Thursday, July 22, 2004

Crime's up... no, it's down...

Confusion all round, with the parallel publication of some rather contradictory crime statistics for England and Wales* (Scotland's legal system is separate). But handy for the politicians to play games with.

Row over figures as crime drops by 5%
Violent crime figures rise by 12%
Crime has fallen 39 per cent over the past nine years
A slightly different take: Extra police but detection rate still falls

What's happening here is that the British Crime Survey is suddenly being discounted by Tory politicians because it's showing falling crime levels (and, indeed, has been since the mid-1990s), whereas the police statistics record increases in violent crimes (but falls in most other categories). They've latched onto the one category and set of stats that are of use to them. David Davis, the shadow home secretary, will no doubt have criminologists everywhere in stitches - or in shock - with this assertion: "The most reliable measure of crime is that which is reported to the police".

This is absurd. More than half of the victims of crime do not report it. The BCS gets its data by interviewing 40,000 people a year about their experiences of crime (and also, by the way, their perceptions of it) in order to calculate crime rates. We can debate precisely how accurate it is (it doesn't cover all offences, nor does it interview under-16s; the representativeness of the sample will always be an issue). But, importantly, the way in which police statistics are recorded has changed substantially over the last few years, while the BCS methods have remained largely consistent.

Some government statistics are notorious for being continually revised to make the picture look better: unemployment figures, in particular. To their credit perhaps, this Labour government has for several years now been altering the recording of crimes reported to the police in ways that inflate the figures. In 1998, they included the very minor, and common, category of 'common assault' for the first time. Now, let me point out as a historian of crime that minor assaults are historically amongst the most unreliable of offences to attempt to quantify from official records of any kind. Decisions to complain about them are subjective, often related to existing hostile relationships between the parties and at worst downright malicious; decisions not to complain, conversely, may be motivated by fear of the attacker, by a wish not to make trouble, by mistrust of authorities. And those authorities will vary widely in their inclination, or ability, to intervene at all pro-actively in such matters. (This is why most statistical studies of medieval and early modern violence focus on homicide, which is - we hope - more reliably reported, even though we fear that it's hardly representative of violence in general.)

There was another important change in 2002: all reports to the police now had be recorded in the official statistics unless subsequently shown to be false. You might also add in to the mix increased numbers of police officers to take reports (from 125,000 to 140,000 since 1997). I'm not convinced that all of this quite explains why the discrepancy between the BCS and the police figures is quite so acute in the violence category compared to others, by the way. But when it comes to trends there should be little doubt that the BCS will be more reliable than the 'official' police figures. Unless it's inconvenient for you as an opposition politician in the early stages of the run-up to a general election.

And I'm not suggesting that Labour would be any less dishonest if the boot were on the other foot. If they choose to champion the BCS figures, one suspects that it's merely because it's in their own interests. In fact, they've pulled a fast one of their own here. Last week, they announced a target to cut crime by 15 per cent in the next three years. Today's BCS figures gave them a third of that all in one go. Easy-peasy. David Blunkett says he had no idea of the BCS figures when the 15 per cent target was announced. Yeah, right, David.

*I haven't yet read these because, for some reason I'm suddenly having all sorts of trouble with Adobe Acrobat and I'm downloading a new version (I needed to upgrade anyway), but it's going to take a little while. So I'm relying entirely on (shock! horror!) secondary sources here. Cut me some slack for the time being. I'll get back to you if I find anything worth adding.

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