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Fall in crime is a reason to be cheerful at end of year

It's Boxing Day.

We spend all year arguing, complaining, accusing, warning - so let's try to be a little positive. There are many reasons for being angry, from bankers' bonuses to food banks; the ­surveillance state to Syrian air strikes. But we shouldn't forget that some things are going right.

For example, how many reports did you notice in the past year about the decline of crime in Britain? All categories of crime: property theft, criminal damage, knife assaults and so on have been falling rapidly. The crime rate, as defined by the Office for National Statistics, has halved since 1995 and is at its lowest level in 30 years. We don't have an epidemic of crime any more. We have an epidemic of lawfulness.

Crimes of violence in Scotland fell 21% last year alone, after falling 17% the year before. The number of crimes involving an offensive weapon - meaning knife crime - has fallen by 60% in Scotland the last five years, according to government statistics. There has been a dramatic fall in gun violence in cities like Manchester and gang violence overall is in decline.

These figures are so striking that I didn't believe them at first. You suspect that the figures have been massaged in some way. But in fact the massaging has, if anything, been up rather than down. Sexual offences have shown a nominal increase, but that is largely down to the way certain crimes are classified and to increased reporting.

In all areas, the trend is down. Indeed, one reason why we hear so much about exotic crimes, like paedophilia, which has become a national obsession, is because the police have so much less to do than they used to have. When did you last hear of a major property crime, like the Great Train Robbery, the fiftieth anniversary of which was marked this year?

Murder is not what it was either, despite the rise of Tartan Noir literature. There were 62 cases of murder in Scotland last year, down from 93 the previous year. Homicide is now at its lowest rate since records began in 1976. Pretty slim pickings for Rebus or Laidlaw. Half the victims were killed by someone they knew, and half involved alcohol.

Ah - the demon drink. Surely that is as bad as ever. Don't we see all those young people on the telly being sick in Buchanan Street at weekends?

In fact, alcohol consumption has been in decline, especially among the young, for more than a decade. According to the Department of Health Statistics, the proportion of people aged 11-15 who had consumed alcohol fell from 26% in 2002 to 12% in 2012

A sea change occurred in British drinking habits around 2002 and consumption has been falling ever since. Alcohol sales per adult in Scotland fell 8% last year alone. The drink industry is painfully aware of this, which is why it has been discounting alcohol so vigorously in supermarkets. Scots still drink more than English people, and still drink more than is good for them. But the message does seem to be getting through.

Drug abuse also seems to be going out of fashion. The number of people who say they have taken illicit substances is at its lowest level since 1996 - one in five of the population. Cannabis use among young people has halved since 2002, according to Edinburgh University's Health Behaviours of School-age Children (HSBC) survey.

Abuse of one of the most dangerous drugs - nicotine - is also falling, according to the same study, with only 11% of under 15 year olds smoking against 16% in 2002.

Children are both better educated about drugs and less interested. They see the damage that drugs can cause - Ozzy Osbourne, Lou Reed and so on - and it just doesn't seem very cool.

There are so many more interesting things to do now on the internet, with Facebook, Twitter, video games and so on, that they don't seem to have so much time for self-destructive habits.

So, what about paedophilia, all those children being groomed on the internet? A whole industry has grown up around the perceived threat young people face from sexual predators. In fact, children are safer than ever - there have been only 61 cases of child homicide in Scotland in the past decade. Half of them were murdered by one of their parents.

Serious child sex abuse cases, like that perpetrated by the Lostprophets lead singer, Ian Watkins, are extremely rare. You see claims that one in five children has been sexually abused, which is highly suspect.

Indeed, paedophilia and child sex abuse is one area where tackling the crime has arguably caused more damage than the crime itself. Irrational fear of child abuse has led to a generation of children being kept indoors for fear of meeting paedophiles in the parks or arcades or city streets. This makes little sense since 90% of all known sexual abuse of children is by someone they already know.

Not only have children been deprived of one of the rights of childhood - the right to explore their environment - we have brought up a nation of socially inadequate fearful fatties who take no exercise and are prone to diabetes and heart disease. The streets and parks have never been safer for children - ever.

So why don't we hear more about the decline of crime? Well, the police need crime to justify their budgets, so for every category of crime that is in decline, we will tend to find something that is on the increase.

There is also a large number of charities and pressure groups involved in alcohol and drug abuse, domestic abuse, child abuse and so on who all have an interest in raising alarm. And of course, crime sells newspapers; absence of crime doesn't.

A huge amount of police time is being expended in researching historic cases of sexual abuse, such as in the Savile scandal. There is a hate crime industry emerging now that singing certain songs in certain football grounds or saying offensive things on the internet can lead to arrest. There is much greater reporting of domestic violence and grooming of children. And not before time. The Rochdale grooming case shows that poor young white women have been neglected in the past because they used to be dismissed as wrong 'uns.

But greater awareness of these crimes does not mean that they are on the increase, and no-one would surely argue that child sex abuse, for example, is worse today than in the past, even though the number of cases coming to light is greater.

So at least we can look forward to 2014 in the knowledge that we, and our children, are probably safer than at any time in human history. Happy Christmas.

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