by Matt Cavanagh
The latest quarterly crime figures were published today. They include figures for recorded crime, and for the British Crime Survey (BCS), covering the 12 months to September 2011.
Recorded crime showed an overall fall, and a fall in most crime types – apart from robbery and theft, which rose by 4%. Robbery with a knife rose by 10%.
However, it is the British Crime Survey (BCS) which gives a more accurate picture of crime levels and trends, because it includes crimes not reported to the police, and has used the same methodology for thirty years. (The UK Statistics Authority impressed this point on the Conservatives before the election, and as they have now accepted it.) Today’s BCS figures estimate that overall crime rose by 4%, but this is not found to be statistically significant. The figures also show increases in all BCS categories, except vandalism and bicycle theft – but again, these are not found to be statistically significant.
The most important BCS finding, and the most important in today’s figures as a whole, is for the sub-set of “personal crime” – which includes violence, robbery and theft, and other “personal acquisitive crime”. This rose by 11% – a finding which is statistically significant.
Another notable point is the continuing trend of increasing public confidence that “the police and local council are dealing with the anti-social behaviour and crime issues that matter in the local area”. The trend in public confidence was rising for several years before the election, on the back of Neighbourhood Policing and other initiatives, and confidence is now at 57%. This directly refutes ministers’ repeated assertion that confidence in the police is falling – an assertion which has formed a large part of their justification for introducing elected Policing and Crime Commissioners.
Today’s statistics also include more detail on last summer’s riots, and on knife crime. They confirm that despite the high visibility of the riots, there is little effect on overall crime levels. Even in the areas concerned, looking only at the month of August, the share of total recorded crimes was relatively small: highest in Croydon and Haringey, at 14% of total crime, and between 5% and 10% in other affected areas. This equates to 1.5% of total crime in England and Wales in August, or around one tenth of one per cent of crime for the year.
As for knife crime, the level of knife homicides is unchanged, at 200. The level of attempted murders with a knife is also around 200, down around 10%. Recorded instances of ABH and GBH with a knife also fell by around a thousand, to 12,350; but (as noted above) robbery with a knife rose, from just under 14,000 to over 15,000 – as did rape with a knife, from 221 to 245.
In reacting to today’s figures, policing minister Nick Herbert followed exactly the same script as he did in the last quarter, arguing that the figures showed a “mixed picture” and cannot be used to show there is a “long-term change in either direction”. (Compare his reaction today here, with his reaction in October here.) Leaving aside the fact that last year ministers were trying to spin a similarly mixed picture as “a vindication of their reform programme” – a bizarre as well as naïve tactic given that the reforms hadn’t started yet – this reaction demonstrates a worrying complacency, as I argued here in October.
The Westminster village can lose sight of the fact that law and order remains consistently high on the list of public concerns. Since the election, as measured by the monthly Ipsos MORI issues tracker, it has vied with immigration for third and fourth place, behind the economy and unemployment. The Conservatives still enjoy a lead on the issue – though it was falling before the riots – and as the riots recede into memory, it will once again become clear that the government doesn’t actually have a crime policy to speak of. Cameron tends to skate over the subject, keen to avoid getting bogged down in a debate over police cuts. When pressed, like Herbert and May he falls back on stock lines about their supposed flagship reforms: online crime maps (actually inherited from Labour) and of course Policing and Crime Commissioners, offered as the solution to every problem from the riots to hacking to knife crime (an issue on which even Cameron’s tabloid friends are increasingly appalled by his opportunism and lack of ideas).
No one knows for sure what is going to happen to overall crime levels. I have argued consistently that it is too early to say whether the apparent increases showing through in the figures are blips; or a sign that the long downward trend in crime since 1995 is flattening out to be replaced with a new stability; or the beginning of an upward trend. The second is the preferred hypothesis of Home Office statisticians; the third has some grounding in past experience of economic downturns, even leaving aside the issue of falling police numbers and morale. The full picture probably won’t be clear until the annual figures are published in summer 2013. But what is inexcusable, particularly for a government which is cutting police numbers, is the clear sense of complacency – and this is a weakness Labour should expose relentlessly.
Matt Cavanagh was a special adviser on crime and justice under the last Labour government.