[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 21 July, 2005, 09:34 GMT 10:34 UK
What do the crime figures tell us?
By Richard Garside
Crime and Society Foundation Director

Read some newspapers this morning and you would conclude that violent crime was spiralling out of control.

Man being led away in handcuffs
The latest reports are based on two sets of crime figures

Violent offences now top the million mark, up 8% from last year.

Then again, read other newspapers and you find that violent crime is at an all-time low, down 11% from last year and down 43% since 1995.

This all sounds rather confusing and contradictory, but it is not difficult to understand.

The old adage that the answer you get depends on the question you ask is as true of crime figures just as it is for intelligence on weapons of mass destruction or your friends' views on your latest outfit.

One set of figures is based on crimes reported to and recorded by the police.

Police figures tell us more about how good the police are at finding out about crime than about how much crime there really is

These figures tell us that violent crime now stands at just over a million offences, and is rising.

Police figures tell us many interesting things, but they do not necessarily give us a very clear picture of total crime.

An argument with a bloke in a pub might end up in fisticuffs.

It might get recorded as a crime if the police are on hand, or if the aggrieved party files a complaint at the station.

But he might just go home and sleep it off, in which case the assault will not appear on police crime figures.

Public's perception

So, however useful police figures are, they tell us more about how good the police are at finding out about crime than they do about how much crime there really is.

To get a better picture of real crime you need to ask members of the public, and this is what the other set of figures - the British Crime Survey (BCS) - does.

Police officers making notes
Police figures only include crimes the police know about

Researchers for the BCS interviewed more than 45,000 people over the course of the last year, asking them about their experience of crime victimisation.

This kind of approach will pick up some crime that victims would not report to the police - as a result the numbers are bigger.

Total crime last year according to the police figures was about 5.5 million offences, of which violent offences were about one million.

The BCS, by comparison, estimated that nearly 11 million offences were committed last year, of which around 2.5 million were crimes of violence.

But neither set of figures gives us a true picture of all crime.

Researchers' questions

The police crime figures are limited to those crimes the police know about.

The BCS is limited to the questions researchers ask and the people questioned.

One report estimated that around 130 million serious offences were committed in one year in the late 1990s

It only covers England and Wales, and it only asks people over the age of 16.

It also only covers a limited number of crimes - murder, drug offences and sexual assaults do not feature for instance.

And it certainly underestimates some crimes. According to the British Crime Survey around 500,000 domestic assaults were committed last year.

Other Home Office research puts the true figure at over 10 million

We should go back to the hardline approach and concentrate on the victims than the criminals
Craig, Salford

So how much crime is there really out there?

The best we can do is estimate but it is certainly more than the 5.5 million crimes the police record or the 11 million estimated by the BCS.

In a confidential report to Tony Blair a few years ago the former director general of the BBC, John Birt, estimated that around 130 million serious offences were committed in one year in the late 1990s.

This does not mean we should all be quaking in our beds. Most crime has always gone undetected and unrecorded, and probably always will do.

One woman talks about the effect violent crime had on her



News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific