Attacks by friends and colleagues behind rise in violent crime

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The rise in violent crime is being driven by a growing number of assaults and fights between friends, work colleagues and their clients, and schoolchildren, a Home Office study shows.

The number of incidents of so-called "acquaintance violence" – which does not include domestic incidents – rose by 52 per cent from 1981 to 1999, while the number of attacks involving strangers has remained roughly unchanged over the same period.

The surprise findings contradict the widely held belief that violent crime is being fuelled by a growing number of unprovoked attacks, frequently committed by gangs of drunken youths, drug addicts, or the mentally unwell.

Instead, according to analysis of statistics from the British Crime Survey, violent crime is far more likely to be committed by people the victim knows, at least by sight.

In 1999, there were 1,182,000 incidents of acquaintance violence, compared with 892,000 assaults by strangers. This has risen from about 800,000 and 850,000 respectively in 1981.

About a quarter of acquaintance incidents involved friends, a similar number involved clients or members of the public contacted through work. Attacks by neighbours, work colleagues, or local children each accounted for about 10 per cent of the incidents.

Acquaintance violence is most likely to occur in the workplace, about a third of the total, followed by a pub or club (22 per cent), around the home and on the street (both 15 per cent), says the Home Office report, Stranger and Acquaintance Violence: Practice Messages from the British Crime Survey.

The most important risk factor for violence while working is a person's occupation, with the annual risk of assault highest among police officers (25 per cent), followed by social workers, probation officers (9 per cent), publicans and bar staff (8 per cent) and nurses (5 per cent)

A higher proportion of women – 28 per cent – are responsible for acquaintance attacks – compared with stranger assaults in which female attackers only commit 14 per cent of the incidents.

Schoolchildren are twice as likely to be responsible for assaulting youngsters they know (14 per cent) rather than those they do not (7 per cent), according to the study.

Young men remain the most likely victims of all forms of violence, with 15 in every 100 men aged between 16 and 24 being assaulted in 1999. Most stranger violence takes place at a pub or club at the weekend.

The British Crime Survey, conducted every two years, bases its findings on personal experience of crime rather than those incidents reported to police. It is considered a far more accurate representation of national crime trends than the recorded police figures.

The survey estimates that there were 3,190,000 violent crimes in 1999 as compared with the 430,000 offences reported to police. The categories covered include domestic violence and mugging. Ministers and the police are becoming increasingly alarmed at the apparently unstoppable surge in offences involving violence, with recorded crimes rising by 19 per cent in the past two years to about 600,000.

The more positive news for the Government is that the survey suggests that, in the past few years, the rate of overall violence has reached its peak and is now dropping, although this trend will not be confirmed until figures for the past two years are published in the latest survey in the autumn.