Is Britain behaving better?


Crime figures: Many believe the fall in homicides is down to better policing

Homicide down. Violence down. Anti-social behaviour down. It really does begin to look as though the country is behaving better.

In Scotland recorded crime is at its lowest level for 37 years.

In Northern Ireland it is the lowest since the late 90s - the last comparable data.

Today we got figures showing recorded crime in England and Wales is at its lowest level in 23 years.

People will refuse to believe it, of course. And I would agree that recorded crime stats are not the best measure of crime trends. (The Crime Survey for England and Wales is better and presents a largely stable picture after big falls since the mid 90s.)

But there is one recorded crime figure that is accepted as a good reference point: the homicide rate. In England and Wales, that is at its lowest level for 29 years.

Forensic investigation The number of killings reached a peak of nearly 1,000 a decade ago

You really cannot fiddle the homicide figures and the level of murder and manslaughter is likely to correlate with the level of violence in a society. The trend has been down for a decade. (GBH has also fallen significantly, incidentally.)

From murder at one end, there are interesting stats on "anti-social behaviour" at the other. In 2007/08 there were almost 3.9 million incidents of anti-social behaviour recorded by English and Welsh police. Last year it had fallen to 2.7 million - a 30% reduction in five years.

Concerns about ASB are not a bad measure of people's sense of the society around them - probably better than really serious crime since far more people are affected.

Today's crime data release describes the long-term trend in respect of ASB as "a prevailing decrease in the perceived level," although worries about noisy neighbours and drunk or rowdy behaviour remain relatively flat.

Nevertheless, the government is convinced that concerns about anti-social behaviour require new legislation and published a White Paper in May entitled Putting Victims First: More Effective Responses to Anti-Social Behaviour.

What struck me reading it is how the definition of anti-social behaviour has been expanding, evidence perhaps of changing attitudes on what we regard as acceptable.

It is clearly anti-social to hit someone or smash their windows. Is it also anti-social to be a bit annoying?

The Home Office website defines anti-social behaviour as "any aggressive, intimidating or destructive activity that damages or destroys another person's quality of life".

What is anti-social behaviour*?

  • Rowdy, noisy behaviour in otherwise quiet neighbourhoods
  • Night-time noise from houses or gardens, especially between 23:00 and 07:00
  • Threatening, drunken or "yobbish" behaviour
  • Vandalism, graffiti and fly-posting
  • Dealing or buying drugs on the street
  • Litter and fly-tipping rubbish
  • Aggressive begging
  • Drinking in the street
  • Setting off fireworks late at night
  • Abandoning cars on the street

*Applies to England and Wales

The White Paper offers a wider definition including "a range of nuisances, disorder and crimes which affects people's lives on a daily basis: from vandalism and graffiti; to drunk or rowdy behaviour in public; to intimidation and harassment."

Further down, the document has another go and describes ASB as "a broad term" used to describe "incidents that make many people's lives in this country a misery - from litter and vandalism, to public drunkenness or aggressive dogs, to noisy or abusive neighbours."

The word "nuisance" has crept into the definition, you will notice, and in a footnote the White Paper authors explain that when using the word "we refer to the dictionary, rather than a specific legal, definition of 'nuisance'. For example, we do not mean nuisance as defined in the Environmental Protection Act 1990."

The EPA, just to remind you, defines a Statutory Nuisance as needing "to pose a threat to health or to have a significant affect on another person. It must therefore be more than just an annoyance or irritation."

My Oxford English Dictionary, however, does define nuisance as "an annoyance" or "an obnoxious practice".

Today's crime figures use yet another definition of ASB - "a new set of three simplified categories," the first of which is "nuisance".

  • Nuisance - captures incidents where an act, condition, thing or person causes trouble, annoyance, irritation, inconvenience, offence or suffering to the local community in general rather than to individual victims.
  • Personal - captures incidents that are perceived as either deliberately targeted at an individual or group, or having an impact on an individual or group rather than the community at large.
  • Environmental - captures incidents where individuals and groups have an impact on their surroundings, including natural, built and social environments.

A pie-chart reveals that the bulk of concern (64%) is with the nuisance category.

Pie-chart showing categories of anti-social behaviour incidents 2011/12

So, from "aggressive, intimidating or destructive activity that damages or destroys another person's quality of life" we have broadened our definition to cover things that are a bit irritating.

I remember chatting to a community constable about ASB and she said that very often she would be called up to deal with kids who were allegedly being anti-social. On arriving, she would discover that the problem was that they were playing football or just standing around chatting.

So who was being anti-social? The children playing or the resident who repeatedly calls up the cops to try and prevent young people doing something entirely lawful?

As the White Paper says: "despite common perceptions, young people are just as likely as older people to identify ASB as a local problem".

Young people with hooded tops drinking in public place Asbos were introduced in 1998 under Tony Blair

The White Paper also accepts that much of what is described as ASB is criminal (vandalism, graffiti, dangerous dogs, street drug dealing and people being drunk and disorderly are already dealt with under the criminal law), but the government believes that civil powers should be available to give the police an alternative when, in the words of the White Paper, "it is difficult to prove that an offence had been committed".

This gets to the heart of the issue. Almost every activity that might be defined as "aggressive, intimidating or destructive activity that damages or destroys another person's quality of life" is already criminal. Some of the annoying stuff, the nuisance, the irritating things are either lawful or are hard to prosecute.

Politicians know the voters want "something to be done" but evidence published today by the University of Leeds shows that punishment is less effective than encouragement in getting people to behave well.

The new Crime Prevention Injunction to be used on individuals as young as 10 is sold as a streamlined ASBO. Breaches would constitute contempt of court and could result in custody. But the Leeds research raises concerns that the new tool "will lower the threshold of court-based intervention and disrupt existing preventative pre-ASBO work."

Perhaps we should be looking at why it is that, despite all the doom-mongers saying that it was "blindingly obvious" that crime would rise in a recession or that Britain was bound for hell in a handcart, there is so much evidence that behaviour is generally improving.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    We're all just saving up our murderous impulses for... well, I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    So long as crime pays, we wont make significant inroads into curbing criminality as a life style option.

    The change in law that effected 'Proceeds of crime' is no doubt having a significant impact, and rightly so. That was a good step towards making crime a lifestyle that does not pay!

    I hope the figures continue to reduce, and welcome crime free streets to walk down for a change!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    It seems like violence by native British people is down but violence by some immigrants is up such as that ring by Pakistanis w/ British females that was broken up not long ago, the protests by some against British soldiers in Iraq war, etc, the people London police have arrested just recently such as those brothers pre-Olympics, etc

    So I guess it just depends what group you are looking at

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    26 Minutes ago
    Pretty easy to get the homicide rate down, judging by today's bizarre verdicts. That's four off the figures already!


    Can't echo the comment, but can say


  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Pretty easy to get the homicide rate down, judging by today's bizarre verdicts. That's four off the figures already!

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Why are people so reluctant to accept that overall crime is falling. This is a huge trend in the whole developed world. Over the last 100 years (with a few spikes like in the 80s crack boom) there has been a consistent downward trend in all crime, particularly violent crime. It is an incontrovertible fact. Particular areas might not be improving as much as others but the nation as a whole is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    similar figures in America were shown to be due to improved trauma and surgical care, in fact the murder rate would be increasing were it not for higher survival rates through medical advances

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    The old phrase about lies & statistics.

    Most people have little faith in the so-called law & justice so do not bother reporting crimes any more, & add the career officers wanting promotion who refuse to record crimes so that they look effective on paper.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    try walking alone through the flashlands here - esp as a woman - i think you would not do this any time esp night. I prev had low income thanks to mistake of last employer and slow machinations of DSS - I gave food to my kids and I lived on boiled rice flavoured with an oxo cube - I did not resort to crime .... and my terrible childhood etc didnt lead me to crime either. NO EXCUSES 4 any crime

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Crime is NOT dowm - it is static

    Police figures have no crediibility - police lie. The 'BCS' type figures are more credible and are static.

    Cause: crime is low because large numbers of criminals are in prison. Prison numbers still high - actually up since last year due to riots.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I am not a doom monger - I am realistic and I have been a victim of crime - the effectiveness of the police is that there is NO CRIME at all - not that figures have gone down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Oh well, looks like the doom-mongers are out in force again. Do people really believe there is a tranch of unreported homicides out there???

    I am NOT saying, when it comes to lesser crimes like ASB, that everything is perfect. But, for instance, I come from a working class northern town: when I was younger it was rare not to see a fight on a Saturday night out. Now the opposite is true.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    "Homicide down. Violence down. Anti-social behaviour down"


  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    With policing numbers going down, is it possible less ASBs are being responded to, or if responded to, not being recorded because of work involved in administration?
    Statistics are tricky = no input, no stat.
    I find it difficult to believe that ASBs are actually going down; in fact, I've been worried about escalation during Olympics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The word 'recorded' crime should be noted - I don't believe figures have decreased for one minute - thousands got involved in the riots - is the riot treated as one incident ....
    no - people do not ask for help - because they put themselves on trial and the criminal inevitably gets low punishment or none at all. Does this mean the prisons are getting empty places ?????

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I'm really surprised to see that the riots last year don't seem to have impacted the figures. I'd expect them to have caused a spike in ASB given the number of people/offences involved, and therefore reverse the trend. Albeit hopefully only temporarily.

    But no mention at all?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I think this is important because there's a tendency for humans of all persuasions to think or say "things are going down the pan", the old favourite "we're going to hell in a hand-cart", etc

    Don't get me wrong, there is definite room for improvement in how mankind conducts it's affairs but - unless we acknowledge the successes where they occur - we run the risk of not being able to repeat them

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    The charity Missing People estimate 150,000 people go missing in the UK each year and the number is rising. The official statistics just show how many criminals the overwhelmed police force catch. No wonder this official number is going down.


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