Factometer: fact

The claim
“This new analysis confirms that the level of violent crime actually reported to police officers in police stations up and down the country is much higher than it was a decade ago.”
Chris Grayling, Shadow Home Secretary, Press Association, 9 March 2010

Cathy Newman checks it out
To see Labour and the Conservatives trade blows on crime figures, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there are lies, damn lies and home office statistics. Last month, the Tories got in a muddle when they claimed violent crime had increased under Labour. Today, they returned to the fray, wheeling out a magisterial House of Commons statistician to back them up. So are they any closer to the truth now?

The analysis
Last month the Tories earned a rebuke from the statistics watchdog when they claimed violent crime had increased under Labour.

The Conservatives were using the number of violent crimes recorded by the police. But in 2002-3, a big change to the way in which crime was tallied meant contrasting the figures before and after that date is like comparing apples and pears.

When the new counting rules were brought in, police had to record any incident where the person considered themselves to have been a victim of a violent crime, regardless of the outcome of proceedings. This meant crimes that may not previously have stood up to the police definition of a violent crime started to show up in the figures.

The Home Office estimates that the new rules accounted for an apparent 23 per cent increase in violent crime.

So the Tories asked the House of Commons library statistician to adjust police recorded crime figures for the effect of the 23 per cent increase. In 1998-9, there were 502,778 violent offences recorded by the police in England and Wales. Multiply this by 23 per cent, and you get 618,417 offences. Compare the inflated 1998 figures to today’s, and it would seem that crime has increased by 44 per cent since 1998.

The Tories refused to publish the document in full.

But the government hit back, saying that violent crime in England and Wales had in fact fallen by 41 per cent (half a million fewer victims) since 1997. How so?

As it has done in the past, the government is using a different series of crime figures – the British Crime Survey.

The BCS has been around for nearly 30 years, and asks people whether they have been a victim of crime in the past year. So it’s based on what people say about crime when they’re surveyed, as opposed to incidents that are actually reported to the police. We’ve looked at the differences between this and police recorded crime several times, see here or here for more explanation.

The Home Office says the BCS better indicates long-term trends because it isn’t affected by changing levels of reporting to the police.

This doesn’t mean it’s perfect. The Conservatives pointed out that there are a number of exclusions from the BCS, including murder and (until the as-yet-unpublished 2009 research) crimes experienced by under-16s.

So who’s right – Labour or the Conservatives?

Cathy Newman’s verdict
Because the Tories are quoting from recorded crime figures and Labour are using the British Crime Survey, they’re both coming up with different snapshots that suit their own political agendas. There’s no doubt the Conservatives gaffed originally when they failed to take into consideration the new counting rules, so today’s figures are a definite improvement. But the statistics watchdog boss Sir Michael Scholar hasn’t finished with the Tories yet. He warned the shadow home secretary yesterday that the “selective quotation” of one series of crime statistics without the other “could prove misleading”. But that’s unlikely to stop either party spinning the figures as polling day approaches.

Update 1: Home Secretary Alan Johnson told Cathy Newman: “As the UK Statistics Authority has made clear, the British Crime Survey is the most reliable way by which crime is recorded. That clearly shows a 36 per cent reduction in crime and 41 per cent reduction in violent crime since 1997.

“Chris Grayling has been trying to mislead the public about crime stats but has been caught and reprimanded. It is vital that the Conservatives are not allowed to continue to mislead the public about this.”

Update 2: This House of Commons briefing paper, Trends in crime since 1997, was also released on 9 March. Was this where the Tories got their figures from? Although the paper contains a graph (last page) and some information on adjusted reported crime rates, it certainly didn’t seem to have enough to back up their claims.

However, a Conservative spokesperson said this was not the mystery document. The party were given data separately on crime rates since 1998 rather than 1997, as 1997 data contained six-months worth of crime rates under the last Conservative government.