The government's approach to crime is baffling. Ministers have a success story to tell. Since 1995, crime in England and Wales has fallen by a third. In 2000, the proportion of adults who had been victims of crime was the lowest (at 27 per cent) in nearly 20 years. Even the public's fear of crime has been falling, despite the best efforts of the press. Whether you give credit to new Labour for all this depends on whether you give credit to it for the state of the economy: a healthy economy and lower unemployment always lead to falls in crime rates, though these are often accompanied by rises in drunkenness and general rowdiness as people get more money in their pockets. In the late 1990s, crime fell all over the developed world, partly because of demographic trends (almost all crime is committed by young males), partly because of the long economic boom; but we have the best record of crime reduction in Europe, if not the world.
Ministers could keep spinning this story, but so terrified are they of appearing complacent and being tarred with the old "soft on crime" brush that they allow the police and the media to set the agenda and lead the debate. The police, under pressure to reform their Spanish practices, have ample reason to distract public attention. The motives of David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, may seem more mysterious, until you remember that a public spending round has just started. But why should seven cabinet ministers, under the chairmanship of Tony Blair himself, attend a "summit" with the Metropolitan Police commissioner to tell us, in effect, that our streets are not safe to walk? The idea presumably is to show that the government is in control; but it looks horribly as if ministers have lost control to alarmist journalists, focus groups and police lobbyists. Politicians must now be "responsive"; if radio phone-ins and Daily Mail front pages insist there is a "crisis" in schools, hospitals, transport, crime, industrial relations or whatever, the worst thing they can do is to deny it. Call a summit, form a task force, bring in Lord Birt!
The present panic is based largely on a supposed rise in street crime: up by 30 per cent in some inner-city areas since last April, we are told. But this figure, like most of the crime figures you see quoted, comes from police statistics. These are notoriously subject to wild swings. They are influenced by public reporting habits and police recording practices; the actual incidence of crime is a relatively minor factor.
Crime, like clothing, goes in fashions. One present craze is for snatching mobile phones out of people's hands; a year or two ago, it was for snatching trainers off their feet. Carjacking is the new vehicle-related crime (a decade ago, it was "ram-raiding", or driving cars into big shop windows); car security systems are now so advanced that serious thieves need to seize the owners, along with their keys and security codes, if they are to have any prospect of success. It was always thus: prevent one form of crime and you provoke another. Criminality is not greatly susceptible to policing, sentencing, neighbourhood-watching or any of the other things that politicians and journalists witter on about. Its level is determined primarily by poverty and unemployment; and it is directed not so much against the Mail-reading middle classes who make so much fuss, as against other poor and unemployed people.
The only reliable figures are from the British Crime Survey, which asks members of the public about their actual experience of crime. The survey - from which the one-third fall in crime and the other figures are extracted - records four times more crimes than are ever reported to the police. It is therefore a far better guide to trends. These were positive until 2000, when the last survey was carried out. A big increase since then is possible, though not very plausible. Only when a new survey is published this summer can we judge whether we are right to panic. And if crime does show a rise, is it likely that anybody will suggest that the harsher sentencing policies of the recent past, which have filled the prisons to overflowing, have failed?
People hear the crime figures they want to hear, and read into them what they want to read. A chilling article in Atlantic Monthly claims a rise in apparently motiveless murders and attempted murders - often of their own parents - among affluent, middle-class teenagers in rural America. The writer, like Johann Hari in the NS two weeks ago, detects a new mood of apocalyptic nihilism among the young. As a good liberal, he blames corporations for "ransacking and exploiting the emotions and thought processes of adolescents and pre- adolescents" and seems to advocate that adult America should be more inclusive, in its family and community life, towards its children. Perhaps the writer is on to something, perhaps not. Either way, we should all support stronger families and stronger communities, as we should all support less poverty and unemployment. How sad that we need to panic about crime waves before we can think about such things.
More falling standards
The real concern in the Sunday Times's revelations about Pembroke College, Oxford, and its willingness to offer a student a place for £300,000, must be about the gullibility of the English elite. We all know that Oxford and Cambridge prefer toffs, as Gordon Brown so bravely pointed out in the case of Laura Spence. So what does a few hundred grand matter between well-bred friends? We also know that intelligence and perception are not required for membership of the royal family; so it was no surprise that the Countess of Wessex was taken in by a fake Arab from the News of the World. But it is disappointing that senior members of Pembroke failed to follow the example of the senior tutor of Magdalene College, Cambridge, who, sent a £5 note ("as a small cash advance") by the hoaxer Henry Root (aka William Donaldson), immediately returned it. If top academics can no longer sniff out one of Rupert Murdoch's reporters, we must conclude that standards are indeed falling sharply.