Leading article: The shocking truth

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The Independent Online

It is an all too familiar paradox. The crime figures show the risk of falling victim to an offence is going down, but the public fear of crime remains as high as ever. Statistics released yesterday show that recorded crime in England and Wales fell by 9 per cent from July to September last year, compared to the same period in 2006. But nearly two-thirds of people believe crime is increasing. It is not credible to argue that the police figures do not reflect the reality of the situation. The authoritative British Crime Survey of offending levels shows the same trend. All crime is down 32 per cent over the past decade.

In part the gap between statistics and public perceptions is due to the nature of the crimes being committed. Burglaries and vehicle thefts may have declined sharply, but knife and gun crime have risen. The latest police figures show a 4 per cent rise in gun crime. Meanwhile knife crime has increased by 28 per cent over a decade. These are the sorts of crimes which provide serious questions about the nature of our society, especially when children are involved. Such crime is largely confined to particular areas, but it is hardly unreasonable for the public to be concerned about it. Nor is it unreasonable for the public to be concerned about anti-social behaviour such as vandalism and public binge drinking which do not show up in the crime statistics, but make life increasingly unpleasant for many people.

But what is unreasonable – and indeed dangerous – is the public's ignorance of the true scale of the problem of crime in Britain. This is partly the fault of the media. The populist press distorts popular impressions of the level of crime to serve its own reactionary political agenda. But most of the blame lies with the Government. For more than a decade it has stoked the public fear of crime with interminable criminal justice bills promising to "get tough" on criminals. But it eschews sensible ideas such as liberalising drug laws and reforming prison education, which would have a radical effect on the re-offending rate. Instead, it reaches for headline-grabbing gimmicks, such as marching vandals to cash machines. The result of this noisy and ineffective policy-making is that when ministers turn around and point to a falling crime rate they have no credibility.

This has been illustrated perfectly by the recent behaviour of the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith. Ms Smith gave a foolish interview last weekend in which she spoke of feeling unsafe walking the streets of London at night. But yesterday she was calling the latest crime figures "excellent news" and demanding that the Government be given credit for the reduction. It is no wonder the public remains confused about the true picture of crime in modern Britain when Government ministers themselves seem unable to make their minds up.