The lowlands of British crime

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The Independent Online
LAST WEEK's report of a 1 per cent drop in reported crime on the previous year in England and Wales excited David Maclean, the minister who rides shotgun for Michael Howard at the Home Office, into promising: 'We are determined to keep up the pressure on criminals by giving the police and courts the powers they need to protect the public.'

Messrs Howard and Maclean would be well advised to take a trip to Scotland. There are two sets of crime figures produced by the Home Office. Since the first Household Crime Survey of the Thatcher era in 1981 (which is based on information obtained directly from 10,000 homes), crime in England and Wales has soared by 49 per cent. 'Reported crime' - offences logged by the police - has risen by more than 96 per cent. In Scotland, crime rose by only 5 per cent, and reported crime by 52 per cent.

The 1993 Scottish Household Crime Survey, also out last week, tells us that 'by 1987 a considerable difference had emerged' between the countries, and that by 1992 'it appears that this gap has widened'.

What is producing this great gap? Are the Scots naturally nicer? If so, how come they've got nicer since 1981? Are there fewer single- parent families, those purported crucibles of crime targeted by the exponents of the notion of a deprived and depraved underclass?

During the Eighties, unemployment was higher in Scotland than in England and Wales. A greater proportion of people are council tenants and more children were born 'out of wedlock'. But Scotland's crime figures challenge the correlation between these characteristics and lawlessness.

Not only are Scots more law- abiding, they are more likely to report crime. Police culture is more committed to the lost art of detection than dependence on confessions. Scots seem to expect police officers to go knocking on doors to find out what has happened. In Scotland, 38 per cent of crimes were reported to the police in 1981. This rose to 44 per cent in 1987 and 52 per cent in 1992. This is significantly higher than in England and Wales, suggesting that Scots not only have greater trust in their police but also higher expectations of their investigative skills.

What is striking is the number of crimes committed by young people - the highest offending category. The rate of vandalism, vehicle crime and burglaries showed no increase in the Eighties in Scotland, compared with a 22 per cent increase in England and Wales. Personal attacks, including sexual assault, declined by 12 per cent, while in England and Wales they rose by 3 per cent.

Scotland has been less inclined to demonise its children and is adopting a much less punitive approach to young offenders. While England and Wales lock up more children, Scotland is more interested in looking after them: it relies on the welfare system rather than the criminal justice system to respond to young people in trouble. Scotland prizes its tradition of children's hearings, like case conferences, but made up of lay volunteers serviced by social workers, which try to respond to the child's needs. And it seems that Scotland's apparently softer option is the more successful approach.

Clear-up rates for all crime have actually declined in England and Wales to 25 per cent, compared with 34 per cent in Scotland, and in England there has been a significant decline since 1981. 'Primary clear-ups' - those that are resolved by a charge, summons or caution, rather than attributing an additional offence to someone who has already been charged or convicted - dropped from 22 per cent in 1981 to 15 per cent in 1993. England and Wales's greater powers have not diminished a growing reputation for passive and pessimistic policing.

Scotland's relative success cannot be explained by greater police powers: its police are operating under more rigorous constraints. For instance, suspects can be held for up to 72 hours in England and Wales, but only for six hours in Scotland. Sir William Sutherland, the Lothian and Borders Chief Constable, explained this week that such constraints contribute to Scotland's rigour, placing greater emphasis on investigation than on interrogation.

'If you've only got six hours, you have to manage your time very carefully and make all your inquiries before you bring someone in,' he says. 'Sometimes we'd like more time, but I'm talking about exceptions. We'd never be likely to get 36 hours, I'd be amazed if it was even extended to 12. But we are happy with the rule.'

Sir William also affirmed the practice of children's hearings. Although Scotland, like England and Wales, is having to confront the gritty problem of 'persistent offenders', 'the children's hearings are designed to keep young people out of the courts and we are happy with that,' he says.

Scotland's experience undermines the entire drift of Michael Howard's crime and punishment prospectus. Not only is there less crime, but Scotland has more accountable constabularies and chief constables. Indeed, Scotland seems determined to defend the democratic dialogue between communities, police authorities and the police against Mr Howard's incursions. All members of Scottish police authorities are elected - unlike in England and Wales, where a third of their members are magistrates and where the Home Secretary proposed to load police authorities with a majority of his own appointees, before being forced into a series of U-turns by opponents of the idea.

Scotland's relative success seems to suggest that democracy yields more dynamic crime busting than more powers and more punishment.