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Recession and the sneak thief

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Mark Easton | 13:14 UK time, Thursday, 23 April 2009

Theft from the person up 25% in England and Wales?! What is going on?


There are three possibilities, I suggest:

purse_hands226.jpg  (1) The recession is making some people more light-fingered
  (2) We are more likely to notice (or imagine) that someone's pinched stuff
  (3) It is a statistical quirk

First, let's define our terms.

"Theft from the person" covers theft (including attempts) of a purse, wallet, cash etc directly from the person of the victim, but without physical force or the threat of it. We are talking pick-pockets and opportunists here - thieves who spot an unattended handbag or jacket and help themselves.

Second, let us remind ourselves how the figures are calculated.

This data in the latest quarterly crime stats come from the British Crime Survey (Crime in England and Wales: Quarterly Update to December 2008 [223KB PDF]) which interviewed 44,580 adults in England and Wales in December asking them of their experiences of crime in the previous 12 months.

It is a big and pretty robust poll and, when the replies are applied to the whole population, the latest numbers suggest there was an increase from about 573,000 "thefts from the person" in 2007 to 716,000 last year - an increase of 143,000 such crimes. It is a rise of 25% and statistically significant.

Third, let's look at the context of people's experience of crime elsewhere in the BCS figures.

Overall the BCS survey suggests that crime is stable. There's been no real change in people's experience of violence, domestic burglary, vandalism or vehicle-related thefts compared with the previous year. The risk of being a victim of crime remains historically low.

This rise in theft from the person is not reflected in other categories of BCS personal acquisitive crime (see table below) or in the comparable category of police recorded crime. "Other thefts" recorded by police actually fell 4% year on year.

Number of crimes and risk of being a victim based on BCS interviews in the year to December 2008 compared with the previous year BCS
Source: Home Office

If the reason for the rise is (1), the recession, then it would appear that the only group so far which has felt the economic need to cross the line into criminality is that of sneak thieves.

This may not be as crazy as it sounds. Belt-tightening plus temptation might well lead some to pinch that £20 note left on a colleague's desk.

The second possibility, (2), is that greater anxiety about money makes us more aware when something apparently goes missing. Perhaps a year ago people assumed they had spent that fiver on something and forgotten. Or they never missed it in the first place. Now, they think it must have been stolen - particularly if they like to believe they are being more careful with their cash.

Remember, the survey asks people about their "experience" of crime - it cannot determine whether people's recollections are accurate or consistent.

Lastly, it could be (3) - a statistical quirk. The fact that something is "statistically significant" does not mean that it indicates a changing trend. Even with a big survey, sometimes you get a "significant" result completely out of line with previous and later polls.

I reckon it might be a bit of all three - relatively risk-free small crimes are the ones most likely to rise when money is tight; people are more conscious of their cash and belongings and therefore quicker to notice something missing and assume theft; the 44,580 adults in England and Wales asked about their experiences just happened to include a surprising number of people who'd had their wallets and purses nicked.

Overall, I think the figures reassure us that recession-driven anarchy is still a long way off.


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