The total number of crimes recorded by police in England and Wales rose by 10 per cent between March 2016 and March 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
That’s the biggest annual increase in a decade, and it comes after years of cuts that have seen police numbers fall by 20,000 since 2010 (which we subjected to the FactCheck treatment earlier this year).
In April, the assistant commissioner at the Metropolitan Police, Martin Hewitt, said ‘it would be a naive answer to say that if you cut a significant amount out of an organisation, you don’t have any consequences’.
But is there strong evidence that austerity played a role?
The number of recorded crimes has risen since austerity began
The police recorded nearly 5 million offences in the 12 months up to March 2017 – a 10 per cent increase from the previous year. We haven’t seen such a sharp spike for over a decade.
Between 2004 and 2010, the number of crimes recorded by police in England and Wales each year was falling. The coalition’s spending cuts started to take effect in 2011, and since then, crime rates have crept up. They’re not as high as they were in 2003-4 (when total recorded crimes were at 6 million), but they’re on their way.
Are there genuinely more crimes, or are police just better at recording them?
Successive governments have tried to get police forces to record the true extent of crimes for years. Forces came under renewed pressure in 2014 after the UK Statistics Authority stripped them of their ‘official statistics’ status.
Since then, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary has been carrying out spot-checks, and has said that many forces still need to improve their recording practices.
You might think then, that today’s figures simply show that the police are responding to this pressure, and getting better at reporting crimes.
That’s been true in previous years, but it doesn’t quite explain what’s happened this year.
John Flatley from the ONS said that ‘while ongoing improvements to recording practices are driving this volume rise [in the number of recorded crimes], we believe actual increases in crime are also a factor in a number of categories’.
In other words, the police are getting better at recording crime, but the number of crimes is also going up.
Are crime rates linked to police officer numbers?
When you compare the year-on-year changes in police numbers with the number of recorded crimes in England and Wales, it’s difficult to see a strong statistical link. For example, officer numbers rose between 2008 and 2009, but reported crimes fell in the same period.
This is shown in the graph below, which uses data from the ONS.
Police records are not the only – or necessarily the best – way to measure crime
It’s also worth remembering that the crimes recorded by the police are not the only way we measure crime.
The ONS also uses the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) to estimate the number of crimes each year. The Survey – conducted by the ONS – interviews a representative sample of the population to ask if they’ve experienced crime in the last 12 months.
Interestingly, this year’s Survey showed a 7 per cent fall in the total number of crimes in England and Wales, despite the 10 per cent rise in crimes recorded by the police.
Although the Survey estimated that there were 5.9 million incidents of crime this year – 900,000 more than the police recorded.
So why are the two figures different?
First of all, the Survey results are an estimate based on a sample size of the population, whereas police records – in theory – should accurately account for every single case of recordable crime.
They also measure different types of crime. The Survey does not include crimes against businesses and organisations, and excludes so-called ‘victimless’ crimes like possession of drugs.
The Survey may also estimate a higher number of crimes each year because it includes crimes that were never reported to the police.
It’s true that there are 20,000 fewer police officers on the streets than there were when austerity began. It’s also true that crime rates have risen over that period.
But some of that rise is because the police have got better at recording crimes. And police records are not necessarily the best measure of crime rates in England and Wales. The Crime Survey says that crime has actually fallen by 7 per cent this year.
Ultimately, it’s very hard to tell whether austerity has led to more crime.