Feeling the pinch: Britain is facing a crime wave but is the recession to blame?

The country is bracing itself for a surge in burglary, theft and robbery. Police and politicians blame the economic downturn – but the truth is more complex.
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The Independent Online

The gang of burglars who broke into Marc Humphrey's flat didn't look like criminals as they made off with his prized collection of computer game hardware one chilly day this spring. Carrying a suitcase stolen from their victim stuffed with his consumer electronics, they looked more like innocent holidaymakers on their way to swap the Manchester gloom for warmer climes. The loss of £3,000-worth of prized gadgets left Mr Humphrey, a 32-year-old IT manager, feeling philosophical.

"These people, it's their job. I think people have less money now and go out and find the places to break in to. In the history of man there have always been thieves," he said.

Earlier this week, 200 miles south in London, three high-powered motorcycles carrying six men pulled up outside the Sloane Street entrance of the Knightsbridge branch of Harvey Nichols shortly after 1.30am. In the quiet of the early morning, three of the men dismounted and proceeded to break through the glass doorway with a sledgehammer, before smashing jewellery cabinets and making off on the waiting bikes with tens of thousands of pounds worth of stolen stock. According to the Metropolitan Police, the gang, thought to be a loose affiliation of up to 50 criminals known as Fagin's Kitchen, has struck more than a dozen times in the past 12 months, netting some £4m-worth of goods.

The incidents in Manchester and London, separated in time and place, constitute very different crimes. But if politicians and the police are to be believed, they are part and parcel of the same crimewave resulting from Britain's lurch into economic recession.

Members of the police rank and file gathering for the opening of their annual conference in Bournemouth this week were of little doubt as to the scale of lawlessness heading our way, and even more forthright about the remedy for tackling it. Police Federation chairman Paul McKeever warned of a 25 per cent increase in recession-driven acquisitive crimes over the next two years, and demanded a further 2,000 officers to help hold back the tide.

On the same day, the Prime Minister was using a speech on law and order at Chelsea Football Club to help relaunch his beleaguered Government. Gordon Brown's new crime-fighting strategy, by contrast, focused on giving local communities a greater role in combating offences such as knife or gun crime, binge drinking and anti-social behaviour as well as robbery and burglary. But he too urged the public to brace themselves for a rise in crime as the ripple effects of the recession continue to play out through society.

The most recent Home Office figures published last month would appear to bear out the worst predictions. In the past 12 months police in England and Wales were called to deal with a four per cent increase in burglary compared to the previous year, while the number of thefts from the person – pickpocketing and snatches from cars – soared 25 per cent. More worrying still, robberies at knife point were up five per cent.

But, despite the figures, some experts remain unconvinced that Britain is poised on the edge of a recession-fuelled crime epidemic. Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at Kings College, London, and one of the country's most eminent criminologists, counsels caution at the "elevated rhetoric" emanating from the police and Whitehall.

"Yes, you can identify certain correlations but these are not as strong as some people suggest," he warns. "Recession does not always equal crime and there is no iron law there. This is particularly important when you get involved in crystal ball-gazing. Because there have been correlations at certain times and points in the past it does not mean there will be a relationship in the future."

Within the corridors of power such a reasoned approach was cutting little ice even before the collapse of Lehman Brothers escalated the credit crunch into a fully-fledged financial meltdown.

Last autumn a leaked Home Office memo prepared for Gordon Brown warned of "spiralling social anarchy" should what was then only a downturn deepen into recession. Among the fellow mounts in this apocalyptic cavalry charge advancing on the barely secured homes of Middle England, it was warned, was "an explosion" in violent crime, inter-racial strife and soaring levels of immigration. The Government responded by announcing that neighbours of burglary victims were to be given police advice packs and a 10 per cent off voucher from a leading DIY chain. Another £3m scheme will see teams of handy men visit 45,000 vulnerable homes to help improve security – an initiative instantly dismissed by the Tories as a "gimmick".

While improvements in home security are important in reducing burglaries, this was the typical response of the kind favoured by the politicians and other interest groups, believes Garside.

"It is not an unreasonable proposition to suggest that at times of elevated social and economic distress, individuals may turn to certain crimes to make ends meet and there may be more violent interaction between individuals," he says. "But ministers are not very good at hearing the message that things are complicated."

The narrative of this crime wave, as told by some sections of the media, is a compelling and yet simple one: criminals appear to be one step ahead of police as they responded to the fluctuations in the global economy with an apparently remarkable inventiveness.

In the months leading up to and after the leaked Whitehall memo it seemed as if anything that was not nailed down – and many things that were – was being pilfered at astonishing speed. The British Retail Consortium warned that shoplifters, already striking the British high street at the rate of once every 90 seconds, were set to step up their assault on our shops. Rural police forces were said to be battling soaring numbers of fuel thefts from farms and isolated homes, while historically high commodity prices produced a more than doubling in the number of crimes involving metal, a phenomenon which at its height claimed a £3m Henry Moore sculpture, spare propellers from the Royal Yacht Britannia and the theft of stretches of track from the much-loved Bowes railway.

The sound of poacher's rifles was once more said to be reverberating around the remote hills of Northumberland and Scotland as gangs went in search of free venison. Beekeepers complained that hives were now going missing as the scarcity of the honey maker drove up prices of black-market bees. Insurers, meanwhile, reported property crimes on Britain's inland waterways up eightfold, culminating in the theft of a 50ft canal boat in Chorley. And last month employers were advised to be on their guard against staff helping themselves to loo rolls from the company toilets. The list seemed endless.

What makes this surge in lawlessness so dramatic is that, contrary to many perceptions, levels of reported crime have been plummeting in recent years, at least according to the official figures. The latest annual Home Office statistics, which combine the British Crime Survey (BCS) with those reported by police and are considered to give the most comprehensive snapshot available, reported that crime fell by 10 per cent in the 12 months leading up to the official start of the recession.

This decline was consistent with the longer term trend, according to the Home Office, in which offences started to rise steadily from the Thatcher-era slump in 1981 before reaching a peak in 1995. Since then total crime as recorded in the BCS has fallen some 48 per cent. Despite an unexpected upward blip in 2004-5, the downward trajectory has continued. Even the latest figures from police claimed a further four per cent fall in total crime, meaning the chances of being a victim remained at an unprecedented low.

Yet not everyone believes that the official figures tell the whole story. Many criminologists suspect the changes to the way the BCS was compiled make comparisons with earlier decades futile. Others argue that the vast majority of behaviour defined as criminal remains unknown and unmeasured because it never comes to the attention of the police.

However, it is tempting to place the graph of the long economic boom enjoyed by Britain, and much of the rest of the world since the mid-1990s, over that of the official falling crime rate figures and to conclude from that that a richer society overall is a more law-abiding one. Not quite, says Garside. Crime, he says, is most likely not driven up or down by aggregate levels of wealth but rather the unequal distribution of resources within society. To illustrate the point, he says that as incomes polarised between rich and poor from the 1970s, so has the murder rate risen. By the end of the 1990s some 300 more people were murdered each year than two decades earlier.

A landmark study by Professor Danny Dorling of the University of Sheffield found that young men living in the most deprived areas of Britain were six times more likely to be a murder victim than those in the most well off. Meanwhile, as the richest section of society became four per cent less likely to be murdered since 1981, the poorest stood a 39 per cent greater chance of meeting a violent and untimely death. This has important lessons for policymakers, argues Garside.

"There is clearly a strong correlation between violence and income inequality in a society. If the Government was wishing, in the long term, to make society safer it should consider pulling the social and economic levers that will reduce inequality rather than any number of crackdowns," he says. But there may also be unexpected consequences. "One of the impacts of the recession could be that while poor people become poorer so some rich people will become poorer too. As a result inequality could theoretically be reduced, leading to a potential reduction in some crimes."

For much of the 1990s the Home Office believed that unemployment, which has risen by 250,000 in the first quarter of this year – the biggest leap since 1981 – was the key driver behind rising crime. The idea was that workless young men, particularly those aged between 15 and 20 who account for a disproportionate amount of crime, found themselves with time on their hands and the incentive to go out and steal.

But this view was revised as the millennium approached when Dr Simon Field, whose work had supported the original link to unemployment, concluded that it was overall levels of consumption in society which had the greatest impact on crime rates. Burglary and robberies rose as consumers tightened their wallets, he found. Dr Field's theory would suggest that it is the prospect of declining spending power and the forsaking of the glittering consumer prizes of the last decade – the giant plasma TV, the iPhones and high-powered computer consoles – which could be behind the rise in the number of certain offences.

But once again there are a number of complicating factors here. Some of the most desirable consumer goods such as expensive cars have become increasingly hard to steal in recent years due to security improvements built in by manufacturers. As a result old cars belonging to the poorest sections of society are targeted. The relentless rate of technological innovation and the sheer pervasiveness of certain items (more than 90 per cent of 12-year-olds now have a mobile phone) have sent the resale value of once sought-after goods plummeting.

"The value of consumer durables has declined so breaking into a house to steal a video recorder that is only worth £5 on the black market is often not seen as worth the trouble. But all this can change as a result of a recession, especially if it is a long one," says Garside.

In some American cities, once blighted by runaway crime, the debate over the threat posed to law and order in a punishing recession is, perhaps unsurprisingly, more advanced than in Britain. In New York the recessions of the mid-1970s and early Eighties coincided with periods of extraordinary violence and lawlessness. Entire neighbourhoods became no-go zones as middle-class populations decamped to the suburbs leaving behind a growing underclass. At the peak of the violence in 1981 there were 107,495 robberies on the streets of the Big Apple – some 294 each day. But by 2007 this had fallen to just 21,787.

The debate over how much of this was due to Mayor Rudy Giuliani's adoption of controversial 'zero tolerance' policing policies, introduced in the wake of his 1993 mayoral electoral victory, has yet to be settled.

Critics say crime rates in the whole of the United States were falling during the 1990s, driven by the decline of the market for crack and the breakdown of gang culture.

Others contend that New York's malaise began in the economically buoyant 1960s and that it only became a "hell on earth" during the city's fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s which saw thousands of police officers laid off to save money.

By contrast, it is argued, today's Los Angeles, which has been weathering the current economic storm for some time longer than the rest of the world, has continued to enjoy falling crime rates.

Perhaps to fully test the existing recession theories of crime it is necessary to go back to the granddaddy of all downturns: the Great Depression of the 1930s. A recently published paper for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, the US's oldest criminal justice research organisation, did just that. Data from the period suggested that property crime dramatically increased between 1932 and 1933, but then just as dramatically declined again. However, the authors reasoned that other factors were at play.

"Prohibition (1920-33) and the rise of organised crime must have had a significant impact on crime rates of the day," their report said. They went on to accuse the modern-day media of "fanning the flames of fear" about a recession-led crime wave and of promoting get-tough policies which find ready favour with certain sections of the public and politicians.

In any society, crime remains a minority pursuit regardless of the prevailing economic conditions. But some will undoubtedly be joining the criminal classes for the first time this recession. A senior Metropolitan Police officer has already warned of an impending "summer of rage" with growing numbers of a disaffected middle class joining known activists on the political barricades as the economy deteriorates beneath them.

Others, however, will be driven by more basic needs, argues forensic psychologist Dr Claire Nee, of the University of Portsmouth.

"It doesn't take a lot for us to become quite relatively disadvantaged in a recession like this," she says, "and it seems like it is going to be a very severe one. It might not take very long for those preventative factors which in the past have stopped us committing an offence to be worn down and for someone to begin to contemplate crime.

"Once we have committed one crime we find it much easier to do it again, especially when we feel the pinch, when bills need to be paid, children fed," she adds. "People who would ordinarily never contemplate crime can easily find themselves thinking of ways to get money by whatever means necessary. At the point of committing the crime, they don't think about the consequences. They are focused only on the rewards."