Why violent crime has fallen for five years in a row

Apr 23, 2014

The NHS treated 32,800 fewer victims of violent attacks last year – but what caused the drop?

Matt Cardy/Getty Images

ANNUAL figures from NHS accident and emergency wards show violent crime on the decrease for the fifth successive year. In 2013, just 235,000 people were treated after suffering a violent attack, 32,800 fewer than 2012.

That represents a 12 per cent decline on the previous 12 months, reports the BBC. The last time the figure rose, five years ago in 2008, it went up by seven per cent. Otherwise, the downward trend has lasted since 2001.

The data was collated and examined by researchers at Cardiff University, who say the decline mirrors other crime statistics obtained from police, including reported crime figures and the official crime survey.

The downward trend has of course been welcomed, but what could explain a less violent Britain?

Expensive alcohol
The academics at Cardiff suggest that the rising cost of getting drunk might be playing a part. Lead author Professor Jonathan Shepherd points out that, since 2008, alcohol "has become less affordable". As 18 to 30-year-olds are most prone to be involved in violence, a fall in that section of the population's disposable income is "probably an important factor".

Closing down pubs
The rise in the cost of living since the financial downturn has seen more drinkers staying at home in smaller groups, where they may be less likely to get into a fight. Meanwhile, pubs have been closing down all over the UK. Violence has often flared up in the past when different groups of drinkers meet each other on the street at closing time.

Better policing
Police unions argue that violence, and particularly domestic violence, is now dealt with more effectively by neighbourhood policing teams, and that offenders are rehabilitated more successfully. "Sensible policies balancing enforcement and prevention can have, and are having, an impact," says Max Chambers, head of crime and justice at Policy Exchange. "However, the overall downward trend is repeated in many other countries which suggests something else is happening too."

Cleaner car exhausts
The fall in violence in the UK parallels falling crime all over western Europe, where it has been in decline for the past two decades after rising for much of the 20th century. There seemed to be no correlation between how severely or leniently a nation treated its criminals and the fall in crime.

One serious scientific theory seeks to explain this: it says that the 20th-century crime wave was caused by exposure to the metal lead – first in house paint, then in car exhaust fumes. Lead is highly toxic and 'biological criminologists' say its effects can cause aggression, violence and poor decision-making, reports the BBC.

The fall in crime in Europe was actually predicted by US proponents of the theory, who had seen it happen over there first (lead was removed from European petrol much later than it was removed from US fuel). Lead takes years to leave the system, the argument says, so the effects were not noticeable until decades after unleaded petrol became the norm.

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