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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 June 2007, 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
The paper clip thieves
Bag with office stationery
The law-abiding majority is a myth, according to a survey, which finds most of us have indulged in some sort of petty crime. Steve Tomkins brings some middle-class criminals to book. After that - test your ethics with four everyday dilemmas for some low-level profiteering.

If crime doesn't pay, then Britain must be a poor country. Because the majority of us are criminals.

Six in 10 is the headline figure from a new report - but the deviant acts in question are not the type to typically make headlines.

Surveying 1,807 adults in England and Wales, researchers found that 61% admitted to having committed a crime at some point. Subjects were given a list of 10 petty crimes to choose from, including paying in cash to avoid tax, taking something from work, and exaggerating an insurance claim.

Presumably, that 61% would be higher still if the list had included a wider range of crimes, such as downloading music and copying software illegally.

While only 3% of those surveyed have gone for falsely claiming benefits, one in three of us have kept the money when given too much change. The same proportion have paid "cash in hand" to avoid taxation.

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The report authors Susanne Karstedt and Stephen Farrall concluded crime does not belong to the margins of society and there is no "law-abiding majority". The respectable middle classes, they say, are a "seething mass of morally dubious, and outright criminal, behaviour".

What do these figures tell us about British people and their morals? Are we a nation with hitherto unimagined depths of crookedness? Or is the real surprise that nearly 40% claim never to have broken the law?

For Michael Northcott, professor of ethics at Edinburgh University's School of Divinity, the report is evidence of moral corruption in British society.

"It's no surprise to see that these crimes are widespread in the middle class - we ought to know that having more money doesn't make you more moral," says Mr Northcott.

"In fact, the crimes are largely about hanging on to money, and the middle classes are better at that. That's what makes them middle class."

What then lies behind all this petty bourgeois crime? In the case of evading tax, licences, etc, Mr Northcott diagnoses a loss of belief in the state's ability to do good with our money.

Slide in standards

"Margaret Thatcher said that the state only does things badly, and Tony Blair has continued the same message. If people don't trust the state to use their money wisely, they will be less willing to hand it over."

One out of 10 shows great moral fibre - and how scared I am of getting caught
Petty 'thief' Alison

But Mr Northcott ardently agrees with the report's authors that the figures reflect a general decline in moral standards too.

"People talk about not having to lock the door in childhood, and I remember that myself. There is unquestionably more opportunistic crime. I would have to say that behind that lies a decline in belief in God, and a culture of hedonism, self-fullfilment getting on, and materialism."

And what do the slightly lawless majority have to say for themselves? Alison, a teaching assistant in York, and Chris, a musician in Hertfordshire, both scored one out of 10 on the questionnaire.

"I feel very righteous, actually," says Alison about her too-much-change-keeping past. "I think just one out of 10 shows great moral fibre - and how scared I am of getting caught."

Chris, meanwhile, with several counts of "borrowing" from work's stationery cupboard to take into consideration, pleads extenuating circumstances. "The way I see it, I give far, far more to my job than I take. No one could complain, on balance," he says of the paper, pens and blank CDs that have found their way back to his house. Not to mention his reliance on the office photocopier for personal projects.

Selective memory

Both agree that petty crimes matter, although somewhat more petty than their two examples. But they disagree about obeying the law in general. Alison sees all law breaking as morally wrong.

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"If I thought something was OK, then found out it was against the law, I wouldn't do it. I would think it was wrong."

Chris is more selective though. "Something isn't necessarily bad, just because it's against the law. Smoking cannabis, for example. Or playing live music without a licence, I'd happily do that."

Richard, a magazine subeditor in London, is hazier about the trail of unsolved crimes to his name.

"I can't honestly think of one occasion when I've done any of those things. But if my memory was better I wouldn't be surprised if I could list half a dozen. I don't think I'm unusual. I bet those figures would be a lot higher, but people only remember stuff they're proud of."

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Richard does not think that any crime he might or might not have committed makes him a bad person. "I don't think you can get through life without cutting the odd corner here and there. You have reasons for it, at the time, even if looking back they aren't always very good reasons.

"There are things I've done that I'm ashamed of," he says, "really ashamed. But none of them were against the law. They're just things that hurt people. Making an extra few quid off some corporation, that's not even in the same league."


Feeling pious? What would you do when confronted by the following opportunities to indulge in a spot of low-level profiteering?

1. THE VAT DILEMMA

VOTE RESULTS
What would you do with this offer?
Pay in cash
 75.31% 
Pay by cheque but don't report him
 21.89% 
Tell the Vatman
 2.80% 
12192 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion
Jerry the Builder finishes off at your house. He's done a beautiful job of finishing off a loft conversion and the agreed price is 500. But he says he'll take cash to the tune of 470 as he can avoid paying the VAT. Every penny counts as he is looking after his ill sister. What should you do?

2. THE EXTRA BOXSETS

VOTE RESULTS
What would you do with your spare boxsets?
Keep 'em
 48.86% 
Send 'em back
 29.68% 
Give 'em to charity
 21.46% 
30669 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion
You place an order with a well-known internet mail-order firm for an expensive DVD boxset. The firm has obviously made a mistake and despatches you three copies of the same boxset. You are billed only for one and after a few weeks it's obvious the firm don't know they've made a mistake. Should you alert the big multinational to their error?

3. THE QUID PRO QUO

VOTE RESULTS
What would you do with the equipment?
Keep it, it's morally yours
 16.01% 
Borrow it, you'll bring it back
 8.40% 
Steer clear, it's stealing
 75.60% 
29390 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion
You are a very stressed employee. Due to your failing to fill in some paperwork, you have not been paid for some shifts you've done, but there's no way the mistake can now be rectified. You're annoyed about this. One day you see a piece of equipment, covered in dust, that you know is never used. It would be so easy to take it home, where it would come in very handy. It's about the same value as the unpaid shifts. Should you take it?

4. THE TRAVELCARD VENDOR

VOTE RESULTS
What would you do about the ticket touts?
Trade with them
 30.67% 
Ignore them
 54.78% 
Report them
 14.54% 
16750 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion
The homeless chaps who hang around your local train station are always buying and selling travelcards for re-use. You suspect this is probably illegal, but perhaps it's a question of supporting entrepreneurialism and stopping more serious crimes occurring? Should you give tickets to these touts or buy them?





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