Yes but no but. Journalists debate crime trends

Date: 
Friday, 25 April, 2014

Yesterday's publication of the latest quarterly crime statistics has given journalists plenty to chew over.

Writing an opinion piece in The Guardian, Alan Travis is in no doubt:

'For once the much-derided official figures tell a clear and unambiguous story, overall crime levels in England and Wales are not only down but fell in 2013 by the largest annual drop on record – 15%.'

Despite this apparently good news, though, Travis notes that 'the pollsters tell us that the public refuses to believe it', something he puts down to there 'still plenty of victims of crime about' and the impact of media coverage.

In his accompanying news piece Travis notes that there is 'no consensus among criminologists about the key factors driving the sustained fall in crime'. His colleague Stuart Jeffries summarises some of the arguments for why violent crime has fallen (maybe).

Writing in The Independent, Paul Peachey is not so sure. While the Crime Survey for England and Wales - the government's current preferred measure - is often 'seen as the "gold standard", experts yesterday highlighted problems such as difficulties surveying families in inner city estates'.

According to Professor Marian Fitzgerald of the University of Kent, he writes, surveyors do not use interpreters; nor do  they interview school age children. She also argues that 'cyber-enabled' criminality - a growing problem - is not fully captured by the Survey.

Marian Fitzgerald's analysis is echoed in a commentary our director Richard Garside wrote for this site yesterday. 'Our data on different crime types is not what it's cracked up to be', he wrote, 'and most of the current explanations for observed crime trends are variously unevidenced and unconvincing'.

Read more about it

Marian Fitzgerald wrote a detailed analysis of some of the gaps and omissions in the current crime statistics for this website. Read Marian's analysis here.

Richard Garside's critique of the current violence data can be read here. Richard has also written on why talk over rises and falls in 'overall crime' is best reserved for crime involving overalls.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, David Barrett highlights the '25 per cent rise' in violence among two police forces, according to police recorded crime data last year. This was the result of greater accuracy in recording by the police, with the rise 'expected to continue in future statistics'.

Richard Ford also highlights changes in police recording practices in his article for The Times (subscription required). 'The trend suggests that tens of thousands of offences may have been hidden by police over the years', he notes.

Explainer: Crime Survey for England and Wales and Police Recorded Crime

The Crime Survey for England and Wales (formerly the British Crime Survey) is an annual rolling survey based on a sample of 35,000 to 40,000 people. It asks individuals about their experience of victimisation over the course of the previous 12 months.

Police recorded crime is based on data of suspected offences reported to the police or detected by them during the course of their activities. Their designation as a national statistic was removed by the UK Statistics Authority in January 2014 over concerns about their accuracy and reliability.

The different methodologies used to collate the Crime Survey for England and Wales and Police recorded crime data - one a survey, the other a measure of police activity - accounts in good part for their often divergent trends.

The Daily Mail's James Slack refers to police recorded crime data to claim that 'violent crime is on the rise after years of sharp decline (link currently not available). There has been 'an alarming 36 per cent spike in sex attacks against young children and a  6 per cent jum in shoplifting. Fraud jumped by a quarter.'

Meanwhile, writing for his BBC blog, Mark Easton welcomes the rise in police recorded sex offences as a sign that the police and other criminal justice agencies are taking allegations more seriously.

In conclusion

Conflicting datasets, measuring different things, offering only a partial and flawed picture at best, wrapped up in a confused set of explanations for crime trends, continue to offer plenty of scope for argument.