'Street Crime Is So Bad I Fear For My Children'. This was the sensationalist front page headline of the Daily Express last Wednesday. The words were from John Denham, New Labour's crime reduction minister. Other alarming headlines screamed 'Huge Surge In Mobile Phone Thefts', 'The Gangs We Can't Do Anything About' and 'Black Youth Carry Out Most Street Robberies'.
The press seized on a Home Office report released last week to claim that young black men are behind a crimewave. The report used police figures to survey ethnicity and phone theft. It deals only with those 'accused' or 'suspected' of the crime, not with those actually convicted. The report suggests that black people are disproportionately involved in phone theft.
In London some 71 percent of those accused of phone theft are black. But 76 percent of those accused in Stockport were white. The report found that most phone thefts take place in inner city areas. It also says that the proportion of black teenagers living in inner city areas may be higher than the statistics show. Racial discrimination means that black people live in the most deprived areas. Black people are more likely to be unemployed than whites.
In work, people from ethnic minorities earn between 7 and 25 percent less than white people of the same age with the same level of qualifications. Other aspects of the report were not splashed across the front pages. It shows that black and Asian people are disproportionately the victims of phone theft.
In the Metropolitan Police district 14 percent of the population are black or Asian. Yet 28 percent of those who had their phones stolen were black or Asian.
Police strategies may further distort the figures. Black people are over six times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.
No one really knows how many mobile phones have been stolen. Police figures claim 330,000. The British Crime Survey (BCS) suggests it could be as many as 700,000 thefts. These figures do not represent an explosion of street crime. If thefts involving only mobile phones are excluded from street robbery figures, the Home Office study would show a fall in street robberies. Media headlines encourage the idea that most mobile phones are stolen in violent street robberies.
In fact, most people reported that their phones were stolen when left unattended in public places-in offices, leisure facilities and on public transport. Almost as many phones were taken from unattended motor vehicles. This pattern is confirmed by police figures. So who is to blame for the theft of mobile phones? Mobile phone companies refuse to use the technology readily available to make mobiles more secure.
Only Virgin, One to One, and Orange offer any security, but they use an inadequate identity number which still allows a stolen handset to be used. Cellnet and Vodafone fail to do even that. All the phone companies sell affordable SIM cards. This means they can still profit from calls made on a stolen mobile. The government could force phone companies to make phones more secure. Instead it describes this measure as 'the last resort'.
Mobile thefts rose from 8 percent to around 28 percent of all robberies last year. This rise is linked to a huge increase in mobile phone ownership together with the creation of the 'pay as you go' market. Around 70 percent of people in Britain now own a mobile.
Among school children it's even higher. Last year 81 percent of 11 to 15 year olds owned mobile phones. Slick marketing has made mobiles into desirable fashion items. Children between 11 and 16 years are six times more likely than adults to have their mobiles stolen by other children. Many children have mobiles because busy parents feel their children will be safer if they have a mobile.
So there is a vicious cycle of insecurity and phone ownership and phone theft. Once again the media and the government are not tackling the social causes of crime but are using crime to victimise ordinary people.