The mysterious case of the falling criminal offences: burglary and murders down again, statistics show

Burglary and murders are down again, but what’s driving this 20-year drop in offences?

The public does not believe it and ministers privately admit they do not fully understand the reasons for it – but crime is continuing to fall sharply.

The trend, which defies the conventional wisdom that offending levels increase in tough times, was underlined today by the latest report from the Crime Survey for England and Wales.

It estimated there were eight million incidents of crime in the 12 months to the end of September, the lowest figure since it was established in 1981, with violent offences dropping by 13 per cent and overall household crime, including burglary, falling by 10 per cent. Murders and killings have almost halved in the last decade.

The survey, which is based on interviews with the public and considered the most accurate gauge of offending levels, shows crime peaked nearly 20 years ago and has been in decline since. There are now 10.5 million fewer offences annually than in 1995.

Labour and Conservative Home Secretaries alike have taken credit for the falls, but they have really been the beneficiaries of a dramatic trend shared by countries across North America and western Europe with governments of all political complexions.

One obvious explanation is that stealing is becoming more difficult as householders routinely install burglar alarms and most new cars are fitted with immobiliser devices.

With the falling value of items such as flat-screen televisions and DVD players, the rewards have also tumbled while the risk of punishment has remained constant.

And as vehicle theft and house-breaking are often “debut crimes”, potential offenders may be deterred from embarking on a life of criminality.

Street crime such as robbery and vandalism has also become a more perilous enterprise with the proliferation of closed-circuit television in public places.

But there is also demographic explanation for the trend, with “greying” populations in the western world meaning there are  fewer people in the age group most likely to be tempted by crime – young adult men.

Some criminologists also link the trend with falls in hard drug use, which is closely linked to acquisitive crime, while others suggest that young adults are less likely to get caught up in drink-fuelled violence because the downturn has left them with less to spend on alcohol.

US academics have posited the controversial theory that liberalisation of abortion legislation in the 1970s led to falling crime levels two decades later as the move reduced numbers of people born in groups considered at higher risk of offending. But this explanation has been dismissed in Europe, where the timing of abortion laws varied but crime consistently started dropping around 1995.

Another idea that has been floated is that removing lead from petrol has helped because large concentrations in the atmosphere are thought to be linked to belligerent behaviour.

It is also possible that the nature of crime is shifting – and the statistics are struggling to keep up as criminals turn to relatively risk-free internet fraud.

When homes are burgled or people are mugged, almost all victims would report the offence to the police (and to researchers). Are they as likely to report it if they are conned out of cash by an online scam or find their credit cards have been cloned?

Yesterday’s figures included a 34 per cent increase in fraud offences recorded by the police, but the Office for National Statistics conceded: “The true scale of cyber-crime is unknown.”

They also showed sexual offences leapt by 17 per cent, a rise attributed to the “Yewtree effect” following the Jimmy Savile scandal.

Beneath the figures, there is a sobering statistic for politicians trying to gain kudos from the fall in offending levels. Whatever the numbers say, around two-thirds of the public believes crime is rising or, at best, static.