Drink Most To Blame For Violent Offences

Violent crime is overwhelmingly fuelled by drink rather than drugs, with nearly half of all incidents linked to alcohol, according to the British Crime Survey published yesterday. Just 17% of violent offences are committed by people who have been using drugs, the figures show.

The annual crime statistics released by the Home Office reveal an apparent 5% rise in violent crime, 10% rise in vandalism and a 3% increase in robbery in 2006/07. But the increases are matched by continuing falls in burglary, car crime and sex offences.

Home Office criminologists portrayed Britain as becoming a “less violent nation” with half a million fewer violent crime victims than in 1995 – a fall of 45%. They insisted yesterday that the 5% rise in violent crime recorded by the BCS was “not statistically significant”.

Their claims are supported by a fall in the murder rate to its lowest level for eight years with 755 homicides, and a 13% fall in gun crime according to the police. Death by dangerous driving however is becoming an increasing problem with a record 462 killed this way last year.

The first official figures on the impact of the change in pub opening hours also suggests that the predictions of “murder and mayhem” that accompanied its introduction have not been borne out. But they do show a slight increase – of just under 7,000 – to 940,000 offences in the volume of violent disorder, criminal damage and harassment committed between 6pm and 6am in the 12 months following the change in the licensing laws, suggesting that a “cafe culture” is still a long way away in Britain’s late-night city centres.

The figures also show a rise in the number of offences – up 10,000 to 57,000 – committed between 3am and 6am reflecting the increased number of people, including police, about at that time. But it remains only a small proportion – 4% – of the total amount of violent crime, disorder and criminal damage recorded. The volume of more serious violence committed has actually fallen since the drinking hours changed.

The two sets of figures published yesterday – crime recorded by the police and the British Crime Survey based on interviews with 40,000 people about their experience of crime – show that the overall crime rate remains broadly stable. The police say crime fell by 2% while BCS suggests it rose by 3%.

The risk of becoming a victim of crime is 24% – one in four – compared with 40% in 1995. The most likely target of a violent attack is a young man under 21 living in one of the most deprived social areas, followed by students and the unemployed. Those who live in “up and coming” or “improving” areas also have a higher than average risk of being a crime victim if they live next to a high crime hotspot.

The BCS confirms that although the elderly have the highest fear of crime they are the least likely to become a victim although they will suffer disproportionately if they are attacked. Concerns about antisocial behaviour are fuelled by the 10% increase in vandalism recorded in the past year. Overall the public’s fear of crime has continued to fall, lagging a little behind the actual reduction in crime over the past 10 years. Nevertheless they still believe crime is rising in Britain [65%] and in their local neighbourhood [41%].

The annual crime figures also cast some light on the debate over whether to reclassify cannabis as a class B drug. The BCS figures show illicit drug use is now at its lowest level since 1995 with the proportion of 16- to 24-year-olds who have smoked cannabis in the last year falling from 28% in 1997 to 21% this year.

Professor Paul Wiles, the chief Home Office statistician, said the 9% rise in cannabis possession offences to 130,000 incidents reflected the police’s ability to hand out warnings to users since the drug had been downgraded to class C. Before the change the police would have had to arrest the offender for possession and process them at the police station.

The home secretary, Jacqui Smith, claimed the figures showed that crime had fallen by a third since Labour came to power in 1997. She acknowledged that knife crime remains a concern as does antisocial behaviour.

But the shadow home secretary, David Davis, said the crime reductions were based on “fiddled figures” and said the alleged rise in violent crime represented a “serial failure to protect the public”.