Survey reveals good news on crime

The number of offences has fallen substantially but politicians would be wise not to claim too much credit

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In their election campaigns the Coalition partners will trumpet their apparent success in driving down crime – and they will have plenty of ammunition. Today the Crime Survey for England and Wales, regarded as the most authoritative gauge of lawlessness, reported that the numbers of offences had fallen by a record 16 per cent to their lowest level for 34 years.

This came two weeks after Theresa May told the Tory conference that offending had dropped by almost a quarter since the election. Following the latest statistical signs that Britain is safer and less crime-prone than ever, the Liberal Democrat minister Norman Baker hailed a 2.3 million annual fall in numbers of offences committed since the Coalition took office.

If these boasts sound familiar, that is because they are. At the last election, Labour said crime had dropped by more than a third on its watch, with an even sharper fall in violent crime. It is natural for political leaders to try to bask in the reflected glory cast by good news, but the reality is that they can take little credit for evidence that Britain is at its most law-abiding for a generation.

Crime is falling around the Western world. Part of the explanation is practical rather than a sudden outbreak of lawfulness among the previously criminal classes. It is far harder to break into cars or houses than it was 20 years ago thanks to technological advances which have led to immobiliser devices and sophisticated burglar alarms – and the proliferation of CCTV is a powerful disincentive to criminals.

Many electronic items which used to be pilfered in large numbers have tumbled so sharply in value that stealing them is much less profitable. There is evidence that criminals are switching to online fraud, much of which goes unreported and is suffered with a shrug of the shoulders.

The explanation for falls in violent crime – the murder rate in Britain is at its lowest since 1978 – is harder to establish. Some criminologists believe economic hard times are a factor as young men have less cash for alcohol and are less likely to become caught up in drink-fuelled trouble, while others suggest this group could be working off their violent urges through computer games.

Amid the cautious optimism ministers would be well advised to avoid complacency as there remains widespread proof of the ugly and belligerent side of society. Hate crime increased significantly last year, with a 45 per cent spike in attacks or abuse in which religion was the motivating factor. The disturbing rise was attributed to Islamophobia after last year’s murder in London of Lee Rigby and serves as a reminder that bitterness and prejudice are not far beneath the surface in modern Britain.

Police figures also revealed that complaints of rape and other sex offences increased dramatically. But the grim statistics do not necessarily mean the country is suffering a wave of sexual assault. The “Yewtree effect”, the publicity surrounding the crimes of Jimmy Savile and convicted celebrities, has given many victims of offences past and present the courage to go to the police. The headline figure has also undoubtedly risen as a result of changes to police reporting methods following previous concerns that alleged rapes were not being classified as such or not even recorded at all.

But getting police to treat allegations of rape seriously is just the first step for a penal system that still brings a scandalously low proportion of attackers to justice. Increases in the rape conviction rate would be a most welcome rising line on a graph.