The police's crime figures are not rated as a 'national statistic'.
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Police crime figures haven’t fallen – but that’s a good thing

Today's crime figures have shone light on an issue made famous by a landmark TV series: do the police fix their stats? The fact that their measure of crime hasn't fallen may actually be a good thing.

Making robberies into larcenies, making rapes disappear… you juke the stats and majors become colonels.

One of the recurring themes of The Wire, the landmark 2000s-era television series on Baltimore’s drug-addled plight, is how the police fix crime statistics.

Do our police fix the stats? Recent revelations suggest they might. In November, whistleblowers told a select committee of MPs that they did. And in January, the government's top statistician downgraded the police's numbers – they are no longer counted as a 'national statistic'.

Today's release of the yearly crime figures for England and Wales have reignited the debate. The police's figures suggest there has been no change in crime.

From March 2013 to March 2014, crime fell by 0.4 per cent – its smallest decrease in a decade.

This seems discouraging. But it may actually mean these stats are the most reliable in years.

The problem with police numbers is the people that produce them are the same people who are judged by them. As The Wire showed, there is a crippling conflict of interest at the heart of the process.

This encouraged the Office of National Statistics to create an alternative crime measure in 1981. Their survey, of around 50,000 households, has been collected yearly for more than a decade – and has become the more reliable measure of crime.

According to the ONS, crime fell by 14 per cent in the past year.

Their data may be more accurate – but it also allows us to judge the police’s numbers. If there is a big difference between the number of crimes the ONS is reporting and the police are recording, that may indicate the police are producing ‘soft’ stats.

It appears that may have happened throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. The ONS’s survey consistently reported more than three times as many crimes as the police. But after a reporting change in the late 1990s, the difference came down.

By the early 2000s the survey was only reporting twice as many crimes as the police. In recent years that ratio began to creep back up towards a three-fold difference. But, thanks to the fall in the ONS’s measure, the difference has fallen back down to the level of the early 2000s.

Simon Jenkins, the one-time crime reporter and long-time national journalist, recently argued that "police statistics have been a conspiracy against truth for decades". "The only crime figures that should count are those of the BCS."

That may be so. But comparing the two sets of numbers can give us an indication of how unrealistic the police numbers can be.

While big falls in crime make good headlines, we should be more concerned with the legitimacy of the numbers we are fed. If today’s figures are an indication of better stats, they should be welcomed.

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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