BBC BLOGS - Mark Easton's UK
« Previous | Main | Next »

Blindingly obvious?

Post categories:

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.


or register to comment.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.