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Background Briefing: Fear of Crime

David G. Green

The Government has not only set itself targets for reducing crimes such as burglary, robbery and car theft, it also aims to reduce the fear of crime.

In Crime in England and Wales 2002/03 the Home Office claims that there is unjustified fear: ‘In spite of the significant falls in the main volume crimes in recent years, almost three-quarters of the public still believe that the national crime rate has been rising.’

The summary elaborates: ‘Over one-third of the public (38%) believed that crime had risen “a lot”, and a further 35 per cent felt that crime had risen “a little” over the previous two years despite the total number of crimes reported to the BCS falling by 17 per cent since 1999.’

Blaming the Tabloids

It goes on to blame tabloids: ‘Readers of the national tabloid papers are much more likely to consider the national crime rate to have increased a lot over this period, compared to broadsheet readers (43% compared with 26%).’

However, for 35% of people to believe that crime had risen ‘a little’ was perfectly understandable. The Home Office itself over the last couple of years has claimed that crime was stable and during 2002 there was considerable coverage of the rise in violent crime, acknowledged by the Government as a fact leading to its street crime initiative. Moreover the Home Office has also caused confusion in the public mind by saying that crime is both up (after changes in the method of recording made the figures more reliable) and down (after subtracting the additional crimes added as a result of the new recording standard). To be certain about the crime figures requires quite a bit of sophistication.

But Fears Are Realistic

However, the Home Office report also says that anti-social behaviour was more likely to be considered a problem by people living in inner cities, council estates and areas with low social cohesion, and that ‘perceptions are to some degree associated with actual levels of risk’. It would be generally acknowledged that tabloid readers compared with broadsheet readers are more likely to live on council estates and in the inner city and so it would be more true to say that their perceptions reflect local experience not the perceptions of tabloid journalists.

Another way of looking at the answers people gave to the BCS is to add together those who said that national crime had remained the same or increased ‘a little’: 59% of respondents. And when asked about their local area, 68% said it was the same or had gone up ‘a little’. In other words, a significant majority of people gave perfectly intelligible answers. The Government dare not claim that the majority are ‘stupid’ and so it tries to discredit them indirectly by blaming the tabloids.

People were also asked about the likelihood that they would personally be the victim of crime in the next year, and if so whether they were ‘very likely’ or ‘fairly likely’ to be a victim. The actual risks of becoming a victim of car crime according to results from 2002/03 interviews for vehicle-owning households were 6.8 per cent (suffering a theft from a vehicle); 1.5 per cent (having their vehicle stolen); and 3.4 per cent (burglary).

How did people perceive the risk?: 3% said they were ‘very likely’ to be burgled, 5% thought it very likely they would experience theft from their car and 4% thought it very likely their car would be stolen. These estimates are very realistic.

If we compare ourselves with other countries or with our own history, the crime rate is high. The number of recorded crimes per 100,000 population in 1950 was 1,053 per 100,000 and in 1960 still only 1,610. By 1992 the figure reached 10,943. The latest figure for 2004/5 is 10,537, well over ten times the rate in the 1950s. Rather than making it seem that people are in the grip of irrational fears and implying that these fears are whipped up by the tabloids, the Home Office could more usefully direct its energy at reducing crime and recognising the objective seriousness of the situation.

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