Counting crimes and statistical offences: has crime actually fallen?

The United Kingdom Statistics Authority (UKSA) has announced that it has removed the National Statistics designation from the police recorded crime series.  The police recorded crime series is published by ONS based on Home Office figures collected from individual police forces in England and Wales. UKSA, the independent statistical watchdog responsible for ensuring the integrity of official statistics, is concerned that the figures are not trustworthy.

This development is not particularly surprising, especially in light of evidence recently received by the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) as part of their ongoing inquiry into police recorded crime.

During the inquiry there have been admissions from police constables and Chief Constables that crimes have not always been recorded or categorised as they should have been.

For some years blogs written by police officers, often anonymously, have suggested irregularities in the way that the police have been recording crime.

Changes to the rules and guidance given to police forces regarding how they record crime mean that we can only look at consistent trends from 2002/03 onwards. As the chart below shows, the number of crimes recorded by the police has fallen substantially since then:

Recorded Crime(Click to enlarge)

The UKSA announcement will lead some to question whether crime has actually been falling or whether the reduction is due to the misreporting of offences.

The number of offences recorded by the police is available back to 1898 and is one of the indicators used to measure crime. In addition, since 1980, a national victimisation survey (currently the Crime Survey for England and Wales, formerly known as the British Crime Survey) has been conducted. Neither of these measures offers a true full picture of crime, both have their strengths and weaknesses, but used together it was thought that they offered a more rounded picture.

If the Police have been ‘fiddling’ figures to a similar extent over time, then the overall crime trends shown by the recorded crime data may not be affected. Over the last decade the pattern of crime reduction as recorded by the police has, to a certain extent, mirrored the falls seen through the CSEW (indeed, the crime survey suggests that crime victimisation has been on a downward trend ever since the mid‑1990s):

Total Offences
(Click to enlarge)

However, an analysis of crime trends conducted by the ONS last year identified a divergence between the police recorded crime data and the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW). While both datasets do show a clear downward trend over the last decade, the police recorded crime dataset has in recent years shown a steeper decline than the CSEW for comparable offences, resulting in a smaller ratio of recorded crimes to CSEW crimes. The ONS suggested that declining standards of compliance with crime recording rules may be a possible driver for this divergence.

Obviously for those individuals whose offences are not recorded, such arguments will be irrelevant, but the fall in crime in England and Wales as measured by the CSEW since the mid-90s is consistent with the falls seen across much of Europe and America. The reasons for these falls are considered in the Library note Why has crime been falling across the world?

Although the police need to look at the way in which crime is recorded in light of these revelations, this should not detract from the fact that other measures seem to confirm that crime in England and Wales has actually been falling.

Author: Gavin Berman and Rod McInnes