Here’s a quick thought experiment for you. In your mind’s eye, picture a criminal. What image do you see? Maybe a swaggering, hoodie-wearing youth from a council estate loitering in a back alley, or a shifty drug addict walking through the open door of a student house and leaving with a laptop? The chances are that, if you’re like most people, you weren’t picturing a well-educated, middle-class office worker.
Nevertheless, these are the criminals who cost the most to our society. Take a look at the figures: the most recent full Home Office report into the social and economic costs of crime, conducted in 2005, concluded that burglary cost individuals slightly below £3 million in the previous year. In 2008 alone, company managers, employees and customers were tried in U.K. courts for £300 million of theft and fraud – and this only represents the cases which resulted in prosecution, for a type of crime which has famously low detection rates.
Although we live in the country with the highest fear of crime in Europe (partly due to media scaremongering and, undoubtedly, the creeping infiltration of CCTV into every part of our lives), the type of crime which concerns us is limited to a very narrow scope. Essentially, as a society we are far less tolerant of crime born out of desperation and social deprivation than we are when the criminals are already financially comfortable.
We can see this in the coverage of the MPs’ expenses scandal which has swamped the media over the past weeks. When it emerged that Labour minister Elliot Morley had claimed £16,000 of expenses for the mortgage on his home for 18 months after it had been paid off, even The Sun, with its penchant for heaping invective on ‘benefit scroungers’, focused on the fact that Morley had exploited the parliamentary system at the taxpayer’s expense. Surely more pertinent is the fact that this was a blatant act of fraud, and clearly a criminal offense.
In terms of its effect on the economy and society, white collar crime is far worse than robbery, yet we consistently treat it with less disapprobation than petty crime. Now that in the wake of the financial crisis the Government has pledged to crack down on such frauds, it’s time to bring public opinion in line with the real damage that white collar crime causes to society and eradicate the kind of permissive attitude that still smacks of class prejudice.