The British Crime Survey, published yesterday, revealed that violent crime fell by 17 per cent between 1995 and 1997, while car theft was down by 25 per cent. Thefts from vehicles fell by 14 per cent in the same period. The only type of offence to increase was mugging, which rose by 1 per cent.
The biennial survey, based on interviews with 15,000 people in England and Wales, is thought to give a more accurate picture of the true rate of crime than police figures.
The Home Office yesterday also released the numbers of offences reported to the police in the year to March, showing a drop in the crime rate of nearly 8 per cent, although the number of reported violent offences rose by 1 per cent, with sexual offences up by 6 per cent and rapes by 11 per cent. It was the fifth successive year in which reported crime had fallen.
With 41 out of 43 police forces reporting a drop in crime, the pattern was seen as a victory for "intelligence-led policing", which has seen more resources concentrated on persistent offenders and crime "hot-spots".
David Phillips, Chief Constable of Kent and chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers' crime committee, said: "We believe these trends reflect changes in the general character of policing, most noticeably improved intelligence arrangements and more effective targeting of recidivist criminals."
Yet the reduction in crime has done little to make the public feel more safe. Only 9 per cent of people questioned in the British Crime Survey were aware that crime was falling and 84 per cent believed crime in their locality was as bad or worse than two years ago.
Confidence in the police also seems to be falling as the number of crimes reported had risen during the 1980s but has fallen since 1991 to 44 per cent.
Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, responded cautiously to the figures as he visited Belmarsh prison, south London. "Crime as a whole is much too high in this country and there's no grounds for complacency," he said, pointing out that the crime rate was still 50 per cent higher than in the 1980s.
The Home Secretary attributed the successes to better policing and improved home and vehicle security rather than increased use of prison.
"Crime became intolerably high in this country in the late '80s and early '90s and I think it shocked people," he said.
But Peter Gammon, president of the Police Superintendents Association, said the falling crime rate represented the "dividends of adopting a tough stance against the criminal" and called for more and lengthier prison sentences.
Paul Cavadino of the Penal Affairs Consortium contradicted his view. He said: "The fall is a result of effective preventive initiatives involving the police, local authorities, car manufacturers and other agencies working together."
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