Page last updated at 12:47 GMT, Thursday, 19 July 2007 13:47 UK

Gaining public trust in crime figures

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News home affairs

A map from showing recent bank machine thefts
Recent thefts near a bank machine -
Need to use a cash machine? Worried about someone nicking your wallet as you walk away? How on earth can you be sure you are safe?

On the one hand the British Crime Survey says "snatch thefts" have been declining for four years - but on the other hand police have recorded 3% more robberies over the last 12 months.

Confused? The Home Office has conceded you probably are. It's had a long think about how it compiles crime figures and how it presents them.

The upshot is that ministers, backed by top criminologists, are aiming to completely change the way the public understand crime.

Neighbourhood watch

If you live in Chicago, USA, you can find out pretty easily the risk of robbery at the cash machine on the corner.


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Put the address you are worried about into and up pops a map of all the recent crimes in that neighbourhood.

You, as a citizen, have meaningful information about the neighbourhood - and maybe a sudden urge to write angry letters to your local police chief.

And that's the difference at the moment between how some in the US can interpret crime - and the government experts in the UK says we need to.

At present, the national media and Westminster politicians get into an annual "here we go again" round of shock figures, disputed interpretations and claims of lies, damned lies and statistics.

Ultimately for many there is a resigned feeling that nobody is really sure what is happening on British streets.

Figures stable
Risk of being a victim slightly up
Majority think crime is rising

The 2006-07 figures show overall crime rate remains stable - but the government has also found 65% of people think crime is getting worse nationally. This is perhaps the most worrying scenario for policymakers with public trust declining irrespective of the facts. And this is where Professor Adrian Smith comes in.

Professor Smith led an independent review of how the government compiles and presents crime statistics and last year came up with the some pretty hard-hitting conclusions.

He warned public trust in national crime stats can be quickly undermined because what we see as the national picture may bear no resemblance to what we individually experience locally.

If street violence goes up nationally, residents in the leafiest safest suburbs will be convinced things are getting worse, even if there hasn't been a mugging near them since 1953.

At the other end of the spectrum, people suffering anti-social behaviour on inner city estates will conclude the government is lying because it's even worse where they are.

In the middle of all this stands the media which, Home Office crime chiefs delicately suggest, doesn't always aid public understanding with a marketplace of opinions on how dangerous the streets of Britain really are. And part of the problem is there is more than one way to count a crime.

Different measures

The UK has been compiling crime statistics since 1805. Back then the government just totted up court convictions.

To be persuaded crime is going down, look at the government figures. To be persuaded it is not, look out the window
B Anderson

Today, the police record crime, but not all recorded crime has always been presented in national figures.

And when in 1998 the government extended the list of crimes to be included in national data, the figures jumped.

So the Home Office has tended to steer the public to the entirely separate British Crime Survey, a rolling study of the underlying trends based on interviews in huge national samples.

It's a widely respected tool - but it has some flaws which statisticians like Prof Smith say have not helped improve public trust.

So two centuries on from the first crime statistics, the Home Office is planning to move to a much more sophisticated system to restore public trust and confidence.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has accepted the broad thrust of Prof Smith's plans to roll out localised crime data, giving us monthly figures on what is going on outside our front doors.

West Yorkshire Police Authority has already launched online maps in the spirit of and all other constabularies in England and Wales will have them in place by July next year, says Ms Smith.

So the Home Office is changing the way it presents crime figures to win a battle for public confidence based on local facts - not national fears.

Interestingly, it has also decided that from now on ministerial comments on crime - i.e. those prone to political argument - will be released separately to the dry statistics produced by civil servants.

The question is whether the new local maps of crime hotspots will change the debate in Westminster and the media.

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Home Affairs Committee spokesman on the strategy


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