“Violent crime is rising in Scotland”

That was the claim from Rishi Sunak as he faced MPs in the House of Commons for the first time as prime minister.

He was responding to a question from the SNP’s Ian Blackford, and seemed to use the claim as a criticism of the SNP-led Scottish government, which has responsibility for policing.

But the evidence we have is far from conclusive.

It looks like the new prime minister is referring to the fact that Scottish police recorded 12 per cent more non-sexual violent crimes in 2021-22 than in the previous year, and 15 per cent more sexual crimes. Police recorded sexual crimes are now at a 51-year high.

However, the same dataset also shows a 23 per cent fall in police recorded non-sexual crimes of violence since 2008-09.

And, as regular FactCheck readers will know, police records are not a comprehensive picture of crime for two reasons.

The first is that, as official Scottish government figures show, about half of crimes are never reported to the police (we know this thanks to the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey, which we’ll look at shortly).

Second, it’s difficult to use police records to track changes over time because the police often change how they record crimes. So a rise in police recorded crime may reflect administrative changes, rather than a change in the real-world crime rate.

One way to get round these issues is to look at the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey (SCJS), which is run by official statisticians. They interview a representative sample of the Scottish public to ask about their experiences of crime in the previous 12 months.

According to the latest SCJS, which covers 2019-20, non-sexual violent crime has fallen 39 per cent since 2008-09, when comparable data began. And the statisticians say there was no statistically significant change compared to the previous year. (That means that they estimated a possible increase in crime, but that they couldn’t be more than 95 per cent confident that it was genuine, and not a quirk in the data caused by chance.)

Regarding sexual crimes, the SCJS estimates “no change” since the last report, or since 2008-09, in the proportion of people who experienced serious sexual assault in the previous 12 months. (That analysis covers Surveys conducted in 2018-19 and 2019-20 so the sample is big enough to make meaningful estimates.)

The SCJS is not perfect: it can’t tell us about crimes against businesses and it can only ever produce estimates of the number of crimes taking place, or the proportion of people who are victims of sexual crimes. But it does give important insights into the crimes that never reach the attention of police.

FactCheck verdict

Rishi Sunak said that violent crime is rising in Scotland. But the evidence we have shows a mixed picture.

Police in Scotland recorded more sexual and non-sexual violent crimes in the last year than in the previous 12 months. But compared to 2008-09, police recorded non-sexual violent crime has fallen by nearly a quarter.

And by another major measure – the annual Scottish Crime and Justice Survey – the number of non-sexual violent crimes is the same as it was in the previous year, and is much lower than it was in 2008-09. By this measure, the proportion of people victimised by sexual crimes has stayed at the same level since 2008.

Downing Street was contacted for comment.