Despite the dramatic increase in crime figures over the past three years, police officers appear to be catching fewer and fewer criminals.
Figures obtained by the Independent from more than half the 43 police forces in England and Wales show that 10 forces have seen substantial drops of 5 to 18 percentage points in the 1992 clear-up rate - the numbers of crimes solved measured against total recorded offences.
The figures are worrying chief constables, and are likely to intensify the debate about the rise in crime, the failures of the criminal justice system and the effectiveness of the police. They will give added impetus to the root and branch reform of the police being prepared by Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary.
They also provide valuable ammunition to critics of the Government's law and order policies. Tony Blair, Labour's home affairs spokesman, said yesterday: 'These figures confirm my fear that the police are being swamped by rising levels of crime. The Government must now accept that their policies on law and order have failed and adopt Labour's proposals for a new national programme for crime prevention.'
What is of particular concern is that the gap between recorded and detected crime is widening. Until recently, the rate of offences detected by police rose and kept pace with the crime rise. But the Independent's survey shows that in many forces, even ones with relatively small crime increases during 1992, the numbers of crimes detected has dropped.
Figures issued last week by the Home Office show the pattern of falling clear-up rates began in 1991 and continued in 1992. The Independent's survey suggests the decline is steepening. The figures are drawn from police figures released in the past few weeks, and unpublished but authoritative figures from police sources. These show the clear-up rate in 1992 dropped by 7 percentage points in Avon and Somerset, 9 in Cambridgeshire, 11 in Devon and Cornwall, nine in Dorset, 8 in Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire and Lincolnshire and 5 in the West Midlands. Figures for the first 11 months of the year show an 8-point drop in South Yorkshire.
The two biggest drops were 18 percentage points in Northumbria and 12 in Cheshire where chief constables have reduced the numbers of crimes cleared up by 'prison visits' (where officers persuade convicted prisoners to confess to crimes they have commited but for which they had not been charged or tried) because of the potential for abuse of the system.
Professor Jock Young, of the Department of Criminology at Middlesex University, said yesterday: 'It is surprising that the actual numbers are dropping. When one considers all the measures the police are taking to improve performance, it must indicate a lack of efficiency.'
Professor Young also agreed that reduced clear-ups may be due, as the police themselves argue, to a drop in morale because of the restrictive effects of legislation such as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, diminished resources and rising crime levels. 'If this was occurring in any other public service, it would be very surprising; people don't want to hear excuses.'
The reduction in numbers of criminals being arrested and charged helps to explain a fall in the prison population for the first time in many years, and periods of idleness being experienced by many magistrates' courts; some courts are considering closing early or even shutting.
Albert Pacey, Chief Constable of Gloucestershire and chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers' crime committee, emphasised statistics were a crude measure of criminal behaviour.
'The productivity of individual officers, measured by the numbers of crimes cleared up, has risen nationally from 9.9 per annum in 1987 to 11.6 in 1991. Clear-up rates for serious crimes like murder and rape remain very high. It is in the vast number of property crimes the problem lies.
'Maybe we are being stretched as far as we can with existing
resources. As we have pointed out before, there is considerable
reoffending on bail by a small core of persistent offenders. And there is the extra workload created by pre-trial agreements and disclosure.
'Crime has risen by up to 80 per cent in the past few years; people must realise that, given the limitations on resources, there are limits to what we can do. The public cannot expect the police to resolve crime on their own.'
Analysis, page 2
Letters, page 18