Marian Fitzgerald: The Government says crime has fallen. Why doesn't it feel like that?

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We are safer from crime than we have been for 20 years. But the reason people don't actually feel safer is that they believe what they read in the tabloid press rather than trust Home Office figures. And the fact that they've been losing confidence in the criminal justice system hasn't helped either. That, in essence, was the message wrapped around the crime statistics published last week. The Home Office might have thought it persuasive, but it won't wash.

Take, for starters, the figures. For years, governments have relied on two different sources for their crime figures, even though they often tended to contradict each other. There were the offences recorded by the police and the Home Office's own estimates based on the British Crime Survey (BCS). The police figures cover only those crimes which victims choose to report, and until this year the police had discretion not to record reports which later proved to be false. The figures also vary depending on whether having more crime - or more of a particular type of crime - might get your own force additional resources, or a rap over the knuckles.

The BCS's estimates, by contrast, were intended to capture people's experience of being victims - whether or not this was reported to the police. But it, too, under-represents crime because the BCS only interviews people over 16, and then only if they live in households which are prepared to open their doors to interviewers and let them in to ask their questions. Like all surveys, it can be difficult to get access to people in high-crime, inner-city areas, especially young people and some ethnic minorities - that is, the very people who are most likely to be victims of crime in the first place.

Last year the Home Office began combining the two sources in a single report - a report which gave prominence to the 2 per cent fall shown by the BCS, over the 7 per cent rise in the police figures. This seems to have caused confusion among a public which actually trusts politicians rather less than it trusts the police. After scandals over fiddled hospital figures and confusion over education statistics, the Home Office now has to persuade the public that another apparent rise of 7 per cent in recorded crime is really - this year - a fall of 3 per cent.

It may well be that crime has not significantly increased, but there is evidence that some of the types of crime which most concern people have got worse. Then there are crimes which are not included either in the police figures or in the BCS. Having something stolen which nobody bothers to report, say, or credit card fraud, which is reported not to the police but to the credit card companies; and, as yet, the BCS does not ask about it. Criminals involved in this type of offending have discoverd that using other people's personal information can be at least as lucrative as burglary or theft.

But what has kept rising is the serious violence - which does really worry people. It went up by 18 per cent last year, mirroring the rise in murders and following a sharp rise in offences involving firearms which, according to other Home Office sources, increased by 35 per cent in 2001-02.

The second problem for the Home Office is the public's perception of crime. People are not irrational in believing that "crime" has got worse, especially given their everyday experiences of fraud and the things that happen to people they know, as well as what they actually witness on the streets. For even the BCS shows that woundings and violence at the hands of strangers went up 9 per cent last year. And while murder and serious violence remain relatively rare, the reality is that their rise has a direct effect on people in the inner cities, where most of them occur. At the same time, offences of this type have always been the staple diet of the local press and television, as well as tabloid papers. Add to this 24-hour television and radio, as well as the diet of crime dramas and police-reality shows, and the sense that crime is all about us is pervasive.

What is crucial, though, is that this sense of the rise in crime is not suddenly being whipped up by television or the press. They simply have more to get their teeth into now. And there are other kinds of criminal dishonesty which the Home Office does not take into account. Internet grooming is the most obvious example. But many new and greyer areas - such as scams to part people from their money, whether directly via the internet or by targeting mailing lists compiled by access to it - are opening up all the time.

Ultimately, though, the Home Office's message rests on a dubious assumption. It implies that governments can directly influence trends in crime and that they can achieve this by pulling the levers of the criminal justice system. Yet serious studies by academics over many years, including work within the Home Office itself, shows that the only way the Government can make a difference is through the way it runs the economy and its social policies.

The police are the public's main point of contact with the criminal justice system and many people (including many police officers) believe that the quality of the service they receive has been undermined in the pursuit of targets imposed by central government. They would also argue that this has been a recipe for undermining confidence, not least because of the ways it has skewed service delivery very narrowly. It has restricted the police's capacity for working together with others to tackle the causes of crime; and it has seriously undermined their ability to respond to what local people want and need from them.

Yet these targets were not based on any hard evidence as to how they could realistically be achieved, or how to avoid the serious collateral damage that we are now seeing. Ironically, last year's report included a series of graphs which suggested that the Home Office knew it could not meet its promises on crime reduction. This year, however, the graphs no longer appear. Faced with a new, rich and equally confusing set of statistics, journalists should be forgiven for failing to spot their omission. All references to the crime reduction targets have now been dropped.

Professor Marian FitzGerald is visiting research fellow at the Mannheim Centre for the study of criminology and criminal justice at the London School of Economics