Leading Article: Less crime, but more jobs still needed

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ANNUAL figures for recorded crime are wisely regarded with a measure of scepticism, mainly because no one knows what proportion of offences is reported. With that reservation, it is encouraging that the figures for 1993, published yesterday, show an overall drop of 1 per cent. Less happily, violent crime increased, albeit more slowly than in the previous year. The last overall fall, in 1988, was followed by a particularly sharp rise of 17 per cent in 1990.

The police deserve at least some credit for the reduction recorded in 1993. The drop in vehicle crime and burglary, which together account for more than half of all recorded crimes, can no doubt be partly attributed to various police initiatives aimed largely at improving security measures. The Government, too, will be entitled to feel relieved that the overall effect of its often controversial law and order policies appears to be positive.

But perhaps the most interesting effect of the downwards trend will be to fuel the debate over the link between crime and unemployment. Cabinet ministers regularly deny that any such connection exists. They point to the Depression in the Thirties, when crime levels were allegedly low (a claim disputed by some experts). They could also point to the surge in crime in 1990, when unemployment was at a recent low of 1.6m. But crime cannot be divorced from its social and economic context. Common sense suggests there must be a link with employment and the economic cycle, and the new figures support research showing that property crime tends to fall as the economy picks up, while violent crime rises.

Few people would argue that being unemployed is an excuse for burglary or theft. Yet idle hands proverbially do the devil's work: when bored and embittered young people have no real prospect of finding a job, they are more likely to turn to crime than if suitable employment is available.

The argument was well put in an unused speaking note prepared for the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Home Office, Sir Clive Whitmore, quoted days ago in this newspaper. Its author was convinced that over the last 15-20 years, 'the sense of relative deprivation felt by many people who appear to have been denied the conspicuous benefits available to many has increased dramatically'. Television had pointed up the gap.

The draft speech concluded, a touch worthily, that the best single means of cutting criminality would be to offer the next generation better prospects of full-time employment. But young men also need to show some of the same flexibility as women in the type of work they are prepared to do; and the benefit system should be used more flexibly to subsidise employers to take them on. The combined effect of those two changes could encourage the downwards criminal trend.