BBC BLOGS - Mark Easton's UK

Archives for January 2009

Map of the Week: Trust and Belonging

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Mark Easton | 08:55 UK time, Monday, 26 January 2009


Why are levels of "trust and belonging" among British under-50s the lowest in Europe?

This for me is the most alarming question for the UK emerging from the "National Accounts of Well-Being" compiled by the New Economics Foundation think tank from data in the 2006-07 European Social Survey (ESS).

Trust is the glue which holds society together, so evidence that the UK has the poorest "trust and belonging" levels for every age bracket from 15 to 50 is deeply disturbing.

The ESS tries to measure trust and belonging by comparing answers to questions such as these:
 • Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?
 • Do you think that most people would try to take advantage of you if they got the chance, or would they try to be fair?
 • Would you say that most of the time people try to be helpful or that they are mostly looking out for themselves?

This map compares "trust and belonging" scores in 22 European nations for residents aged between 15 and 24. Indicators are designed so that they are measured on 0-10 scales, calibrated so that 5 always represents the average score across Europe.
[Source: National Accounts of Well-being / nef]

The map looks at under-25s, but it is the same depressing story for ages 25-34 and 35-49. If it weren't for some reasonably healthy scores among the over-50s, the UK would drop below Bulgaria and Slovakia as the least trusting of all the European nations surveyed.

The researchers suggest that our low "trust and belonging" score may be "the result of the development of a highly individualistic culture in the UK". Basically, the suggestion is that we are in danger of becoming the most selfish nation in Europe.

If the research is robust and the conclusion sound, then this is one of the most troubling findings about my homeland that I have ever read.

Looking at overall wellbeing, the UK comes only 13th out of 22 nations. This is based on a measure of both personal and social wellbeing - in effect, indicators of individual and community happiness.

An explanation of how they are calculated can be found here, along with a host of other information and a chance to measure your own wellbeing.

Among the factors which emerge as having a big negative impact on a country's wellbeing score are a general fear of crime and a lack of trust in institutions. Also, the more time its population spends watching TV, the more unhappy a country appears to be.

One can see why Britain might struggle.

What about GDP? Well, there appears to be a correlation between income and personal wellbeing, but the nef report includes the latest instalment in the argument - does economic growth make a country happier?

Richard Easterlin, Professor of Economics at the University of Southern California is the man behind the so-called "Easterlin paradox" which sparked the debate back in 1974.

His work concluded that richer people at any given point in time may be happier, but as we all get richer, we don't all get happier.

Easterlin attributes this apparent paradox to the importance of relative income to wellbeing. Once a certain absolute level of income is reached, gains in wellbeing are only due to having higher income relative to other people, not simply from having higher income per se.

In other words, just because a country is richer does not mean it is necessarily happier.

Since the paradox was published, there has been lots of other academic work questioning the findings - but now Easterlin has responded to his critics with some new analysis.

Reviewing evidence from 36 countries, he argues again that "there is no significant relation between the rate of economic growth and the change in life satisfaction".

His critics, he says, have mistaken a short-term association for "the long-term relationship".

The argument will go on, but for the UK there is a clear challenge - to rebuild the trust and sense of belonging that will be vital for a happy and contented society in the years ahead.

Weather and crime: what did happen in 2007?

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Mark Easton | 16:02 UK time, Saturday, 24 January 2009


My theory on knife crime and rain has been somewhat dampened by statistics sent to me by a friend and former colleague of mine, the weather expert Philip Eden.

He has kindly dug out the England and Wales rainfall stats for the two quarters in question:

July 2007 133 millimetres (232% of the long-term average)
Aug 2007 61 mm (84%)
Sept 2007 45 mm (55%)

July 2008 102 mm (178%)
Aug 2008 120 mm (166%)
Sep 2008 105 mm (127%)

This echoes the valid point made by MarkFrank in his posts (thank you for those) but I am not going to give up on my proposition entirely. July 2007 was clearly very wet, more than twice the average, and I wonder whether the weather was just too grim for people to venture down to the pub.

That having been said, Philip reckons that even in that unusually damp month, it was only raining for about 6.5% of the time in London - compared with 3.5% normally.
If anyone can lay their hands on monthly stats which relate to alcohol consumption (sales / profits?), that would be a help.

Clearly something happened in the summer of 2007 which pushed the number of robberies at knife-point down 10-15% from what one might have expected. I doubt it was an unexpected outbreak of goodwill.

By the way, for those like SheffGillly who don't believe that weather affects crime, please see my previous post on this subject.

In any case, my broader point is that the 18% year on year increase in knife crime which has been so widely reported as evidence of a worsening crime trend, may simply reflect an anomalous situation in the summer of 2007.

Keeping a weather eye on the crime stats

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Mark Easton | 01:43 UK time, Friday, 23 January 2009


Does rain explain the latest jump in recorded robberies at knifepoint?

The official statistics show an 18% rise in such offences in England and Wales - widely reported as evidence of the "epidemic" in knife crime.

But could the increase have more to do with the weather?

I know what you are thinking: it's Easton on one of his hobby-horses. But bear with me.

The first thing to say is that looking at raw numbers, there were roughly 700 more robberies conducted with knives in July to September last year compared with the same period in 2007.

But overall robbery was down by 500, so there must have been 1,200 fewer robberies of other kinds - those involving firearms, baseball bats or the threat of physical attack.

That strikes me as worth mentioning - after all, being robbed at gunpoint is probably just as traumatic as facing a blade.

The 18% reflects the difference in knife robberies in the late summer of 2008 compared with 2007. But what if we look at the months around those two quarters?

The Home Office has kindly sent me figures and they show that in each 90-day period from April 2007, there were roughly 4,000 to 4,300 robberies involving a knife or sharp instrument. A pretty flat picture - except for one quarter.

In July to September 2007 there were just 3,500, an unusually low figure that one might attribute to one of the wettest summers on record.

table indicating Knife and sharp instrument offences, quarterly comparison and proportions of all offences, by offence type

People didn't fight each other so much, perhaps, because they were staying out of the rain. I can't be sure, but it could be that the big jump has less to do with criminology and more to do with meteorology.

More statistical fury (2)

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Mark Easton | 17:58 UK time, Thursday, 22 January 2009


Sources inside the Home Office have revealed still more anger about December's misleading knife crime stats.

PC Alan Bell holds knives and an axe handed in to North Shields police station / Owen Humphreys/PAI am informed that the department's statisticians had "no idea" that Downing Street and their own media department were putting out a release which included unchecked, inappropriate and selective numbers.

It seems that no-one in the press office or Number Ten thought it might be a good idea to have a quick chat with the Home Office's own stats people.

Ministers, of course, did know about the press release - they had to be briefed ahead of TV and radio interviews. But, I am told, they were kept in the dark about concerns among data crunchers in the NHS. The health statisticians had said the hospital admissions figures were not ready for publication and wanted the release stopped.

Conspiracy or cock-up?

My instinct is to think it is the latter, but what is really odd about this incident is that Professor Paul Wiles, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Home Office, had warned staff only a few months before that the new UK Statistics Authority - a watchdog pledged to rebuild confidence in government data - would be looking to make an example of somebody.

"I don't want that to be us," Professor Wiles told them. His job, of course, is to ensure that the rules on statistics are not breached.

So when the row blew up in his face, he was incandescent, telling anyone who would listen that if he had seen the press notice it would never have been released.

A note has been sent to every employee within the Home Office making it clear that such a breach will "not happen again".

Despite what the Home Secretary has said, this isn't a story about over-excitable press officers failing to follow some internal code to the letter. The rules on statistical releases are laid down by statute - laws which had only just come into force and should have been fresh in their minds.

Populist ventriloquism

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Mark Easton | 16:11 UK time, Tuesday, 20 January 2009


Heading through Helsinki slush to interview Finnish teenage delinquents (of whom more in a week or two) has got me thinking about "populist ventriloquism".

Ray Alan & Lord CharlesNo, I am not talking Ray Alan and Lord Charles here. Rather, it's a criminological theory that is, I read, currently influential.

The argument is that economic globalisation has substantially eroded a state's capacity to govern directly and so "intervention in the lives of socially deviant children" emerges as a "mechanism whereby the state attempts to establish or sustain its political authority".

To put it another way, politicians demonise children in order to disguise their own weaknesses. The analysis is laid out in a study entitled "Incarcerating Young People: An Anglo-Finnish Comparison".

While the UK locks up thousands of young offenders, today there are just six juveniles behind bars in Finland.

And the explanation, it is suggested, is that the British government is caught up in a "culture of control".

"In this situation," the argument runs, "the state endeavours to maintain its political authority by directing the anxieties generated by accelerating social, economic and cultural change... towards certain categories of demonised 'other'".

This diversionary tactic is, as you might have guessed, described as "popular ventriloquism".

It is a cynical view of the motivation of our elected representatives, it seems to me, and I am not persuaded that the pursuit of power always trumps a belief in social justice.

The theory rests on the view that anxieties have replaced ideals as the driver of electoral success. "In a situation where the voters who make a difference are disproportionately middle-aged, white and relatively prosperous, it comes as no surprise," the argument goes, "that the targets of governmental demonisation... are disproportionately non-white, non-prosperous and young".

While the British government is giving our youth a hard time, the report suggests, the Finns are pursuing progressive penal policies.

"Far from galvanising the press to demonise 'folk devils' as a means of generating social solidarity, government and the media co-operate to deflect attention from youth crime in order to protect children from stigma."

Yesterday I met the crime reporter from Finland's biggest tabloid who confirmed the point. When I told him that British red tops routinely describe youngsters as "thugs" or "yobs", he looked aghast.

"We wouldn't do that," he said, shaking a disbelieving head. "It is unethical."

Finland is not Britain. Its society and institutions are less adversarial, it has a system of proportional representation and political parties do not attempt to outbid each other on getting tough.

The consequence is an approach to criminal justice based on "welfarist strategies" rather than on punishment.

I doubt that British policies on delinquency are simply a cynical attempt to convince voters that national government has real power. But, viewed from the Helsinki slush, it is clear that our treatment of children comes from another planet.

Could a vaccine solve the drug problem?

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Mark Easton | 10:56 UK time, Monday, 19 January 2009


Should politicians exploit brain science to make us behave?

mortimer203.jpgA year ago, the late, great John Mortimer announced to the world that, at the age of 84, he was going to start smoking. "I'm not particularly keen on smoking", he confessed.

"I used to smoke and then I gave it up, partly because I don't like dirty ashtrays. But I forced myself to take it up again when the government said it would ban smoking in public places" .

Politicians struggle to change our behaviour. The more they urge us to go out and shop for Britain, the more we are likely to squirrel our money under the mattress.

If government insists that we eat our greens or that we wear helmets on motorbikes, some will delight in devouring doughnuts as they zip about on a scooter sporting a sombrero.

Distrust of and disdain for authority explain the attitude of many to those who Mortimer described as the "busy control freaks". People don't like being bossed about.

Nevertheless, making society function well does require control. We tend to expect government to do more than make the trains run on time and keep the drains clear.

For instance, many think it is the job of politicians to sort out the drugs problem.

Drugs present a particular conundrum, however. Passing legislation (lots of it) is said to have had virtually no effect other than to criminalise millions.

You may recall last summer's post in which I quoted a report from the UK Drugs Policy Commission saying that "law enforcement efforts have had little adverse effect on the availability of illicit drugs in the UK".

Ruth Carraway, Lee McDonald, and Lisa York during the recording of the song for the Just Say No Campaign in 1986. All are characters from the show Grange Hill. MacDonald's character Zammo becomes a heroin addict and from this the cast made a recording to help children become aware of the dangers of drugs.Exhortation in the form of information and health campaigns has limited impact in a culture where illegal drug use is widespread. And, as with John Mortimer's smoking protest, telling the kids to "just say no" may have the opposite effect.

It is the apparent futility of government efforts in this arena that has prompted another august body to think the unthinkable: "vaccinating children against the effects of dangerous drugs".

"Where regulators persist in seeking first phase regulatory solutions (laws), we might imagine an approach that resorts increasingly to a technological fix," advises the Academy of Medical Sciences in a government-commissioned report entitled "Brain science, addiction and drugs" published last year.

The evidence that addiction has a genetic component is becoming compelling. "Genetic markers have been identified that distinguished addicts from matched controls," the report says. For instance, a marker identified as "DRD2 A1+ allele" was "significantly more likely" to be found among drug addicts than in the general population.

"In this context, the question of genetic profiling at birth might be revisited in the future," suggest the authors, with the "need for a continuing dialogue with the public about the more general issues raised by identification of genetic risk factors and the potential use in children of vaccines against the effects of dangerous drugs".

LEFT: Syringe, bag of heroin and heroin on a spoon being prepared for injection, to be injected 27/02/2004 Press Association; RIGHT: Close-up of gloved hand holding syringe<br />
01/01/2000 1998 EyeWire, Inc.Vaccines are seen as an innovative approach to the treatment of addictions. The vaccine would stimulate the immune system to make antibodies which recognise and neutralise a dangerous drug. Already companies are working on vaccines which aim to eliminate the "rush" felt by users of cocaine and nicotine.

When the experts tried out the idea on the public, they got a pretty hefty thumbs down: "most participants envisaged a future where vaccines might be used on babies identified as vulnerable to addiction."

People didn't like the idea that the state should decide these matters, believing instead "that starting and stopping the use of recreational drugs was a choice".

The Academy of Medical Sciences didn't push the vaccine proposal, although the idea of nationwide genetic profiling is, they suggest, something that may be looked at differently in 10 years or so.

And the notion that the answer to changing our behaviour may be found inside our heads is given further impetus with the suggestion that "regulators may also look to the potential applications of the new brain science".

Is this fruitful inquiry? In the absence of a successful alternative strategy, should politicians ask scientists to look at ways of adjusting our brains and bodies to deal with the tragic and expensive consequences of addiction?

Map of the Week - Civic pride

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Mark Easton | 12:17 UK time, Monday, 12 January 2009


The government has just published guidance [624Kb PDF] on "building a local sense of belonging" - a toolkit for nurturing neighbourliness.

According to Communities Secretary Hazel Blears, civic pride is powerful stuff. "People who feel that they belong to their local area will get involved with local schemes and initiatives, will help their neighbours, will challenge inappropriate behaviour, will welcome newcomers and help them settle. They will pull together in a crisis and join together in a celebration. All this helps to build cohesive, empowered and active communities."

Her department's advice on this subject includes a number of examples of good practice including one which I have selected as my Map of the Week.

liverpool community map

whatwasHere is an interactive map of Liverpool onto which residents are encouraged to contribute personal snippets about the city's history. So there's a story about an unexploded bomb, a giant cod and the day the Mersey froze.

According to government research, three quarters of people strongly feel they belong to their area, but that still leaves one in four of us without that attachment. As Hazel Blears says: "[w]hile social networking sites can connect us with friends all across the world, we may not know our neighbours well enough to have a cup of tea with them".

Initiatives like the Liverpool map are designed to foster a sense of shared history and geography. "Building a local sense of belonging needs to focus on the things we have in common and so be inclusive, rather than place of birth or ethnicity, which are exclusive," the department suggests.

Its guidance warns that communities with low levels of belonging can produce "dynamics of acute social antagonism (racist attacks, harassment, bullying) against newcomers". The problems, the evidence suggests, are most acute in neighbourhoods where local people feel they represent the predominant "declining" majority.

In such localities, "minimalist or different notions of neighbourliness and civility" are interpreted as lack of respect or hostility. Newcomers are blamed for structural shortages in social provision - housing, jobs, welfare and education.

This sort of social fracturing is a consequence of segregation - people tend to live with people who are like themselves in terms of ethnicity, wealth or age. The excellent Tomorrow Project puts it like this:

"Younger people have been gathering in enclaves distinct from older people. Migrants have been settling with others from the same country. Richer people have been moving away from poorer people. Local communities have become more fragmented. New housing estates tend to attract people with similar lifestyles, for example. Not infrequently, these lifestyles differ from others nearby, fracturing the locality. In many areas, 'local' has dissolved into a pastiche of housing estates, ethnic groups, lifestyle communities and groupings of different ages. Place remains important, but instead of identifying with the village, the town or the suburb, residents may identify more strongly with their estate, street or neighbourhood."

The government guidance puts the phenomenon a different way:

"Individuals often relate to the physical place as much as to people in that place. In traditional neighbourhoods, individuals recognised many of the residents, knew a number
of them well and counted some as friends. Today, many 'suburbanites' scarcely see their neighbours. Yet familiar landmarks - the pub, the church, a well-travelled street, the supermarket, the cinema - all provide a sense of belonging."

But I am not sure that "familiarity" is the same as "belonging". Research in Manchester found that "locals", born and bred in an area often felt that they had been left behind, or were inferior because they could not choose to move, or that the locality had been transformed (perhaps by new arrivals) so that it no longer felt like home.

PS: If we are all moving around more and flocking together with people like ourselves, what do we make of this map? It shows the distribution of surnames, comparing 1881 with 1998. The Tuckers, Walkers and Fullers were names of families associated with washing sheep fleeces in the Industrial Revolution. Broadly, it appears that people have not been settling down miles away from where they were born, despite increased mobility.


Perhaps the answer is that people stay in the same town or area, but choose to live in a neighbourhood that reflects their class, wealth, age and culture.

Cold facts and hot blood

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Mark Easton | 11:15 UK time, Thursday, 8 January 2009


I doubt you had your bike nicked this week. But your car? That's a different story.

Forecast Officer George Cowling of the Air Ministry Meteorological Office, 1954Most crime is seasonal and, as we shiver in the current cold snap, the warming news is that a wide variety of criminal behaviour goes down with the mercury.

But this is no time to relax. January turns out to be the peak month for theft of a motor vehicle, robbery of a business property and domestic burglary.

I was prompted to investigate the links between crime and the seasons following this week's report from the UK Statistics Authority [pdf] which highlighted the dangers in comparing criminal activity in June with that in October.

Research done for the Home Office a couple of years ago [pdf] investigated the level of 29 crime types, month by month over a decade. All but four of those they looked at showed seasonal patterns.

Most violent crime goes up in the summer and down in the winter. Wounding, rape, assault and conspiracy to murder all show significantly higher rates between May and August. Arson is a crime for mid-summer, with July and August the months for deliberate fire-setting.




The clearest seasonal pattern is attached to "theft of a pedal cycle" - 28.9% above average in September and 31.3% below the norm in February.


Non-domestic burglary appears to be particularly fashionable in the late spring while the domestic burglar prefers the winter months. January is 11% above trend, although the researchers wonder whether this is because people are away at Christmas and only discover the break-in on their return after New Year.

Another theory is that burglars have a break at Christmas too, and then "over-compensate in January". Or it might be that there is more to steal and more need to burgle after the excesses of the holidays.

Perhaps the thought of a nice warm car on a cold day is why motor vehicle theft is 6.3% up in January and a similar amount in March but down more than 6% from June until August.
A few crimes show regular peaks and troughs each year but not related to the seasons.

This may be because the research is based on recorded crime figures which can reflect police activity rather than actual crime, for example dangerous driving campaigns. In some cases, the researchers suggest that differences may simply reflect the fact that some months are longer than others.

The link between temperature and violence has long been accepted.

"Did you know, Putnam, that more murders are committed at 92 Fahrenheit than any other temperature? I read an article once. Lower temperatures, people are easygoing. Over 92, it's too hot to move. But just 92, people get irritable.

This extract from the film It Came From Outer Space, based on a Ray Bradbury short story, neatly sums up the theory. Academics have tried to demonstrate the point ever since, although the Home Office research finds weak correlation between the seasons and homicides. Not all criminologists agree, and the theories are many and varied.

Francesco Bruno from Rome's La Sapienza University says there is a physiological explanation for why there are more murders in Italy during hot weather. His figures show an average of two murders a day but rising to 2.3 in the warmest periods.

"The cerebral cortex needs a lot of water to function well," he claims. "When the temperature soars, it can be a struggle to control both our destructive and auto-destructive impulses, which arrive from the deepest parts of the brain, resulting in the tragedies we read in the newspapers''.

American research offers a similar explanation. "The human body generates adrenaline in response to excessive heat; adrenaline is helpful in keeping the body within safe limits, but we think that as a side effect it leads to aggression (which is often inappropriate)."

The idea that heat inspires violence is hardly a new one. The Belgian social statistician Adolphe Quetelet concluded in the 19th Century that people in hotter countries were more violent than those in colder nations.

And the theory has been taken further with contemporary researchers suggesting that a heatwave or heavy rain has a direct link to crime rates.

One US study [pdf] goes so far as to suggest that "a ten degree (F) increase in the average weekly temperature is correlated with about a 5% increase in criminal activity. Precipitation, on the other hand, is associated with reductions in criminal activity. An increase in average weekly precipitation of one inch is associated with a 10% reduction in violence".

All of which demonstrates why statisticians get so hot under the collar when politicians coolly spout month-on-month figures to convince us that crime is going up or down.

More statistical fury

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Mark Easton | 18:45 UK time, Tuesday, 6 January 2009


Officials at the UK Statistics Authority continue to seethe at the way in which Gordon Brown's closest advisors issued a "fact sheet" on knife crime through the Home Office last month.

You may recall how the authority's chairman, Sir Michael Scholar, wrote a stinking letter to the permanent secretary at Number Ten in which he described the premature release of "unchecked statistics" as "corrosive of public trust" and "incompatible with the high standards which we are all seeking to establish".

Today, the UKSA's Monitoring and Assessment Team has broadened its criticism of the press notice.

Sir Michael was exercised by the way Downing Street ignored the personal pleas of the Chief Statistician to delay publication of hospital statistics on A&E admissions for stab wounds because they hadn't been properly checked.

uksa_notes203.jpgBut it is now clear that almost every bit of data in the release has got the statistics watchdog hopping with indignation [pdf].

The Authority's job is to check that ministers abide by their statutory requirements under the Code of Practice for Official Statistics. Basically, they must ensure that politicians don't play fast and loose with official numbers.

Their conclusion is that Number Ten and the Home Office drove a coach and horses through the regulations.

Annex A of their release is entitled "List of practices from the Code with which the 11 December release of knife crime statistics appears to be inconsistent". There then follows a long and detailed list of how the press release broke the rules.

Annex B continues in the same vein: a devastating demolition job in forensic style. The authority's monitors accuse the government of releasing statistics that are "unclear", "selective or inappropriate" and lacking in context. Some of the conclusions drawn are "unsafe" and in one case the claims are "unsubstantiated".

The analysis chimes with my own impressions at the time. It is not that the figures themselves are necessarily wrong - rather that numbers were being mangled and manipulated to make the case that the government's knife crime campaign was having a rapid impact.

For example, the UKSA's report notes: "Youth violence is reported as being 30% lower in Halloween week than in the previous year. 'Halloween week' is not a recognised period for statistical comparisons. And no evidence is given about the reasons for this change - it could be because of the weather or other external factors."

The Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has already apologised for being "too quick off the mark with the publication of one number in relation to the progress that had been made with tackling knife crime".

However, the criticism is not that they were too enthusiastic in trumpeting success, but that they quite deliberately ignored the entreaties of statisticians in order to make a political point.

Conservative leader David Cameron has described the episode as "an appalling way to behave", but the Tories are not immune from using unsubstantiated numbers to make their case.

Just after Christmas, shadow Home Office minister James Brokenshire claimed that under Labour, knife crime "has soared". His evidence was figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act on crimes initially recorded by police as homicides caused by sharp instruments.

Four points:

  • Homicides by sharp instruments include items such as glass bottles, so how can we be sure that we are talking about knives?
  • The figure obtained from police forces amounted to 277 such homicides compared with 258 the previous year which, while tragic in itself, does not seem to amount to a new epidemic.
  • The figures were not ready for publication because statisticians routinely wait until police and courts have confirmed that the incidents were indeed homicides. This process often sees a reduction in the headline figure.
  • Overall, homicide has increased under Labour, as it did under the previous Conservative administration. However, there is some evidence that murder rates may have fallen from a peak in 2001 (unaffected by Shipman or the July 7th London bombings).

For an historical perspective, see my posts from last month: Map of the Week - Murder UK and The history of homicide.

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