Leading Article: Forget the figures, grapple with the real causes of crime

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The Independent Culture
YESTERDAY'S CRIME figures, showing a drop in almost all types of crime in England and Wales, are welcome. Both the number of crimes revealed by the polling work of the British Crime Survey, and the number of crimes reported to the police, fell again last year. Even violent crime seems to have fallen, according to the Crime Survey: it found a 17 per cent drop, between 1995 and 1997, in the number of all violent crimes.

The welcome for those figures should, however, be muted. No one will have woken up this morning feeling safer because of a handful of survey results. It is almost certain that women will continue to feel unsafe at night, that children will continue to be chaperoned to school, and that the numbers of elderly people using public transport will continue to fall, as they become more and more afraid of venturing out alone. Good news about crime as a whole will have little effect on our timid habits when we all know relatives and friends who have fallen victim to burglars, muggers or worse.

The British Crime Survey estimates that there were 16 million crimes committed in the period it covers, from 1995 to 1997; that is nearly one crime for every third person in Britain. This is a depressing figure, justifying the fear most people feel. The figures may be falling now, but that drop is from a high peak in the early Nineties. Indeed, crime now is at twice the level of a decade ago.

This week has also seen an American Department of Justice report showing how crime in Britain is quickly converging with that in the US, and may in many respects already be worse; certainly the US seems to harbour less of the low-level crime that most people encounter. There may still be fewer rapes and murders in Britain than in the US, but those relatively rare crimes are also on the rise, according to yesterday's evidence. As the National Office for Victim Support has argued, we cannot crow too much over these figures, which do not necessarily reflect the reality of a frightened populace. Home Office research shows that only 16 per cent of the public believe crime to be on the wane.

When Tony Blair promised to be "tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime", he was promising to heal one of the most exposed sores felt by Middle England. His government has made a start in tackling these issues. Welfare to Work may take young men off the streets, where they have nothing to do but get into trouble, and the initiative on some of our worst "sink" estates will help to mitigate the hopelessness that breeds crime.

Police efforts to tackle the crimes that happen most often, creating the impression that lawlessness is rife, have also been timely, registering some startling reductions in burglary and car theft.

New thinking on how such things as street furniture, lighting and surveillance cameras can lower crime has also yielded results. The forces of law and order cannot, however, claim all the credit; a fall in the population of the number of young men, who are responsible for most crime, is one underlying cause of an improving situation; such prosperity the Nineties have brought has helped to smooth over social tensions.

Governments need to consider crime as a much broader issue, recognising how important public perceptions are, but refusing to be swept away by them. We still have no clear policy on drug use, which lies behind many other sorts of crime; no clear thinking on how to change British attitudes to alcohol, a major cause of public and private violence; no suggestion that the pilot schemes on problem estates will be replicated on a national scale. No one feels that crime surveys are relevant to his or her own life; determined government action is needed to turn around our perceptions of crime, as well as just the raw figures.