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Blindingly obvious?

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Mark Easton | 16:50 UK time, Monday, 1 September 2008

Home Office Minister Tony McNulty described it as "a statement of the blindingly obvious". But is it "obvious" that when an economy turns down, crime inevitably turns up?

The minister's remarks follow the leak of a letter from Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to Gordon Brown in which she warns that an economic downturn could put "upward pressure" on property crime, such as burglary and car break-ins.

It also suggests that as Britain tightens its belt, there is likely to be "increased public hostility to migrants".

The letter, we are told, was never sent. But the Home Office does not dispute its conclusions. In fact, Mr McNulty told the BBC today: "Previous experience dictates that when you have a slowdown in the economy, some aspects of crime may go up. Unemployment may go up; you can work out the scenario for yourself."

Well, let's look at the scenario.

Broadly crime in Britain rose inexorably for 50 years - from 1945 to 1995 - and then started to fall. Crime rose fastest in the late 1950s and early 1960s, just as the economy was starting to boom. Indeed, throughout the swinging 60s, police and the courts had never been busier.

During the roller-coaster ride of the British economy in the 70s and 80s, crime went up and up. Recession or growth, boom or bust, crime continued to rise regardless.

There is little correlation between joblessness and crime - for almost the entire period from 1945 to 1970 the British unemployment rate was less than 3% of the workforce. And yet crime exploded during this period.

For the past 12 years in Britain and most of the developed world, crime has been falling. It is a drop which coincides with a sustained period of economic growth.

But that does not mean one causes the other.

It would be nonsensical to argue that the state of the economy has no bearing on whether people nick stuff or buy stuff.

As a piece of Canadian research puts it: "Economic distress prompts an 'upward shift in the density distribution of the population along the criminal-motivation continuum'."

The report puts its finger on inflation as the culprit, rather than unemployment. "In times of high inflation when there is a significant differential between the price of goods and wages and uncertainty about one's economic future is high, those located at or near the motivational margin of legality may be more likely to cross the threshold into criminality."

The researchers calculate that for every 1% change in inflation, "the growth rate of robbery will vary by approximately 0.026% and the growth rate of motor vehicle theft will vary by approximately 0.019% in the same direction".

Some ground-breaking research published by the Home Office in 1999 included an interesting graph which purported to show the correlation between consumer spending and property crime.


The left-hand scale and solid line show changes to burglary and theft while the right-hand scale and broken line show changes to consumption - but note that the scale is inverted. The fit is impressive and strongly suggests, as the author Simon Field concludes, that "during economic recessions, such as in the early 1990s, property crime tends to grow rapidly, while during more economically favourable periods, when consumption is growing rapidly, as in 1988 (and again at present) property crime may fall."

But there are two reasons why I would question whether the two lines would continue to mirror each other today.

Firstly, it is much harder to steal stuff these days. The security industry has made our homes, offices and shops far trickier to break into. Cars are infinitely more difficult to nick. Increasingly, mobile phones and other hand-held devices are rendered worthless within hours of their theft.

I once annoyed David Blunkett at a BBC News event when I showed the following slide and asked, in true "Have I Got News For You" style, which is the odd one out.

David Blunkett, Michael Howard, Jack Straw and Roger Carr

A: Former Home Secretary David Blunkett
B: Former Home Secretary Michael Howard
C: Former Home Secretary Jack Straw
D: Former Chief Executive of Williams plc, Roger Carr

I argued, with tongue slightly in check, that 'D', Roger Carr, is the odd one out because he alone has made a significant impact in reducing recorded crime in Britain. (Williams plc was the parent company for Yale locks and Chubb locks in the mid-90s, a company which developed security solutions for cars, homes and offices.)

Security technology has transformed the property crime environment in the last decade and I question whether an economic squeeze will change things much.

Second, many consumer goods are now so cheap they are not worth stealing. The television and DVD, once the currency of the criminal fence, are barely worth pinching. Today, the real growth is in fraud and credit card crime - areas where the security industry has work to do.

What about violent crime? Again, I am not convinced that having less to spend makes us more likely to fight each other. While I do worry that economic pressures, particularly unemployment, will increase hostility towards groups such as migrant workers, having less to spend on booze on a Friday and Saturday night might actually reduce violence and disorder.

We have not been here before. Within an environment of falling crime we are experiencing our first economic downturn. I really don't think it is "blindingly obvious" how one might affect the other.


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  • 1. At 6:10pm on 01 Sep 2008, beccaria wrote:

    I think it is a vald point that where there are wide income differentials it may be a cause of an overall rise in crime.
    When we talk of crime, I presume we are talking about street crime, whereas there is some evidence to suggest that Corporate crime has neverfeatured much in the statistics and if that were to be included, crime may not have fallen at all.
    The devil is in the details in that in comparing statistics collected from the past, they may bear little comparison with today's statistics in that the manner and classification of individual criminal acts are collated differently, furthermore it differing social standards will produce different levels of crime.
    While it is true that the public fear of crime and fear of the young or of the outsider, remains a constant theme, with only the objects of fear and hate changing with the times, crimes which were regarded as heinous 50 years ago no longer figure, yet other offences have been added since then.
    Attitudes to certain individual offences have changed so much in this period so as to make comparisons virtually unsound.
    In conclusion, Mark has made some valid points as far as they go, but in general it must be said that history has shown that where there is great social inequality, there will be a constant undercurrent of crime which may rise or fall, due to particular circumstances.

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  • 2. At 6:10pm on 01 Sep 2008, renderer wrote:

    The Home Office research quickly dismisses a hidden common factor as a plausible causal explanation. This suggests to me that they are trying to find statistics to back up their existing views, and not to inform them.

    How about : "In times of consumer expenditure growth, the government affords more money for the police, too.", or "When house prices surge, a 'feel-good' factor makes people go out and buy stuff and less likely to fall prey to an expensive and criminal drugs habit" or...

    There's any number of reasonable explanations of the causality, and choosing one of these to try to prove their point is disingenuous, to say the least. It's a nice explanatory model, but proof of causality is missing.

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  • 3. At 6:26pm on 01 Sep 2008, stanilic wrote:

    During the Great Depression crime fell; nobody really knows why. They even reduced prison places.

    I suspect that the level of crime goes hand in hand with the detection rate or rather the expectation of being caught red-handed.

    In the Sixties Mr Plod was on his Noddy bike and no longer walking the beat so chummie had all the opportunities he needed.

    Also in good times people get careless.

    The two growth areas of crime now are in credit and debit card fraud where the banks have not got their act together and violent robbery of various sorts. I believe both are driven as much by drug abuse than coveting thy neighbours goods.

    I can understand why the letter was not sent. Mr.Darling had told all departments there was no more money and such a bare faced attempt to obtain more funding would not have been welcome. The government has more than enough funding to drive crime down but they much prefer to waste it.

    That too is a crime.

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  • 4. At 6:31pm on 01 Sep 2008, dotconnect wrote:

    So many fallacies are committed through simply thinking something is "blindingly obvious". While the layperson might be excused for relying too heavily on their intuition and dismissing evidence as 'intellectual blather', a politician really should know better.

    Jacqui Smith should be forced to back up her warning with facts, data, evidence. As for McNulty - well, he's doing nothing more than jumping to the defence of a colleague, using the response of cornered parents everywhere: "...because it IS!" - and in so doing, trying to pass himself off as a salt-of-the-earth straight-talker. That one's his speciality.

    Irrationality and populism have a hell of a lot to answer for in politics - like it or not, rational answers are frequently at odds with what the majority consider to be "common sense". People should remember that the next time something is described as "blindingly obvious", whether it's by a Home Office minister, or by a populist commentator a la Littlejohn.

    Thank goodness we have blogs like this one to place things in perspective.

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  • 5. At 7:22pm on 01 Sep 2008, WillyLawless wrote:

    Isn't it incredible that nobody even mentions the ideological/social causes of crime?

    Ever since the 60's, when the "progressive" left began to dominate our institutions of learning, almost every social woe from violent crime to drug use to teenage pregnancy has rocketed.

    The overwhelming (and nonsensical) message broadcast by this ideological front - from schools and other public institutions to the media and film industry - has been that it is "immoral to have morals".

    As kids develop they are exposed to a whole range of influences that teach them that it is wrong to judge, that "whomever you want to be is fine no matter what", that nobody is to blame for the way they are and that it is ultimately the state's responsibility to "shape" them. The whole idea of personal responsibility and individual volition has been shoved aside.

    Teachers seem more interested in teaching kids about political correctness and "social justice" than teaching them objective facts and marketable skills. They're leaving school without the basic tools of reason required to lead successful lives. They can't even read or write properly. Instead of teaching kids how to think rationally, they're being taught that they should always follow their emotions - is it any wonder that so many kids are now lashing out with anger and violence at a world they don't have the mental tools to understand? Is it any wonder that so many kids are unable to choose their battles wisely?

    When the left and the media encourage kids to divide the world around them into impenetrable tribes of class, race and gender, is it any wonder that they grow up thinking that the only way to acquire wealth is to steal it?

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  • 6. At 9:12pm on 01 Sep 2008, meltonmark wrote:

    Thank you 'WillyLawless' for that excellent comment. I can only add the adage: Beware of wickedness dressed-up as tolerance.

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  • 7. At 10:01pm on 01 Sep 2008, Jo-Ent wrote:

    It seems to me that Mark's article is an example of the politically-correct chattering classes failing to accept what is "blindingly obvious": that the surge of migrants into Britain is undoubtedly a factor in the looming economic crisis.

    The ordinary man and woman in the street know this and, sadly but inevitably, it will lead to a surge in public hostility against migrants, just as the leaked letter suggests.

    As the economic situation worsens and standards of living suffer, there will be growing resentment that new arrivals into this country are perceived to get 'special treatment' when it comes to benefits and housing.

    I stress the word 'perceived'; whether it is a true reflection of the situation - which I am sure many will argue it is not - is irrelevant. The perception is undoubtedly there, and that will lead to increased hostility as times get hard.

    That is "blindingly obvious", whether we like it or not. We should not be in denial nor sweep it under the carpet just because it doesn't fit with the trendy, multicultural view of Britain which we are all supposed to hold.

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  • 8. At 10:38pm on 01 Sep 2008, Simont65 wrote:

    Just to pick up on comment 5. I'm a (single) father of two boys. Both of whom are at primary school in Scotland. However, they've both been to two primary schools in England so I don't think my experience is particular to Scotland.

    In all their schools there has always been an emphasis on moral behaviour -- in particular caring for others and treating them with respect. My impression is, that compared to my childhood, when the basic message was religious my boys are getting much more moral education.

    It is worth recalling that crime has fallen a lot over the last 10-15 years. Things are better (at least crime wise) than there were in the early 90's....

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  • 9. At 10:55pm on 01 Sep 2008, mickyboymicky wrote:

    Its about time,the government ministers started to Lisson

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  • 10. At 11:07pm on 01 Sep 2008, mickyboymicky wrote:

    Sometimes it seems to me that this government just wants to make its own mind up these days about what it believes will or wont happen, many times i think they just dont want to hear what people really think about these hard times we are in,one thing they need to know is that if come the next general election if people dont vote for them,then no matter what policys they believe in,they wont be able to govern if they not in power.

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  • 11. At 01:53am on 02 Sep 2008, Hustedboy wrote:

    Mark is navigating forward with a rearview mirror. When socio economic demand exceeds socio economic supply something gives. The new variables are
    1 Discovery of new forms of violence..knives etc
    2 Everyone can now know stealth wealth will not deflect interest from have nots
    3 Like the frequent reappearance of flared trousers (which never reappear in the same way they departed) yesterdays responses will not provide a template for todays (or tomorrows) behaviour.

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  • 12. At 02:15am on 02 Sep 2008, tarquin wrote:

    as usual a well balanced thoughtful piece mark

    what i found interesting, was although this does seem blindingly obvious (we'll forgo the argument against for a sec) why did the government try to back away? why not admit it, stand up and say: "yes we expect more crime, it could happen", rather than try and sugar coat and deny it - it just makes smith and brown look even more feeble and dishonest

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  • 13. At 02:25am on 02 Sep 2008, Myron wrote:

    Great informative article. I do agree with the premise of your argument. I wonder whether there have been any comparative ethnographic studies with communities with varying levels of wealth. For instance there are many populations living in real poverty. In poor economic situations such as drought does this lead to increased crime levels, e.g. people say steeling food from each other?

    My suspicions are that the social factors that contribute to crime are being ignored in home office thinking. I have heard many accounts from family members of the varying behaviour of the different ethnic groups such as Jews and Ukrainians in German concentration camps in the Second World War or Ukrainians and Russians in Soviet labour camps. Here what is important is that those differences came about due to cultural differences between the groups and the way they behaved in hardship was as a result of what was deemed culturally acceptable.

    When it comes to crime (here I mean real crime such as robberies, not the kind of crimes oppressive governments invent) I believe the same rules apply. In cultures where for instance stealing is deemed totally unacceptable the rate of such offences is very low, i.e. in so called middle England. However in communities that many describe as “working class” or when being more offensive yet more accurate and using the term "chav" crimes such as burglary, violent crimes such as muggings and fights are all deemed more culturally acceptable. The same applies when it comes to the young black community with a gang culture. Unsurprisingly in these social groups crime is much higher than in may others.

    Culture in my opinion plays the greatest role in the levels of crime seen (even more so than security solutions though they do have a massive roles such as with mobile phones). This is something that I think has been accepted by some political movements, even by Labour. Remember tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. However it's the tough on the causes of crime that is the hard part. You can lock up criminals when you catch them but to change the sectors of society’s culture where the criminals come from, now that is the truly hard part and I suspect that is why the home office is trying to make other connections where they do not exist.

    However this does raise the question of how far a government should go. The concept of governments engineering our culture to control the population is a scary one indeed. There is a balance that has to be found somewhere. Maybe the rise in crime is a side effect of the liberal reforms that occurred last century in the post war era. Maybe increased levels of crime are the price we pay for freedom and a liberal system. I wonder how crime correlates with social liberal reform? I'm sure it correlates much better than with money and the economy!

    I guess what it comes down to then is what price we are willing to pay for our freedom, and in the same token security. I would suppose currently in this country we have a fairly good balance. I just hope with terrorism now as big an issue as it was with the IRA and technology leading us into unchartered territory that that balance can be maintained!

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  • 14. At 08:48am on 02 Sep 2008, godfreybrown wrote:

    I fail to understand why this matter has become such an issue or talking point. Because it is not uncommon for people in authority (business or government) to consider and discuss a number of possible scenarios when certain factors are about to change. In this instance will the deepening adverse effects of the credit crunch lead to increased social unrest or lawlessness behaviour and if that were to happen, how will the authorities best deal with such behaviour. That to me seems to be logical and sensible thing for the government to do.

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  • 15. At 09:58am on 02 Sep 2008, marchie1053 wrote:

    Always distrust any comment that contains"previous experience": "forward planning": and "scenario". You can guarantee that these merely pad the drivel.

    If the UK were to return to a standards-based living style, perhaps we could achieve a society where respect for others and their property: respect for oneself: and a willingness to contribute to society would be the order of the day. We appear to have accepted that the rights of the individual are paramount but where the necessary responsibilities and accountabilities are absent. Why do we accept that "There is an economic downturn, therefore I can steal what I need and if I have to stab someone to do so, that is ok. I can always blame my upbringing to get off"?

    In Kirkcaldy, Scotland, there is a plaque commemorating the 2 year programme during the Depression to rebuild the promenade "to relieve mass unemployment". How sad that the surrounding area has been vandalised, littered with graffiti and general detritus and the local youth expand their anti-social behaviour with impunity.

    Will we erect a modern plaque to commemorate the "Excessive alcohol consumption: Graffiti adornment: Reckless driving: and Theft and Vandalism, all funded by the public purse during an economic downturn because we were faced with a scenario where we had not learned from past experience and failed to forward plan"?

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  • 16. At 10:06am on 02 Sep 2008, MonkeyBot 5000 wrote:

    @ Ciapryna
    "In cultures where for instance stealing is deemed totally unacceptable the rate of such offences is very low, i.e. in so called middle England. However in communities that many describe as ?working class? or when being more offensive yet more accurate and using the term "chav" crimes such as burglary, violent crimes such as muggings and fights are all deemed more culturally acceptable."

    I think you'll find that one of the main differentiating factors between those two groups is wealth and it's disparity in wealth rather than economic activity that helps drive crime. Mass unemployment also makes it worse as seeing people with plenty putting you down for being too lazy to work when there are simply no jobs to be had doesn't give you much of an incentive to follow society's rules. Why should you when you never see any of the benefits to being part of society?

    There's also a difference in the type of crime. Middle class criminals will commit fraud more often than street robbery because their isn't enough profit in mugging for them to consider it.

    Unless you're trying to suggest that the working classes are just genetically criminal.

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  • 17. At 00:17am on 03 Sep 2008, john wrote:

    No 15

    'We appear to have accepted that the rights of the individual are paramount but where the necessary responsibilities and accountabilities are absent.'

    Just another way of saying selfishness / self interest.

    When did this become government policy - ' greed is good' - ' no such thing as society' - why we must thank the Blessed Margaret for that . This is the result of a third generation of Thatcher's Children - it will take another three generations to try and put right ..

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  • 18. At 01:31am on 03 Sep 2008, Myron wrote:

    Monkeybot5000, the point I was trying to make was the crimes that are committed by a particular group of people reflect the culture of that group. Indeed crime in the form for instance of insider dealing does occur in a different social group and the cultural factors surrounding this crime are well documented. I meant no offence, I was not making reference as to why such crimes might be more acceptable in such a group as you have done, I was merely using a particular social group and the associated crimes as an example of the relationship between crime and culture.

    For the record I do accept that crimes committed by the wealthy, though different are equally as devastating if not sometimes more so as those committed by the poor. Just look at ENRON or the likes of the oligarchs in the former Soviet Union (politicians included) to see the effects of this sort of crime.

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  • 19. At 2:34pm on 04 Sep 2008, WhiteEnglishProud wrote:

    Don't worry Monkeybot5000 always defends the feckless poor just because Monkeybot5000's hardworking and not well off he assumes they must all be like him.

    I strongly agree with the sense and sentiment of your arguement

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