Crime stats: The truth is out there

A police officer at a crime scene

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Last week, the UK Statistics Authority, the watchdog that oversees the publication of official data, said it could no longer approve crime figures based on information recorded by the police in England and Wales.

The report said that there was accumulating evidence that the figures may not be reliable - and they needed to be thoroughly overhauled.

The decision to "de-designate" police statistics does not affect the reliability of the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), which is the other official measure. But it is damaging all the same, given that the police should be fairly well-placed to tell us what is happening on the streets.

Sir Andrew Dilnot, the head of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA), has now confirmed to MPs that the problems look so bad that the effort to fix police failings will probably lead to a rise in the number of recorded crimes.

Speaking to the the Public Administration Select Committee on Tuesday, he said: "It is quite conceivable, indeed I think quite likely, that if there is proper auditing introduced, the recording of crime is improved, that we will see recorded crime increase."


There's no dispute that crime has been steadily falling since the mid-1990s across the UK - as it has been in many other industrialised nations.

But about seven years ago, incidents recorded by the police began to fall faster than those uncovered in the extensive face-to-face interviews conducted by the rolling national survey.


  • Percentage fall in offences recorded by the police: 33%
  • Percentage fall in offences recorded by the Crime Survey: 17%
  • Difference of 16 percentage points, outside of expected error range
  • Figures relate to comparable crimes featuring in both the survey and police figures, not total crime

What emerged from Tuesday's evidence was that the two measures of counting crime began to diverge in 2006-07. That coincides with the period when the Audit Commission lost its role in overseeing the police's collection and presentation of the data.

Experts at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) appear to have long suspected that the two events were linked - but they only began their own analysis when responsibility for crime data passed from the Home Office in April 2012.

After nine months of number-crunching, the ONS concluded in a technical report that there could be a real problem with police practices.

Within the pages of neutrally-presented evidence, the ONS said some police forces might be guilty of a "gradual erosion of compliance" with the national rules on counting crime. The report made headlines at the time because it begged a question: are police figures exaggerating falls in crime?

The ONS warned UKSA that the matter needed investigating - ultimately leading a year later to the decision to downgrade the police figures.


  • Pre-2006: Audit Commission carries out annual analysis of how police are recording crime
  • 2006-07: Government removes that requirement
  • 2007-08 Audit Commission publishes final short follow-up report
  • 2011-12: HMIC produces first report on quality of crime data
  • 2014: Full HMIC report on crime data expected in April

Those suspicions are now supported by evidence. While statisticians think some under-counting comes from human error, they say some mistakes could be caused by specific factors. These include a lack of training, failing to record offences which are dealt with informally at a neighbourhood level and even confusion among some officers over whether an offence even occurred when a suspect has gone free.

More seriously, the figures in some categories may have been massaged down to hit local performance targets. This could include defining a partially-reported offence as "no crime" or a "crime-related incident" - neither of which make it into national figures.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary has separately reported on major problems with figures from Kent. It is now preparing a national review of all forces and the inspectorate's chief, Tom Winsor, has warned that he expects his forthcoming report will uncover "fiddling".

All of that chimes with controversial evidence to MPs from police officers who explained how figures have been manipulated down the years - including allegations that the true level of sexual offences has been masked.

During his appearance before MPs, Sir Andrew Dilnot conceded that, with hindsight, the watchdog could have acted a little more quickly - and that's a lesson learnt.

But he stressed that the real question is how to best audit the police stats to ensure the figures can be trusted.

So we can expect to see audit and oversight teams walking into police headquarters - and that will ultimately lead to more crimes being recorded.

The paperwork will ultimately show a rise in the total numbers of crimes in England and Wales - and that will worry some people, even if, in reality, the actual crime rate hasn't changed at all.

Assuming those police stats go up, while the Crime Survey continues to show falls, it could be very, very confusing in the run-up to the 2015 General Election.

But in the long-term, we may get a clearer and more trustworthy set of figures that explain the real impact that crime has on society.

Dominic Casciani Article written by Dominic Casciani Dominic Casciani Home affairs correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 286.

    @267..How about real prisons not Butlins style holiday camps? Time served is now seen as a badge of honour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 285.

    Police and thieves on the streets...

    And the politicians (and the "police and crime commissioners")...

    Hang the lot of them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 284.

    @277...most people don't bother reporting crime anymore. unfortunately, unless you need an incident number for insurance, there's no point. The police are so understaffed, they won't even bother to show up (Sussex). I have had damage, reported burglar alarms, etc. and all you get is "if you can't see anyone committing the act, we won't respond"! They'll never admit that crime is through the roof.

  • rate this

    Comment number 283.

    I think the question that really needs to be asked is how much public money is being expended to produce figures which are essentially meaningless to all but a very small number of people. People on the left dont believe them, people on the right accept that they dont represent a comprehensive picture Why waste public money producing them at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 282.


    "Bring back the birch" and "Bring back the noose" are two statements I would find amusing if they were not equally terrifying.
    I'd tend to agree with u except that criminals are now coming out of prison so cocky prison is clearly now more of a crime uni than it's ever been. A little rebalancing needed?... But, hey, mark me down... I'm getting used to theft anyway...

  • rate this

    Comment number 281.

    There are 2 Police forces, one is the highly ambitious, highly politicised academics now occupying the higher ranks of the police and the other is the ordinary police officer. The latter generally cares about justice and public service the first only cares about their careers and pleasing those with influence. Form filling is now half of police work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

    I can prove anything by statistics except the truth.

    George Canning

  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    Yes 278, they are recreating a Golden Age of Punishment which didn't exist in terms of solving anything.

  • rate this

    Comment number 278.

    "Bring back the birch" and "Bring back the noose" are two statements I would find amusing if they were not equally terrifying. It's as if these regressive types are reminiscing a pre-1965 utopian Britain where hangmen and lashes righted non-existent wrongs in a crime-free society. I think the biggest danger to our streets today is the incessant funding cuts to the emergency services.

  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    My car was vandalized so many times in the past; wing mirror; door keyed; number plate taken. I didn't bother reporting any of this, so no, I don't believe the figures. But the BBC will continue to report the government propaganda.

  • rate this

    Comment number 276.

    Crime statistics can definitely be relied on - to have been manipulated to make someone or something look better or worse than they actually are. All statistics can be relied on in this way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 275.

    I work in this field and I can assure you all that you can NOT trust crime figures to reflect any rises or drops in crime figures. They can be massaged to show whatever the powers that be want them to show.

    Want a drop in burglary figures, take an attempt to gemmy a window of a house - simply record the crime as a criminal damage and not an attempt break - happens all the time

  • rate this

    Comment number 274.

    "Can crime statistics be relied upon?"

    110% believable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 273.

    Sadly just like our politicians the Police and the truth are like oil and water, they simply don't mix.

  • rate this

    Comment number 272.

    Oh please. Of course they can't. Inflation, unemployment, crime... all these are lies to try and keep the population quiet.
    (ONS says 72% of 16-64 are employed .somuch for 7% unemployment - and don't forget 30% of those employed only have part time and 40% are employed by the tax payer!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 271.

    Obviously crime needs to be monitored, however, the last people actually compiling the stats should be the Police. If a neutral body were involved then perhaps we could place some faith in them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    Can you trust the police figures ......errrr......NO
    Can you trust the police .........errrr .....NO
    Can you trust Government figures ..errrr .....NO
    Can you trust Government .........errrr .....NO
    Can you trust any MP .........errrr .....NO NEVER
    Do all the above tell the truth ....... NO .... NEVER
    who is there to protect the law abiding people, NO ONE

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    MaryLamb44 @ 268:

    Good comment.

    It's similar to a remark made to a Liberal MP at the House of Commons by a Conservative MP.

    "It's only the Liberals who could exclude a member for a sex scandal where no sex took place"

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.


    New weapon to pump-up crime stats

    "3,000 men in London arrested for 'unwanted sexual advances' in doorway incidences"

    MrX denied the accusation

    He told the court that Miss Y verbally attacked him when he opened a door for her

    She barked: "Did you open that door for me just because I'm a woman?"

    He answered: "No madam, because I'm a gentleman"

    He awaits judgement

  • rate this

    Comment number 267.

    The only way to get crime down is to have long prison sentences, which means bigger prisons. As far as I know a scumbag criminal cannot commit crime from a prison cell.

    Get them out of society into a cell and throw away the key for a long time.


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