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Friday, October 24, 2008 

Cooking the crime figures.

It's incredibly tempting to dismiss what appears to be little more than a misunderstanding based on confusion over what is and what is not grievous bodily harm with intent when it comes to recording crime as an understandable mistake and leave it at that. After all, the 22% rise in most serious violence against the person which comes from reassessing the figures involves just 1,000 more offences (PDF). As Mark Easton, and almost no one else additionally points out, with that 22% rise, accordingly there is a drop in the other offences against the person stats of 11,000, or 10% in offences with injury or 4% in offences with no injury. The figures as a whole again show a further drop in overall crime of 6% - on both the police statistics and the British Crime Survey interviews. The only real rises are a 28% rise in attempted murder with a knife, a further 8% rise in drug offences, again most likely down to cautions given for cannabis possession and a 17% percent rise in the BCS figures in theft from the person. Overall, the risk of becoming a victim of crime is unbelievably, considering the media coverage, at the lowest it has been since the BCS began in 1981 at 23%. Broken Britain this ain't.

You could however predict what the response would be to what is not lies, not a conspiracy, but honest mistakes, the classic cock-up. The government is not to blame; if anyone is, it's the police and Crown Prosecution Service for the complexity of what both consider as GBH with intent and what is not. No one as a result of the statistical errors was given a lesser sentence or charged with a lesser offence; the only crime committed here has been one of hubris. The government itself has become, quite rightly, it can be argued, increasingly proud of the fact that by both measures crime has dropped by a third since 1995. Why this has happened can be argued over, and whether Labour's policies are responsible is equally uncertain, especially considering that across the Western world over the same period crime has generally fallen, but any government regardless of hue would be trumping what has happened. Last time round however the government went too far, especially in the face of the rise of teenagers being stabbed to death on the streets of London,
and played up the fall in crime to such an extent that there was almost bound to be a reckoning come either the first rise, whether due to recession, which as the figures bear out has not yet happened, or the first mistake, which has come far sooner than they imagined.

Regardless of what any newspaper or politician will say, this will broadcast just one message to the public: that the crime figures can fundamentally not be trusted. It doesn't help when the Sun for example directly accuses politicians of lying and the police of hiding the true figures as if this was a conspiracy rather than the obvious cock-up, but it's the recounting itself that will cause the damage. It also fundamentally undermines everyone who does consider the numbers to be accurate, whether they be the police themselves, who overwhelmingly do not think that crime is rising, or the academics and policy makers that attempt to turn the evidence into something approaching a strategy.

What is not true is
that people do not believe statistics full stop. They do, but only as long as they back up what they think they already know. A fascinating survey conducted for Louise Casey's crime review found that when one group was told that crime had decreased, 21% said they didn't believe it had. When a separate group was told that crime had increased, not a single person challenged what they were told. Overwhelmingly when told that crime had increased, 42% blamed the government. When told that crime had decreased, just 15% gave the government any credit. The conclusion to be gleaned is simple: the government is on a hiding to nothing. It cannot possibly hope to get across its message that crime has fallen, either because of public cynicism and the general contempt for politicians, or because the most popular newspapers, in some cases certainly because it contradicts their narrative of just how bad things are in Broken Britain, will only highlight the rises while playing down the falls. This is exactly what happened earlier in the year. Also wrong is the Sun's claim in its leader column that people locally believe crime is going up: the last BCS yearly figures showed that two-thirds thought crime had gone up nationally, while just 39% thought it had gone up locally. Most think things aren't too bad where they live, but think they're awful elsewhere. Why this is the case is probably for the exact same reasons as why the government cannot get its message across.

Something of an answer to this would be to make the gathering and presenting of the statistics on crime completely independent and also transparent. The government and the statisticians need to stop fiddling around and changing the way the figures are counted so that they're not comparable over the long term, something they seem obsessed with doing, even if it is generally for good reasons. This won't stop the tabloids from screaming blue murder every time the figures go the wrong way, and it won't stop them resorting to the tawdry tactics
of reaching for comment from the highly unrepresentative victims of crime which they always do, but they quite clearly need to be depoliticised. With a government however that is committed to politicising security policy, something on which bipartisanship is vital, and when control from the centre is ever more formalised, this seems ever further away than ever.

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