The figures only show a state of confusion

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The Independent Online

On a first reading of the Home Office's latest crime figures, it would appear that the old adage of lies, damn lies and statistics is alive and kicking.

Police recorded a rise in reported crime of 7 per cent, but the Home Office's chief statistician says it is actually 2 per cent. Meanwhile, a separate survey of 33,000 householders has found that while the police recorded 5.5 million crimes, there were actually twice as many committed in England and Wales. But for various baffling reasons more than 5 million crimes are never reported or recorded.

The survey of householders also contradicts the police figures by showing a 2 per cent drop in crime.

So what is the real state of crime in Britain? In some ways the answer is "we don't fully know". Professor Paul Wiles, the director of the Home Office's research, development and statistics department, conceded yesterday that we have no idea how many crimes are committed in England and Wales (absurdly, Scotland is counted separately).

The Home Office is attempting to grapple with the statistical nightmare that makes up the crime-figures game, but there still appears to be more shade than light.

Today sees the first publication of both the police's recorded crime figures and the British Crime Survey.

The way police compile their figures is changing. In future a wider variety of offences will be recorded. Most notably, low-level crimes such as drunken brawls and vandalism are to be included in the official statistics. Nine police forces are already using the new National Crime Recording Standard. The effect of the changes for the year up to April 2002 is that about 250,000 crimes that would not have been previously recorded now appear in the statistics, accounting for a 5 per cent rise in crime, according to the Home Office experts. When all 43 forces adopt the system, recorded offences could rise by 20 per cent. But Professor Wiles stresses: "It does not mean there is an increase in crime, it means the police are recording more of the crime."

These anomalies are seen most starkly in the category of violent crime. The new figures show that these offences rose by 11 per cent to 812,000 incidents. But when the extra cases are stripped out, this becomes a 5 per cent drop.

Even when these changes are taken into account, however, a worrying trend is a small rise in burglaries and car crime, which could herald a new spree of lawlessness.

The British Crime Survey, covering 33,000 adults, is considered more accurate than the police figures because it includes crimes that are not reported to the authorities. (Many people will not go to the police because they believe nothing can be done, do not intend to make an insurance claim or have something to hide).

The survey estimates that in 2001-02 there were 991,000 break-ins in England and Wales, but only 60 per cent, about 600,000, were reported.

The survey has big gaps – it does not include offences by under-16s, commercial crimes or sexual offences – but it provides a more accurate insight into crime trends. It shows that while crime rose steadily from 1981 to 1995, since then it has fallen by 22 per cent and has been stable in the past year.