Focus: A war on crime? Is this a battle that we can ever hope to win?

It's political commitment rather than numbers of bobbies on the beat that will make the difference
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The Independent Online

Can we win the war on crime? Tony Blair would say that his government's initiatives have been effective. But many experts are far more doubtful, and the public at large does not believe him.

Certainly, over the past few years the overall crime figures have been dropping. It is a remarkable change. As Professor Roger Matthews, a leading criminologist from Middlesex University, puts it: "If someone had said in the 1980s, when we get to 2003 crime figures will be dropping, no one would have believed you." But statisticians and criminologists have yet to come up with a coherent explanation of why crime is falling.

The Government has done its best to capitalise on the figures. "Overall, crime has fallen in the last five years," the Prime Minister told the Commons recently. "That stands in stark contrast to the Conservative government that ... doubled the rate of crime."

While true, that is only part of the story. Crime was falling before Labour took office in 1997. Apart from a rise of 3.8 per cent in 1999, the overall number of offences has fallen every year since 1992. But the type of crime is getting worse. In 1997-98, vehicle crime made up a quarter of all offences and violent crime only 8 per cent. By 2000-01, vehicle crime had fallen to 19 per cent while violent crime was up to 14 per cent. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why fear of crime remains relatively high and is certainly not falling as quickly as the crime rate itself.

"Some statisticians and experts think the public is irrational," says Professor Matthews. "'How can they still perceive threat although we know the figures are going down?' they ask. But I think that the public is often better placed to know what is going on. The public bases its knowledge on what happens around them. I live in Hackney, and four or five people I know have been mugged. That is what informs the public, not statistics."

There has also been an important shift in the patterns of crime, he says. "Bad crime areas are getting worse and good crime areas are getting better. This would explain a lot of the public perception."

Crimes of violence have bucked the downward trend, increasing by 17 per cent last year (although some of the increase is attributable to changes in police crime reporting).

Still more sinister is the rise of sexual offences, up by 8 per cent. Half of those raped still do not report the attack. Even so, there has been a 27 per cent increase in female rape to 11,441 cases. Indecent assaults rose from 21,700 to 24,800.

The detection rates show how far we really are from turning crime around. From 889,000 burglaries last year, only 26,300 offenders were convicted. In England and Wales, the overall detection rate for crime was 23.5 per cent in 2002-03, and only 12 per cent of the total of recorded offences resulted in a charge or summons.

A number of forces are under scrutiny for their poor performance, notably Humberside police - and not just for the Soham murders. Northampton police are under pressure after their detection rate fell by 23 per cent in the last recorded year.

The police generally have a beleaguered air. Few forces meet the expectations of their local population and, as communities find it ever harder to deal with delinquents, so the sense of dissatisfaction grows.

Professor Matthews says one problem is the expansion of what we think of as the police role. "Crime has expanded into community safety. It's dealing with the pre-criminal or the sub-criminal. If a bunch of kids are behaving badly around a park seat, it becomes a police matter. The police say: 'We can't do everything', rightly. This is a whole new agenda dropped on their table. Crime is being expanded."

Professor David Wilson, an ex-prison governor turned criminologist, is more critical. "Policing in this country is rubbish. Out of every 100 crimes, only about two lead to any form of criminal convictions."

Labour's policy has been to launch high-profile initiatives such as the six-month operation against street crime. But the officers on these initiatives are diverted from other duties. In many areas there are now virtually no traffic police - and carnage on the roads.

A large prison population has been another mark of Labour's tenure. Professor Wilson believes the falling crime rate has nothing to do with the number of people in prison - currently the record figure of 70,000. "Prison doesn't work," he says. "Two out of three released prisoners go on to commit more crimes." Instead, he says, time and effort should be spent on changing the behaviour of criminals.

One of the most stunning crackdowns on crime took place in New York under Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor, who reduced crime in Manhattan. New York is now seen as safer than London. However, the number of police officers per head of population is much higher than in any British city.

What is lacking from Labour is real political commitment. Mr Blair first looked like prime ministerial material on the day he pledged to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. But 10 years on, the chances of being killed by a speeding motorist or a drunken youth are far greater than that of being killed in a terrorist attack. However, the mundane business of tackling routine crime does not propel politicians on to the world stage.

The Home Secretary trumpets the increase in the number of police officers, up by 14,000 in three years in England and Wales, to 138,000. But the quality of officers often remains poor, and, in any case, the increase in numbers is a fraction of what is needed to make a real difference.