Crime Statistics: Who can we count on?

Professor Tim Hope argues that the most surprising thing about recent revelations that the police fiddle crime figures is that it should have come as any surprise at all.

By: 
Professor Tim Hope
Date: 
Thursday, 10 April, 2014

For those of us engaged in teaching Criminology, perhaps the most surprising (though welcome) thing about the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee's (PASC) report Caught red-handed: Why we can’t count on Police Recorded Crime statistics is that the realisation that the police abuse the current system should have come as any surprise at all.

Over at least the past fifty years, study after study, in Britain and around the world, has concluded that what the police choose to record as crime is fundamentally bound up with how the police choose to define what it is that they do. As Keith Bottomley and Ken Pease (1986) remarked back in 1986, there is a truism about the production of statistics on crime; that those statistics that are seen as reflecting on the capacities, qualities and preferences of those whose actions they purport to describe are more liable to distortion than are those that are thought of as neutral fact-finding mechanisms. Thus the England and Wales Crime Survey remains the whited sepulchre of truth, the Nation’s favourite crime statistic, while Police Recorded Crime is now the fallen idol, along with the Chief Constables who worshipped it.

Yet only three years ago, the National Statistician was given responsibility for the publication of the  Crime Statistics because the Government couldn’t be trusted not to distort the findings from its statistics in order to paint itself in the best possible light regarding what a previous Home Secretary had called the '…crusade (sic) against crime'. Now, it’s the police service that is in the dock, for much the same reason. Notwithstanding the reprehensible abuses of public trust that have mired crime statistics for years (the PASC report lists no less than twelve official reports raising concerns in the past decade and a half), there is more than a whiff of pots and kettles about the current farrago.

PASC notes that it should not have taken the courageous actions of a Whistle-blower – PC James Patrick – to instigate its inquiry, much to his own personal cost. No it shouldn’t. The National Statistician had set-up the Crime Statistics Advisory Committee (CSAC) to advise on '…how best to ensure that official statistics on crime for England and Wales are accurate, clearly presented, comprehensive, transparent and trustworthy'. Alongside stakeholders, included in its membership are eight non-executive members who are '…mostly academics'.

PASC concludes that CSAC '…has failed. It has not demonstrated sufficient independence and objectivity in carrying out its role… as set out in its terms of reference. CSAC has a vital role in leading the efforts to provide that the system guarantees the reliability and integrity of all crime statistics emerge strengthened from this episode'.

J’accuse…!