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Conservative crime correspondence

Mark Easton | 11:13 UK time, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Letters just published show how the shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling, has been trying to rethink the Conservative election strategy on crime.

You may recall that he got into trouble with the statistics watchdog when he used dodgy data to suggest that violent crime had soared under Labour.

The UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) advised him to use the British Crime Survey (BCS) instead, a source which, irritatingly for Mr Grayling, suggests violent crime has fallen by more than 40% since 1997.

Now the UKSA has released correspondence from its chairman, Sir Michael Scholar, responding to letters from Mr Grayling.

We only get one half of the dialogue, but the replies are nevertheless revealing. The shadow home secretary has been having telephone conversations with the authority, trying to get agreement on what figures he can use without risking further rebuke.

In response, Sir Michael suggests that:

in order to meet your wish to ensure that you use reliable methodology in discussing recorded crime figures, you take sound professional statistical advice, and that the House of Commons Library is a good source of such professional advice

It is clear from this that Mr Grayling prefers to focus on police recorded statistics rather than the BCS. His difficulty has been that the method for collecting violent offences data changed radically in 2002, making direct comparisons of recorded crime before and after that time potentially misleading.

However, it appears he has not given up hope of finding a way around the problem and believes he has had some success with the Commons' advisors.

In response to another letter from Mr Grayling, Sir Michael writes:

You asked me to confirm that there will be no further intervention from the Authority if you make public the views expressed in your letter, based, as you record them to be, on advice from the House of Commons Library.

However, the authority's response to Mr Grayling's question is not one that would be welcomed by any campaign team hoping for a simple slogan to suggest increased violence under the incumbent government.

On some issues - including violent crime - there are several series of statistics which attempt to measure the same phenomenon using different methodologies, and which can sometimes produce results which appear to point in different directions. In such cases, the selective quotation of one without regard to the other could prove misleading, and a balanced presentation of an inevitably complex case would refer to all available statistics, and the uncertainties and ambiguities which they sometimes reveal.

A Conservative poster with the legend "MUGGINGS UP" would have to include a caveat along the lines of "...or quite probably down, depending on which figures you look at".

As if to make the political campaigner's life even more difficult, Sir Michael again stresses that the best measure for violent crime trends is the one that shows it falling.

He writes that:

a more balanced commentary on national trends in violent crime would, in the view of the Authority, also make reference to the estimates given in the British Crime Survey, which in our view provide a more reliable measure of the national trend over time

Sir Michael ends by writing that the Authority won't criticise Mr Grayling's stats "unless we judge it clearly necessary... to prevent damage to trust in official statistics". The shadow home secretary may find this less than entirely reassuring, given the UKSA's warning that "selective quotation" might well be deemed "misleading".

It could be argued that political campaigns have always been about "selective quotation". Candidates see themselves not as judges summing up a case, but as barristers using the best available evidence to prove that the other lot are hapless and hopeless. The idea that political parties should try to portray "a more balanced commentary on national trends" will be hard for some to take. Sir Michael's words could have implications for the eager campaign teams of any party looking to use official statistics.

PS: It's been revealed this morning that the Conservatives believe the House of Commons Library research demonstrates that violent crime has risen 44% under Labour, but the government continues to dispute the accuracy of the claim.


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