Friday, 19 July 2013

Why are Brits behaving well overseas?

Hey, guess what, it seems we Brits are learning how to behave ourselves when we go abroad. So, as you start stocking up on sun screen, flip-flops and deeply inappropriate shorts, and prepare to join the rest of the lemmings at the airport, just don't let the side down. OK?

Titter ye not, as Frankie Howerd used to say. (Note to younger readers: Howerd was a comic actor and comedian who died more than 20 years ago.) No less an authority than the Foreign Office solemnly reported this week: "Overall arrests of Brits abroad for drug offences [in the past year] dropped to their lowest level for four years, with a decrease of 34 per cent since 2009-10 and general arrests and detentions showed a 21 per cent drop in the same period."

And by the way, if the Foreign Office can refer to us as "Brits" in its own official publications, I hope you'll stop complaining when I do the same. It's not derogatory, it's colloquial  -- there's a difference.

It's not all good news, though, because, and again I quote: "Reported rape and sexual assault cases increased by 10 per cent compared to 2011-12. The three countries in which the largest number of cases were reported were Spain, Turkey and Greece."

Why those three countries in particular? Well, the deliciously po-faced Foreign Office does come up with its own explanation: they are, it suggests, "destinations popular with young Brits for their busy nightlife." So are you more likely to be raped or assaulted in a country with a "busy" nightlife? The statistics suggest unequivocally Yes, which somehow does not surprise me.

Overall, though, the numbers really are quite encouraging. Drug arrests of Brits overseas in 2008-9: 991. In 2012-13, the number was down to 653. Total arrests in 2008-9: 6,919. In 2012-13, down to 5,435. We really do seem to be getting better at staying out of trouble.

Now, why might this be? Perhaps, in these difficult economic times, fewer of us are venturing overseas? But crime rates in the UK have been dropping sharply as well, so maybe we are turning into a genuinely more law-abiding nation. (New figures out today show the crime rate is now at its lowest level for more than 30 years.)

It's not that there are fewer teenage males than before -- they're the main offenders usually, and there are more of them now than a decade ago. So could it be, as some criminologists suggest, that they're spending more time on their smartphones and video consoles, and less time glugging super-strength cider, so the idea of going out for a bit of burglarising seems somehow less attractive?

Security systems on cars, car radios and sat navs are better than ever before, and the police are getting better at what they call "smart policing", in other words concentrating their resources on where they can be used to greatest effect.

Homes and shops have much better security systems than they used to have -- and it's even possible that banning the use of lead additives in petrol has ended the negative effects on children's brain development by sharply reducing lead pollution in the air in inner cities.

And if all that is true in this country, maybe it's true overseas as well. What's certainly true in England and Wales is that the prison population has doubled over the past 20 years, so could it be, as former home secretary Michael ("Prison works") Howard suggested back in 1993, that locking up more criminals really does mean that fewer crimes are committed? (Note, however, that in countries where prison populations have decreased, like Canada and the Netherlands, crime rates are also falling.)

Whatever the explanation, it must surely be cause for at least mild celebration that fewer of us are making a criminal nuisance of ourselves when we venture beyond our own shores. And it's something to remember, as you tut-tut over the pictures you'll see in the newspapers over the next few weeks of Brits behaving disgracefully in the clubs and pubs of Spain, Greece and Cyprus. Oh yes, they'll be there, baring their bums and more, pewking in the streets and falling over in a drunken stupor -- but there'll be fewer of them.

By the way,  I finished my walk along the length of the River Thames this week, and the last of my audio slideshows will be online over the weekend. You'll find them here, and there will also be versions of them broadcast on The World at One on BBC Radio 4 on 9, 16, 23 and 30 August.

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