Ministers gave the official figures a cautious welcome, aware that since crime has risen by more than 5 per cent annually over the past 10 years they they could simply be a blip. The drop of 5 per cent in 1988 was followed by an increase of 9 percentage points in the following year.
Ministers know that violent crimes, car thefts and burglaries also continued to rise, although at considerably lower rates than in recent years. The overall number of offences was down to 5.5 million from the high of 5.6 million in 1992. The biggest reductions were in theft offences: from cars, shops and of bicycles.
David Maclean, the Home Office minister, said the drop was to be 'cautiously welcomed'. Behind the decrease, he said, was an encouraging trend - the last quarter of 1993 showed a reduction of 9 per cent against the same quarter of the previous year.
He added: 'Whilst I, and my colleagues, are encouraged by the overall fall . . . it is important that we should not lose sight of the fact that there exists a great deal of concern among the public about the level of crime in the country.'
Recorded crime figures are accepted by ministers and the Home Office to be notoriously unreliable indicators. Many crimes are not recorded because police are often unable to verify that an offence has occurred. Thousands of very minor crimes are not reported.
Figures are also subject to differences in recording practices and the effect of initiatives against certain types of crime - such as the recent emphasis on reporting rapes, which rose by 12 per cent last year. Recording is more accurate among offences which comprise the bulk of recent increases - property crime - because of insurance claims.
The Home Office-produced British Crime Survey, which questions victims, suggests the true level of crime may be three times higher than the recorded figure, about 15 million, but that the rate of increase is much slower.
The 1993 figures released yesterday include a 10 per cent rise in robberies, a 6 per cent rise in sex offences and a 2 per cent increase in violence against the person, the smallest increase for 10 years.
All vehicle crime was down 1.6 per cent, compared with a 3 per rise in 1992 and an 18 per cent increase in 1991. Burglaries were up by just over 1 per cent, compared with an 11 per cent rise in 1992.
A total of 25 of the 43 police forces recorded decreases - topped by the City of London with a 17 per cent drop - largely due to the increased anti-terrorism measures around the City - and Dyfed-Powys with 13 per cent. Both forces have very few crimes committed in total. The biggest rise among the 18 forces showing increases was South Yorkshire with 14.5 per cent.
Crime dropped in most major urban areas. In London, the Metropolitan Police recorded a drop of 3 per cent - largely owing, the force claimed, to the Operation Bumblebee initiative which had led to a drop of 10 per cent in house break-ins.
Despite the reduction in the number of crimes being investigated, police still solved fewer crimes. The clear-up rate was down 1 percentage point to 25 per cent.
Crime is the subject of the world's first deliberative opinion poll, being conducted jointly by the Independent with Granada Television and Channel 4. The results will be broadcast in a two-hour Channel 4 programme and published simultaneously in the Independent next month.
Leading article, page 15