Drug farms - and the downturn - spark huge rise in electricity thefts in West Yorkshire

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The number of people in West Yorkshire reported to police for stealing electricity has doubled in the last five years in a trend thought to be linked to the economic downturn.

Offences that involve accessing the electricity network illegally, often by criminals cultivating cannabis farms, are being seen more and more every year across Yorkshire and the Humber.

There has been a sharp rise in the number of “dishonest use of electricity offences” in parts of the region in late 2014 and early 2015, according to data obtained by the Yorkshire Evening Post.

The county’s biggest energy supplier British Gas has described the theft of electricity as “extremely dangerous” and a potential “ticking time-bomb” that adds £20 to customers’ bills.

West Yorkshire Police, the region’s largest force, saw 54 offences in January and February and 194 in 2014, nearly double the total of 100 seen in 2009.

A West Yorkshire Police document says: “Similar increases are being seen across the country and can in part be attributed to the current financial climate, however it is not clear if this is the full picture.

“Improvements in data integrity may also have led to abstraction of electricity being recorded as part of cannabis production incidents whereas in the past this may not have been the case.”

Data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act shows that the number of “dishonest use of electricity” or “abstraction of electricity” offences recorded by Yorkshire’s four police forces has risen every year since 2009.

A total of 137 were recorded in 2009, 177 in 2010, 200 in 2011, 232 in 2012, 244 in 2013 and 282 last year. West Yorkshire Police recorded the most incidents, while North Yorkshire Police saw the fewest.

James Kitchen of West Yorkshire Police’s force performance improvement unit said the number of offences remained “relatively low”.

He added: “We have seen a slight increase in offences over recent months and where any particular trends are identified will work with energy providers to address these issues.”

Most energy thefts are carried out by dishonest householders and businesses, though around a third of illegally abstracted electricity is linked to drug cultivation.

Mark Andrews, Head of Revenue Protection for British Gas, said: “Energy theft poses a major safety risk to the public. Stealing gas and electricity illegally is extremely dangerous.

“It’s potentially a ticking time-bomb. Tampering with meters, wires and pipes can cause electric shocks or even major gas explosions.

“Energy theft is a major issue that we estimate puts at least £20 on honest customers’ bills.

“The problem is not isolated to any particular town or city. That’s why we have a highly trained network of British Gas operatives working across the country every day.”

A spokeswoman for industry regulator Ofgem said: “Theft of gas or electricity put consumer’s safety at risk as costs of energy theft are passed on to those customers who pay their bills on time.

“Ofgem put in place more effective arrangements to detect, investigate and prevent energy theft.

“These include enforceable obligations on suppliers to detect theft, a national theft risk assessment service and incentives to support suppliers in their actions to investigate and prevent theft.”

Anyone with concerns about energy theft on their street can call British Gas’s free-phone number 0800 587 2737.