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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 July, 2003, 13:08 GMT 14:08 UK
Crime figures paint confusing picture

By Danny Shaw
BBC home affairs correspondent

Officers on the beat
Police have changed the way they count crimes

Violent crime is soaring, but overall crime is down; the murder rate has jumped to all-time high, but car crime is at a record low.

Confused? You have a right to be.

The statistics released by the Home Office are arguably the most puzzling crime figures they've ever produced.

One reason is because police have changed the way they count crimes. Previously, offences were only recorded if officers felt it was necessary to do so. The result was that a lot of minor crimes never made it onto the books.

Anomaly

The change has meant that for some categories crime appears to be increasing dramatically when in fact it's more of a statistical anomaly.

Another reason is that some forces have introduced a big drive to encourage victims to report offences to police.

So, recorded figures have gone up, though the actual level of crimes may not have done.

It certainly goes some way to explaining why rape against women has jumped 27%.

Muddied

The picture is muddied even further because along with the figures collected by police, the Home Office has published the results of the British Crime Survey, which is based on a sample of 40,000 adults.

The survey is regarded by officials as more reliable than police figures at identifying crime trends because the methodology hasn't altered and it takes into account crimes that go unreported. But it's not quite as up-to-date as the police figures.

With so many different sets of figures and adjustments to be made, sweeping generalisations are probably inadvisable.

It's not possible to say whether there's an epidemic of "stranger" violence and attacks on women, as some newspapers are saying.

Nor can it be said if there's been a surge in drug-related crime, because figures for drug possession and supply are driven by police activity: the more drug raids there are, the more drug offences there are.

What can be concluded is that, overall, crime has fallen: a drop fuelled by lower rates of burglary and vehicle crime.

But there are signs that the decline is levelling off, and that the steep falls of recent years have passed. The challenge for ministers and the authorities is to keep crime at that level, or reduce it further.

Violence

The bad news is that whichever figures you look at, violence is on the increase. Most violent crimes are minor assaults - scuffles and brawls in pubs and clubs.

Men are usually involved, and drink, more often that not, has got something to do with it.

Is this because we're becoming a more violent society? The experts say probably not; more likely it's because we're less tolerant of anti-social, thuggish behaviour and tend to report it more often.

Also possibly because we're living through relatively prosperous times with more money to spend on leisure, including alcohol.

Shipman

Harold Shipman
Harold Shipman was responsible for one in six homicides.
Of course, the one figure you can't dispute is the homicide rate. A suspicious death is a suspicious death, wherever it happens.

However, the increase in killings from 891 to 1048 is not a sign that we're more violent; it's because the figure include 172 murders judged to have been committed by the serial killer, Harold Shipman. Take away that 172 and the murder rate has gone down.

Although the next set of crime figures promises to be clearer because the new recording methods will allow proper comparisons to be made, the confusion isn't helping the government get its message across that crime is falling.

Almost three-quarters of those surveyed believe crime has risen in the last two years - a far higher proportion than previously.

Home Office researchers hint that the tabloids are to blame for giving a distorted image of crime.

But the statisticians must take some responsibility as well, since they're the ones who've produced this muddled set of figures.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Daniel Sandford
"The number of violent crimes recorded by the police went up 22% last year"



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