Is “violent crime up on our streets”? That’s the claim Labour are making in election leaflets today, as Britain prepares to head to the polls.
But the UK Statistics Authority recently wrote to the party, pointing out that official data shows “little change in overall violent crime in recent years”.
Are Britain’s streets really less safe than they used to be?
We asked Labour for the source of their claim that violent crime is rising, and they pointed us to the latest police recorded crime figures (here – table A4)
These do show a rise in “violence against the person” offences. Nearly 1.7 million of these crimes were recorded by police between July 2018 to July 2019, compared to less than 1.5 million in the previous 12 months.
There has been a consistent, long-term rise in police records of this type of offence, and this is what Labour have used to justify previous claims that violent crime had “doubled” under the Conservatives.
Violence without injury
But as we pointed out in a previous FactCheck, “violence against the person” includes crimes that do not actually lead to physical harm. In fact, two-thirds of crime classed as “violent” does not lead to injury.
It’s “violence without injury” crimes, and offences related to stalking and harassment, that are driving most of the long-term rise in the “violence against the person” category.
The most serious offences – classified as “violence with injury” – have also risen in recent years, but less steeply than “violence against the person” as a whole.
The ONS says the figures for stalking and harassment need to be interpreted with caution because “it is likely that recording improvements are an important factors in this rise, particularly in relation to malicious communications offences”.
In fact, entries for “malicious communications” have gone from zero to more than 200,000 offences in two years, meaning this offence alone now makes up more than a tenth of all “violence against the person” crimes.
‘Better indication of overall trends’
There’s a bigger problem with using police recorded data to talk about overall trends in violent crime: the statisticians who compile the figures specifically warn against doing this.
Police recorded stats – the ones Labour rely on – lost their designation as “official statistics” in 2014 over concerns about their accuracy.
The other main way of measuring violent crime is the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), data based on interviews with the public about their experiences of crime, rather than internal police data.
The Office for National Statistics says: “The CSEW provides the better indication of overall trends in violent crime, giving a good measure of the more common but less harmful offences.
“Police recorded crime provides a better measure of the more harmful but less common offences. Such offences are not well-measured by the survey because of their relatively low volume.”
It is fair to say that police figures do show increases in some specific categories of crime – like those involving firearms and knives.
Labour have pointed out to us that Conservative ministers have themselves described a “rise of serious violence” in relation to stabbings.
But if we use the crime survey figures to look at overall trends – as the ONS says we should – there has been “no change in the level of violence in recent years”.
Sir David Norgrove, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, wrote to Jeremy Corbyn last week about Labour’s use of crime statistics, saying: “The best measure of trends in overall violent crime is the Crime Survey for England and Wales, which is not affected by changes in recording practices and police activity.
“The Crime Survey shows little change in overall violent crime in recent years.
“However, while police-recorded crime has significant limitations, it is better suited than the Crime Survey to measuring trends in some of the more harmful crimes that occur in relatively low volumes.”
We asked Labour whether they had any response to Sir David’s letter.
A spokesperson said: “The Tories seem more concerned with writing letters than fighting crime.” (The UK Statistics Authority is an independent body).
The spokesman added: “Even Boris Johnson now admits his party’s cuts to the police have contributed to a ‘rising tide of violence’. You cannot trust the Tories to fix the crisis they have caused.”