Britain is – still – less violent and lawless than it was 15 years ago

Andrew Blick

The civil disturbances which recently took place across England are important from the point of view of the Audit, partly because it is vital to a democracy that the rule of law is upheld, that people are protected from crime (in a reasonable, proportionate and accountable way); and – as far as possible – that they feel safe.

Some recently-published official analysis of the British Crime Survey (BCS), covering the period 2010-11 in England and Wales, is significant to this issue.

Britain is - still - less violent and lawless than it was 15 years ago

First of all, it was noted that:

Overall BCS crime remained at its lowest levels since the survey was introduced in 1981. Police recorded crime showed a four per cent reduction between 2010/11 (4.2 million offences) and 2009/10 (4.3 million offences). This places police recorded crime at its lowest level since the National Crime Recording Standard (NCRS) was introduced in April 2002.

Specifically on the subject of violent crime:

There was no statistically significant change in the number of violent crimes estimated by the 2010/11 BCS compared with the 2009/10 survey…The underlying trend for violence was downwards on the BCS between 1995 and the 2004/05 survey (although not all year-on-year changes were statistically significant) and overall BCS violence fell by 44 per cent over this period as a whole. Since the 2004/05 BCS, the trend has flattened…The 2010/11 BCS showed overall violence was down 47 per cent on the level seen at its peak in 1995; representing nearly two million fewer violent offences per year.


The trend in acquisitive crime generally mirrors the recent reductions in both measures of overall crime.

One caveat should be entered here: there are social differentials in crime victimisation. For instance: More non-whites were victims of crime than whites (24.9 per cent to 21.1, with ‘mixed’ the highest group on 29.5 per cent); more unemployed than employed people (29.8 per cent to 23.9 per cent); and more people in terraced than detached houses (26.1 per cent to 16.8 per cent). Interestingly, the most important differential was between those who had not been to a nightclub at all in the past month (of whom only 20.1 were victims of crime) and those who went once a week or more (of whom 38.7 per cent were victims).

Nonetheless, subject to differing impact, broadly speaking, crime that would presumably fall into the categories that have achieved prominence following recent events have been in long-term decline for some years. Moreover, the analysis notes:

Some commentators have been expecting to see rises in acquisitive crime due to the recent recession and the related rise in unemployment. However, despite difficult economic conditions these latest statistics show no consistent evidence of upward pressure across the range of acquisitive crime.

But have these improvements been appreciated by the public? Yes and no. Since 1996 the BCS has asked people how much they think the level of crime has changed in their local area and in the country as a whole over the last two years. The overall tendency has been for respondents thinking crime has gone up locally to decrease (it now stands at 28 per cent). However, 60 per cent of adults think that there was ‘a little more’ or ‘a lot more’ crime in the country as a whole.

The recent civil disturbances may mark the beginning of an upswing in acquisitive and violent crime, perhaps a delayed reaction to the economic slump, or they may be a blip.

But what seems safer to assume is that they have confirmed the views of those who believe crime – nationally at least – is rising. This mismatch between perception and reality matters, particularly at present, when possible responses to the disorder of August 2011 are a subject of public discussion, much of which will be poorly-informed.


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