Crime in Britain: Rural areas bear brunt of criminal offensive: Overall rate of increase slows - 'Panic' reforms attacked - Fewer murders confirm trend

THE RISE in crime slowed substantially last year, according to Home Office statistics issued yesterday, although there was an overall increase of 6 per cent on the previous year, including rises in violent crimes and a big jump in crime in some rural areas.

This compares with the 16 per cent increase of 1990-91 and were greeted with relief by Home Office ministers aware that a further double-figure rise would be politically damaging.

The number of crimes rose from 5.2 million to 5.6 million, with the biggest increases in serious violence offences (up 12 per cent); robbery (up 16 per cent) and burglary (up 11 per cent). Car crime showed a rise of 4.5 per cent in thefts from vehicles and one of just 0.6 per cent in thefts of vehicles. Sexual offences remained static.

The biggest rises were in rural areas, continuing the recent trend. Cheshire, which declared yesterday a 'crime-free day' to encourage public awareness of crime prevention, had the highest rise - almost 20 per cent. Other double-figure increases occurred in Derbyshire and Staffordshire (both 16 per cent) Kent (15 per cent), and Avon and Somerset and Cambridgeshire (14 per cent). The figures fell in Northumbria and the City of London, the latter experiencing a rise of 1.8 per cent, compared with 11 per cent in 1991. All the other large urban areas had rises below 10 per cent.

Most of the 43 forces showed a drop in clear-up rates since 1991. The national average dropped from 29 to 26 per cent of all crimes; in 1988, the figure stood at 35 per cent. The actual number of crimes cleared up fell for the first time in three years. Most violent crime is cleared up.

Police officers, ministers and criminologists are aware that the figures could be a blip. The 1989-91 period, which saw some areas recording rises of more than 30 per cent, followed two years when the rate remained static or dropped. All sides warn that the figures are subject to recording variations between forces and factors such as the incentive from insurance claims to report property crime.

Michael Jack, Minister of State at the Home Office, said that the drop in the rate of increase was encouraging after the previous year's rise. He welcomed the reduction in car crime, which was due to government crime- prevention schemes, and accepted that the rise in more rural areas may be partially due to displacement because of initiatives in the cities.

Mr Blair said: 'It is high time the Tories took crime as seriously as the public and, instead of a series of attempts to ward off bad headlines, they put forward a thought-out policy to fight crime.'

Cheshire police said yesterday evening that the number of crimes recorded so far during the county's 'crime-free day' was 211, including 78 burglaries, 42 theft and deception cases, 21 motor vehicle thefts and 37 other vehicle offences. The daily average for the time of year is 212.