Britain is a nation of petty criminals in which nearly two-thirds of people regularly break the law if they think they can get away with it, research shows.
And the middle classes are the most guilty, committing a range of offences that could land them with a criminal record against business, the Government and their employers. A study found that of those who admitted an offence, nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) committed up to three, and 10 per cent owned up to nine or more offences.
One-third (34 per cent) of people paid cash-in-hand to workmen to enable them to avoid tax. Eleven per cent admitted they had used other people's identity documents for their own gain. Almost one-third (32 per cent) confessed to keeping the extra money when they were given too much change in shops, and 18 per cent admitted stealing from work.
Eleven per cent said they dodged paying their television licence and 8 per cent admitted they did not own up to faults in goods they sold second-hand.
Exaggerated insurance claims had been submitted by 7 per cent, 6 per cent said they had asked a friend in bureaucracy to "bend the rules" for them and 5 per cent claimed for refunds to which they were not entitled. Overall, only 39 per cent of people said they had not committed any such offence.
The extent of petty crime is uncovered in research for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College, London. It also concluded that the middle classes are responsible for particularly high numbers of offences. It says: "The 'law-abiding majority' which politicians like to address, is a chimera. The law-abiding majority not only do not abide by the law, they also do not believe in the value of laws and rules, shrugging them off in pursuit of their interests and desires. They even regard law-abidingness as a disadvantage."
The research was based on a survey of 1,807 people in England and Wales by Professor Susanne Karstedt and Dr Stephen Farrall of Keele University.
Professor Karstedt, said: "Contempt for the law is as widespread in the centre of society as it is assumed to be rampant at the margins and amongst specific marginal groups. Anti-social behaviour by the few is mirrored by anti-civil behaviour by the many. Neither greed nor need can explain why respectable citizens cheat on insurance claims or in second-hand sales, and do not hesitate to discuss their exploits with friends in pubs."
Richard Garside, the director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, said: "Politicians from across the political spectrum regularly claim that most crime is committed by a hard core of offenders, largely drawn from low-income groups.
"This research demonstrates that volume crime is far more widespread, with the middle class being responsible for a wide range of illegal activities."
Mr Garside suggested that the increasing willingness among apparently law-abiding citizens to fiddle the system in their favour - even if they were in effect stealing from the Government or businesses - relate to "fundamental social changes in British society over the past 30 years".
Dr Farrall said: "What we find in our research is a strong tendency amongst consumers to "hit back" when they feel treated unfairly by big and small business, even by illegal means.
"More important are selfish attitudes: these are responsible for consumers exploiting illegal opportunities whenever these offer themselves. The values and the behaviour of those at the centre of society are indicative of the moral state of our society, perhaps much more so than violent and other street crimes."