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, Home editor Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    The figures are not actually the crime rate, merely a set of statistics.

    Many crimes are 'cuffed' by the Police. Crimes are not being recorded when they should be. I have personal experience of this in the recent past regarding two separate offences.

    Little wonder people are less inclined to report things to the Police.

    Couple that with the decision of the court today in 1 high-profile case...

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    Doesn't really matter if you are a copper it would seem....

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    I see that murderers ability to successfully hide dead bodies is at a thirty year high then?

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    94. Under-Used

    Yeah, I don't really do sarcasm when it involves dead innocent people.
    I Wasn't being sarcastic, merely pointing out that the Police have a fantastic union that looks after it's own.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    79 If you never go out after 7.30 how do you know what it's like from personal experience?

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    @90 Name Number Six

    Yeah, I don't really do sarcasm when it involves dead innocent people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    our capital is the the home of the real criminals
    but their crimes go unpunished
    just look at the two worst criminals ever to have lived ,blair and brown,
    they both belong behind bars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    In the last decade white collar crime must have gone stratospheric, yet much of it still awaits prosecution. This initiative appears to want to make 'irritation' an offence. Can we combine the two? Many people find the dearth of prosecutions for white collar crime extremely irritating, so please get on with it. You have to wonder where their priorities are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Crime is not down, anti social behaviour is not down, robbery is not down, mugging is not down, but the dictatorship regime managed to suppress communities. People do not trust police, most people do not report the crime to the police because they knew, police is just waste of time. Police never turn up when you call 999, maybe next day 4 o'clock in the morning to punish you by waking up early.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    86. Under-Used

    Now that reasonable force includes belting people who have their hands in their pockets from behind with a steel baton
    Expensive Police Federation Barrister obviously persuaded the jury that it does.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    Most low level criminal activity is either now accepted as the norm or is ignored due to a strong belief that nothing will come of reporting it. Why report someone for stealing when a large number of politicians were caught with their fingers in the jar, claimed ignorance of wrongdoing and got away with it. Looser morals and declining principles means wrongdoing is now a blurred area for most.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    Actually given the behaviour of a number of our "upholders" of the law the more redundancies the better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    These figures must be fiddled.

    I see no evidence of the "mending" of "Broken Britain".

    The Tories are making 16,000 police officers redundant. That's a very bad idead indeed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Now that reasonable force includes belting people who have their hands in their pockets from behind with a steel baton I have to wonder whose behaviour the article is referring to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    75. 151179

    Leeds didn't have any riots but it was a tense few days and everyone was expecting something big to kick off.
    I know where your coming from but didn't the man once say;
    ''You have nothing to fear but fear itself.''

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    From the experience of driving on our roads the answer is a resounding no.
    Just because an offence is not reported it doesn't mean it hasn't happened.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    I suggest you keep your assumptions to yourself about people you know nothing about as there isnt any "clearly". There are already provisions in place for noise nuisance and other forms of nuisance what they need is enforcement not more bits of paper.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Crime down yet the surveillance state keeps pushing ahead at full speed.


  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    ''apparently some underlings in my organisation were committing crimes that I was unaware of and the source of these phone-tapping allegations are a complete mystery to me.''

    With thanks to Name Number 6 (post 76)

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Have the school holidays started yet?
    Today I noticed a group of seven young lads (aged about 9 or 10) hanging around, acting like louts, throwing stones, stopping traffic on the road, trying to intimidate passers-by. In 21st century Britain being a lout is not a crime, but it's surely not acceptable?


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