Tool theft: ‘It’s a blight on our job’

The fear of tool theft has become one of the biggest issues for any tradesperson out on a job, and kitchen and bathroom installers are no exception…

“I parked my van in Sainsburys at around 5:30pm and took a work call on my way into the shop. I came back 30 mins later to find the driver’s door lock popped out and all my tools taken.” 

Andy Gill is a kitchen fitter based in Portsmouth and his story will sound sadly all too familiar for an ever-increasing number of tradespeople who have experienced the shock of tool theft first hand. 

“I went back in to tell the store manager and see if they had CCTV and while I was in there the same thing happened to two other vans in the same car park.”

That one incident cost Gill £2,000 in tools and another £1,000 to get his van repaired but, as so many others can testify, the financial impact is just the start when something this devastating occurs.

 The practical issues of reworking schedules, administrating insurance and simply sourcing new tools eat into the ability to work but, perhaps more significantly, the ongoing stress and anxiety can dramatically affect long-term mental health

Construction is, after all, an industry where, according to the Office For National Statistics, workers are nearly four times more likely to commit suicide than the national average.

“I think the general public simply has no idea what impact this crime has on self-employed fitters and installation businesses. It can be devastating,” Gill says. “I worked with a carpenter in Ascot who’d had all his tools taken on his own drive. They came back six months later once he’d had time to replace them. It’s hard to bounce back from that isn’t it?”

In 2023, 44,524 tool thefts were reported to the police, which works out at about one every 12 minutes. Over half of them (55%) are taken from vehicles, a figure up by 14% on 2022, and a similar percentage (56%) occur at night when the van is parked at their own home or in a car park.

These numbers come from a Direct Line report published in May this year, studying crime figures from police forces across the UK. As these are just reported crimes, the real figure is likely to be even higher.


Tradespeople lost an estimated £82 million worth of jobs last year due to tool theft

Stuart Clark is the director of operations at EA Mobility, a specialist in installing bathrooms for people with mobility needs. It is a national company and, as such, tool theft is a constant worry.

“We spend a lot of time in hotels overnight and our engineers often have their vans lined up in Premier Inn car parks, or similar,” he says. “In 2023, we had a dozen or so vans broken into that way – and when you wake up and find your van ripped open, it’s not uncommon to see two or three vans left and right of you with padlocks and deadlocks on the floor, cut off, with doors half open too.

“Without question, this is one of the blights of our job.”

According to the Direct Line report, the loss of work resulting from tool theft averaged £1,836 in the year, meaning an estimated £82m worth of jobs were lost by trades in 2023. But, as shocking as that is, it’s just the start of the financial impact. 

Clark estimates the 2023 thefts cost his business around £15,000 in tools alone, but the resulting hike in insurance is what’s really causing the most pain. “The repair costs vary because sometimes it’s a clean drill on the lock and sometimes the door has been ripped open with crowbars but we’re looking at a total insurance bill of around £30,000 for the vans that have been broken into and, as such, we’ve been told our policy will double.

“The best case scenario is that, with 15 vans on the road, our insurance will go up to around £70,000 – £80,000 a year. Sadly, we’re seen as a high risk customer.”

Mental health

The Direct Line report uses police crime statistics, but a 2022 report from On The Tools takes its data directly from tradespeople themselves. Their “Tradespeople Against Tool Theft’ white paper says that 78% have had their tools stolen, with the self-employed 38% more likely than employed to experience it.

Almost a quarter (23%) did not report the crime to the police and, worryingly, a staggering 83% did not have tool insurance in place at the time.

And 39% agreed that having tools stolen has had a ‘strong impact’ on their mental health, with the figure significantly higher for the self-employed (66%).

Overall, more than two-thirds (68%) of tradespeople say they worry about tool theft every single day.

The On The Tools report quotes several anonymous tradespeople and it outlines the emotional impact. “Even if it’s the middle of the night and I hear a slight noise I’ll jump up to make sure they’re not stealing anything from my van,” one says. “You second guess yourself forever afterwards.” says another. “There’s a financial impact but the psychological impact stays with you longer.”


say they lost business because of the theft and not having their tools to work

And one paints a vivid picture of the anger it leaves you with. “I’m kind of like a volcano; I could be doing time. I fear what I would have done. I would have battered him until he didn’t breathe. I was distraught because I was trying to provide for my family and they think it’s their right to take your gear.”

Research from the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) in 2019 found that over a 40-year working life, a builder will typically lose £10,000 worth of tools and six working days to tool theft. This, according to the report, is causing 15% of builders to suffer from anxiety and just over one in ten to suffer from depression.

“Decisive action is needed to tackle tool theft,” Brian Berry, chief executive of the FMB said. “This is causing mental health issues amongst builders with reports of depression, anxiety, anger, frustration, stress and even suicidal thoughts. The Government needs to look into tool theft and consider the need for the introduction of tighter regulations around selling second-hand tools, and greater minimum fines for those convicted of tool theft.”

Tradespeople are, on the whole, very sceptical about the willingness of police to actively investigate tool theft incidents. On The Tools found that two-thirds were very unsatisfied with the response they received. Many reporting that they were given a crime reference number but no actual investigation took place. 

There are some successes, however, in May seven arrests were made and more than 1,000 items seized in Cranbrook by Kent Police’s Rural Task Force. A search for one drill with a tracking device led to stolen gear that included four vehicles, one quad bike, six caravans and a large quantity of power tools.

It will not surprise anyone that the victim of the initial drill theft had attached trackers to their tools because they had been repeatedly targeted by thieves…

Car boot

While police are under pressure to do more to investigate the individual crimes themselves, any attempt to tackle the overall issue must also look at where the stolen tools end up. If they’re being stolen in such high volumes, there must be enough of a market to make it worth their while.

While online sites like eBay, Facebook and Gumtree are an outlet, they have their own policies in place to seek out and ban sellers of illegal items. The focus for many anti-tool theft campaigners is the unregulated world of car boot sales.

While the scale of stolen tools at these sales is unknown, it’s not hard to pick one at random and see dozens piled up on makeshift tables or simply laid out on the ground. The On The Tools report found that 23% of consumers said they have bought second-hand tools without making any checks, although what proportion of these are stolen or from car boot sales is unknown.

While this is in itself not a new issue, there is momentum building for affirmative action from tradespeople themselves, fuelled by a growing number of  influencers using special media to spread the message.

“We had a Christmas event for the company at a hotel and put everyone up overnight so we could have a proper party. I got a phone call at about 1am to tell me that seven of our vans had been broken into in the hotel car park. Another two were done at about 10:30am the next morning. It was broad daylight at a busy hotel. It was a dreadful experience for everybody involved…”

Stuart Clark, director of operations, EA Mobility

Shoaib Awan, a gas fitter from Essex, runs the @stolen_tools_uk account on Instagram. It has just under 100,000 followers and many share shocking pictures of the aftermath of tool theft and warn against active thieves operating in specific areas. Awan also uses the account to campaign for action, in particular encouraging people to sign a Government petition to ban the sale of tools at car boots and markets.

That petition reached 44,000 signatories before the general election annoucement forced its closure. Awan’s goal was to reach the 100,000 threshold that would trigger a debate in parliament.

“Car boot sales are a very quick way of turning stolen tools into money, that’s the problem,” he says. “Car boot sales and thieves are a match made in heaven as they’re not regulated and there’s no punishment. You also have the perfect customer too as bargain hunters don’t ask questions. No one’s there to query where these tools are coming from even though it’s the same person there every week selling it.”

While a parliamentary debate is triggered at 100,000 petition signatures, an official written response comes after 10,000. Unfortunately, it was not the one Awan wanted. 

“The Government has no plans for such a sales ban,” the statement says. “But recognises the impact of this crime, and is consulting on how new laws and other crime prevention measures can best protect a van and its contents.” 

It then goes on to outline general points about overall crime levels coming down and more police officers recruited. Awan, unsurprisingly, was not satisfied.

“It doesn’t solve anything because all they’re stating in there is that neighbourhood crime is down by 48%” he said. “What’s that got to do with tool theft? It doesn’t make sense. 

“They’re saying they’ve employed 20,000 more officers. But what are these officers doing? I haven’t seen any taking any action at boot sales. There’s an endless supply of it, why are they not getting questioned? I can understand it’s very difficult for the police to identify tools or  know who the owner is or what the source is. But it’s very clear to everyone that this is happening everywhere.”

For Awan, the solution is not just tackling the antagonists themselves, but also the organisers of the sales. If they faced consequences and cracked down on traders, he argues, it would kill the market.


Tradespeople spend an average of £626 on additional vehicle security

“If you were to find the organisers and tell them that if they’re caught with stolen power tools at their sale they will face the fine, I guarantee they won’t let the sellers in. There’s a boot sale in Denham (Bucks) and they’ve already taken action because of the profile of our petition and what we’ve been doing on social media.

“They’ve put a board up at the entrance saying ‘don’t sell power tools unless you’ve got a receipt because you will  get checked by security’. That’s a small little step but it happened because of the publicity around this petition.”


While legislative measures are effective, Awan is almost certainly correct that the most realistic way to tackle tool theft is to make the public more aware of what a massive issue it is.

He, and other tradespeople with significant social media presences, have been bombarding mainstream media organisations with information about the issue and momentum is building, with the likes of Radio 2 or BBC Breakfast discussing the issue. Awan also organised a peaceful ‘go slow’ protest of a 200-strong convoy of vans that brought Westminster to a standstill at the start of June.

“I’ve seen boot sale forums on Facebook where people are telling organisers that they need to stop this,” Awan says. “So there is a lot more awareness out there now and it’s just a matter of time before the majority of people simply don’t go to boot sales who allow this. That’s where we want it to be.”

While it’s clear that tool theft is a growing problem, the fact that installers are collaborating to tackle the issue in such a positive and peaceful way is, perhaps, the most admirable consequence. The combined influence of such a huge block of people could be a very powerful drive for long-term change.

For now though, the blight of tool theft is the priority and will continue to cause many more sleepless nights before a solution is found.

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