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Are Britain's streets really the safest they’ve been for 30 years?

Ministers have welcomed a survey showing a 15 per cent drop in crime, but can the figures be trusted?

Crime in England and Wales fell by 15 per cent last year, dropping to the lowest level in more than 30 years despite increases in sexual and some violent offences, according to new figures.

The downward trend was driven by cuts in theft, criminal damage and robbery. But a sharp increase in fraud cases pointed to a shift towards cyber-enabled crime, according to criminologists.

The statistics released today confirmed longer-term trends – including the decline in homicides, with 551 recorded in the year to 2013, nine fewer than in the previous 12 months.

The annual Crime Survey of England and Wales, based on interviews with adults, found that crimes had fallen by 15 per cent to 7.5 million offences.

There was a sharp rise in reported sex crimes, however, attributed to publicity surrounding the Jimmy Savile case and allegations against celebrities including Dave Lee Travis, Max Clifford and Rolf Harris, which are thought to have encouraged more people to report offences to police. Rape reporting was up 20 per cent, but the number of historic sexual attacks has started to wane, according to the data.

Can we trust the figures?

There are two main measures of recording crime: an annual survey, and the numbers of crimes recorded by the 43 police forces of England and Wales. While both measures showed cuts, the survey showed a decline of 15 per cent, while police recorded crime showed a drop of only 2 per cent.

The decline was welcomed by police and the Government – crime prevention minister Norman Baker said England and Wales had not been so safe for decades – but has followed scrutiny of how police forces recorded crimes amid allegations that fiddled figures were routine in an attempt to chase targets. An inquiry by a committee of MPs prompted the statistics agency to strip its stamp of authority from police recorded crime statistics over questions about target-chasing within forces.

While the survey is seen as the “gold standard”, experts highlighted problems such as difficulties in surveying families in inner-city estates where crime has traditionally been high.

Marian FitzGerald, the visiting professor of criminology at the University of Kent, said that the surveyors did not use interpreters, nor cover school-age children or the homeless.

Do the figures point to a changing pattern of crime?

The fall in crime figures is due to drops in so-called volume crimes, such as criminal damage, theft and vehicle offences. Changes in crime patterns have been spotted since the early 1990s with the rise of credit card usage and the internet.

The latest figure included a 25 per cent increase in frauds. Professor FitzGerald said there had been a switch to “cyber-enabled” criminality which had not been fully captured by the figures.

MPs said last year that banks must be forced to report every case of fraud amid concerns of a “black hole” of unseen illegal activity where cyber-criminals acted with impunity. Criminals defrauding people of small amounts were often not reported and banks reimbursed victims without the crimes ever appearing on official statistics. The overall cost to Britain of cyber crime was estimated to be £18bn to £27bn a year, the MPs found.

Jon Collins of the Police Foundation think-tank said the increases in fraud were of particular concern. “In welcoming falling crime rates, it’s important not to be blind to new and emerging challenges,” he said.

What does it tell us about the worst crimes?

The survey is a complex pattern. Violence was down by 22 per cent in the year to December 2013, according to the crime survey. Murders continued their steady decline from more than 1,000 in 2003 (with 172 of those attributed to the GP Harold Shipman) to 551 last year after successful campaigns targeting gun and gang crime in major urban centres. Yet reported rapes have increased by 20 percent and sex crimes against children rose by one-third to reach 13,000, the highest reported number in a decade.

“It could be that victims of sexual offences are more willing to report because they have greater trust and confidence in the police – but some of the evidence before MPs last year implied the opposite was happening in terms of misrecording and under-recording,” said Stuart Lister, a senior lecturer in criminal justice at Leeds University. “The increase is a big one.”

The falls in violent crime followed a report earlier this week that suggested a rise in alcohol prices was responsible for a reduction in binge drinking and serious violence.

The majority of violence takes place in the night-time economy, but criminologists pointed out that the recession had meant fewer people were going out. There was also evidence that changes to licensing laws – which had sparked warnings of around-the-clock drinking – had been effective in preventing the hurly-burly of throwing-out time of pubs.