Leading Article: Crime in real numbers

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The Independent Online
THERE is a crucial benefit to be gained from accurate and relevant figures in which the public can have confidence. This is as true of policing as it is in the provision of education or health care. In addition to allowing individuals to act in an informed manner in the marketplace for services, they enable policy-makers to identify areas of weakness or failure, to take remedial action where necessary and to make informed decisions about priorities and the allocation of resources for the future.

This week the NHS management executive announced the introduction of standard measures of efficiency for hospitals across the country. The Audit Commission was involved in their formulation and district auditors will be expected to monitor the way in which hospitals gather the raw data. The exercise will be similar to that first proposed by Kenneth Clarke, as Secretary of State for Education, to assess the performance of schools.

William Waldegrave, the minister responsible for the Citizen's Charter, plans to extend league tables beyond hospitals and schools. Mr Waldegrave could with profit co-operate with Mr Clarke, the Home Secretary, as the latter turns his attention to what he described yesterday as 'fatally flawed' crime statistics. Mr Clarke was commenting on the decline in the number of arrests carried out by the Metropolitan Police at a time when crime is apparently rising. But the problem of flawed statistics goes beyond the capital. The Independent has this week collected and attempted to analyse information from forces across the country. We use the word 'attempted' deliberately. For example, the figures appear to show, alarmingly, that the clear-up rate dropped sharply last year with marked regional variations. This measure is an unhelpful concept. It shows the numbers of crimes 'solved' (in the sense that police believe they know who committed the offence) measured against total recorded offences.

The two biggest drops in clear-up rate occurred in Northumbria and Cheshire. Yet this does not suggest that the efficiency of the police in these areas has declined sharply. It is more likely to be a reflection of the fact that these forces no longer employ so-called prison visits to persuade convicted prisoners to help 'clear the books' by confessing to crimes with which they have not been charged - and with which they will not be charged. Forces that continue with this dubious practice will be able to demonstrate superficially better results.

Similarly, Home Office statistics demonstrate a drop in indictable offences by males aged 10-17 from 230,700 in 1981 to 149,000 a decade later. Some experts and lobbyists draw comfort from this apparently cheerful trend and conclude that the Government is wrong to make provision for detaining more young offenders. Yet the statistics do not coincide with observable reality.

Yesterday the Home Secretary confessed that he is as suspicious as the public of the data gathered by his own department, or by services reporting to it. Mr Clarke said in a broadcast: 'We want some better way of measuring performance.' It is a matter of urgency that the Home Office should gather adequate crime statistics. Without such information, the Government's response to current anxieties is likely to be as flawed as the figures now available.