaving nothing for police to trace. While most of these outlets are run responsibly, a small number of them are being used by burglars to quickly sell stolen gold jewellery for significant sums of money.
At the launch of the report on the cash for gold trade in June 2012 the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, observed: "There must be a targeted, proportionate and balanced response by Government to ensure that opportunities for criminals to obtain cash for stolen gold and other precious metals are eliminated whilst not affecting legitimate trade because of the criminal actions of a few." The key findings of the report were that the Garda had visited all 124 known cash for gold traders, that there was a significant level of public concern, and that most of the metals were usually melted down. The report stated that while criminal law was adequate and law enforcement had been strong, there were grounds for considering controls on purchase, including identification of the seller, identification of the item, a retention period before resale, and detailed records of all transactions.
On whether we can do more, it is arguably inconsistent that there are specific rules and regulations that apply to pawnbrokers for the protection of the public and to assist the Garda while similar appropriate and adapted rules and regulations do not apply to cash for gold outlets. Second-hand trade is not regulated legislatively in Ireland, with the exception of pawnbroking. However, pawnbroking is not the same as the cash for gold business, which currently is not registered and not specifically legislated for.
Above all, the primary issue is identification, both of the person selling and of the object he or she is selling. Tied to that is recording of details by dealers. A secondary issue is valuation of goods. Pawnbrokers must keep a record of the people who provide them with goods and their address. If a pawnbroker receives such goods knowing that they are derived from an offence, that can give rise to a criminal prosecution. I would like to see that replicated in the cash for gold market.
A recent initiative in the north of England was the setting up a voluntary code of conduct, called the Gold Standard, to which traders of precious metals can sign up. This scheme will tighten security measures at pawnbrokers', gold traders' and jewellers' shops to restrict the opportunity for robbers and burglars to sell on their stolen goods. It aims to reward and support reputable traders while helping the police to identify anyone who might trade in stolen goods. The goal is to make it easier for victims and the police to track down stolen merchandise and to eliminate what has become an easy payday for criminals, although someone signing up would have to demonstrate that they took the details of each person who sold precious metals to them. Initiatives such as that could go a long way towards reforming the poorly regulated cash for gold sector and bringing peace of mind to those fearful of selling their gold legitimately or those who keep their precious jewellery, which often holds far more sentimental value than any cash remuneration they could ever have, at home.