- Public perceives that crime is increasing
- Surge after two-decade decline
- Crime up in deprived urban areas
Is crime rising? A snapshot of regional front pages suggests that it is. On a recent July morning, The Birmingham Post led on the traumatic theft of a car with a baby inside; the Yorkshire Post reported the stabbing of a 15-year-old boy; while the Liverpool Echo focused on a murder.
Each of the stories reflected an emerging consensus that after a decline of nearly two decades, crime is becoming a significant problem for the UK. This year has seen a sharp increase in public concern over crime, which was the fourth biggest concern for the country after Brexit, healthcare and immigration — and the biggest concern for Londoners — in the latest poll from Ipsos Mori
Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, called July 19 — when the Office for National Statistics published figures showing an 11 per cent year-on-year increase in crime recorded by the police — “a shameful day for the prime minister”.
Yet working out which crimes have increased — and by how much — is more complicated than the headlines suggest. Figures published on July 19 by the Crime Survey of England and Wales, which is usually regarded as the most reliable barometer, showed the number of offences was unchanged for the year to March compared with the previous year.
However, this reassuring message is undermined by police data that point to big increases in some types of crime. Determining which of these seemingly contradictory statistics is correct will influence levels of resources allocated to policing in future.
Statistics mask changes in some crime rates
At the heart of the controversy lies the strength and weakness of the different types of data. The crime survey is well regarded because it relies on individuals’ accounts of their experience of crime. It is unaffected by police willingness to record crimes or by the readiness of individuals to report offences.
Police figures, on the other hand, can reflect pressure on forces to record more incidents as a crime, particularly for sexual and domestic offences that they might once have ignored.
Sir Craig Mackey, deputy commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police, acknowledged the evidence appeared contradictory. He pointed to increases in a range of offences, including “volume crimes” such as thefts from cars, as signs of a general resurgence of crime across England and Wales.
“We’ve seen historic falls in things like burglary, but we started to see that tick back up,” said Sir Craig.
[Crime] is not starting to go up for nice, white middle-class people in Richmond. It’s concentrated in particular minority groups in the capital
But Ben Bradford, professor of global city policing at University College London, pointed out that statistics recorded by police contradicted not only crime survey data but also information on hospital admissions. Admissions for injuries from violence rose only a modest 1 per cent between 2016 and 2017 in England and Wales.
As a result, Professor Bradford said he was “sitting on the fence” about whether overall crime was rising.
“The crime survey . . . is yet to start moving upwards for most crime types,” he said. “When the data are moving in different directions, you have to be very cautious.”
Better police reporting boosts some figures
Rick Muir, director of the Police Foundation, a think-tank, said the crime survey made it clear that the incidence of many offences was significantly lower than when crime rates peaked in the UK in the mid-1990s.
“We’ve had a significant drop in traditional volume crime — your burglaries, your car crime, your low-level violence, minor assaults and all that stuff, stuff that was relatively low harm but high volume,” Mr Muir said.
The jump in the incidence of other crime may reflect pressure on the police — particularly from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, the regulator — to record a higher number of offences.
For example, the 24 per cent increase in recorded sexual offences in 2017-18 — which the crime survey showed to have risen by just 0.7 per cent — almost certainly reflected a jump in the recording of incidents, according to a note from the Office for National Statistics.
“HMIC has been really pushing forces to record crime better,” Mr Muir said.
Yet there are also areas where crime is clearly increasing. The most obvious is the surge in homicides which, when adjusted to exclude the distorting effects of mass-casualty events such as the Manchester Arena bombing, were up 12 per cent in the year to March compared with the previous year.
Because almost all killings are reported to police and there is little argument about the definition of a murder, the figures are seen as reliable.
Vehicle theft has also increased sharply across England and Wales, thanks to a mixture of factors, including London’s surge in moped-related crime and the use of technology to clone electronic car keys.
Crime up in deprived urban communities
But the figures mask big contrasts between different areas of England and Wales. Homicides in London for the year to March were up 49 per cent on the previous year. Burglaries — another offence for which police records are likely to be reliable because of insurance companies’ demands — were up 10 per cent in London, against a 6 per cent average for England and Wales.
According to Professor Bradford, the overall picture that emerges is of a resurgence in serious violent crime in some urban areas, particularly among poor and minority ethnic communities. Property crimes such as robbery also appear to affect such areas disproportionately.
Serious violent crime has risen in some urban areas © PA
“[Crime] is not starting to go up for nice, white middle-class people in Richmond,” Professor Bradford said, referring to a genteel south-west London suburb. “It’s concentrated in particular minority groups in the capital.”
Mr Muir agreed and said that while low-level crime used to be a common experience, crime patterns had shifted, and now disproportionately affected a relatively small group of the most disadvantaged.
“That tells us that some people’s lives are really blighted by it and that hasn’t changed very much over 20 years,” he said.