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Violent crime falling says new study

Mark Easton | 15:42 UK time, Wednesday, 21 April 2010

New figures released today have thrown an incendiary into the election debate on violent crime.

Analysis of hospital data for England and Wales, by academics at Cardiff University [191KB PDF], shows there were 64,000 fewer violence-related attendances in emergency departments last year than in 2001 - a fall of just over 15%.

This contrasts with Conservative claims that violent crime has increased by 44% since 2002. It also appears to contradict Liberal Democrat analysis that hospital admissions for assault are rising.

The figures from the Cardiff study neatly track the downward trend in violence identified by the British Crime Survey (BCS), adding new weight to the argument that, for most people, England and Wales are less violent places than they were a decade ago.

Trends in violence graph

The BCS, which identifies more than twice as many crimes as the recorded statistics, asks more than 40,000 people each year about their experiences of violence and is regarded as the best measure of crime trends. It suggests the number of victims of violence has halved since 1995.

Police records of violence are thought more unreliable because they are affected by people's willingness to report crimes, police activity and changes to methodology.

However, today's report does also refer to a recent decline in recorded violence.

"Violence recorded by the police; 'violence against the person', fell six per cent between 2007/08 and 2008/09, to the lowest figure since 2002/03.9 Violence against the person with and without injury both fell between 2007/08 and 2008/09 to their lowest levels since 2002/03. It is recognised however, that police records are an unreliable measure of violence."

The Cardiff data is more encouraging news that, whatever many people may imagine, the risk of being a victim of violence has declined for most people and is currently stable.

The research, based on a study of 44 Emergency Departments (ED), suggests that "an estimated 350,010 people attended EDs in England and Wales for treatment following violence in 2009; 1,500 fewer than in 2008". The figure for 2001 was in excess of 410,000.

The Conservatives claim that violent crime has risen substantially is extrapolated from a House of Commons study [108KB PDF] into the impact of changes to the recording system on police figures.

The research document has only looked at the effect for one year and tells readers that "no estimate has been made of the effect on the number of crimes recorded in subsequent years as changes continued to be bedded in".

This may help to explain why this piece of work contradicts the fall in violent crime identified by the BCS.

Recorded crime trends graph

On yesterday's Daily Politics Election Debate programme, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said this:

"If you look at the individual figures coming out of the NHS Accident and Emergency Departments, they are actually showing an increase in the number of people admitted for woundings and that's something that's hard to explain away."

The Liberal Democrats have done their own analysis of NHS data to claim that hospital admissions for violence have increased "more than 3%" between 2007/08 and 2008/09. The original data can be found here.

This may reflect the slight rise in violent incidents identified in the Cardiff graph for that period, but it misses the downward trend over the longer term.

Violent crime remains a significant problem in Britain - almost 1,000 people on an average day attending hospital following a violent incident is much too high. But the study shows that violence varies significantly across the week.

Violence related graph

There's more than twice the violence on a Saturday compared with a Wednesday which suggests that alcohol plays a big part in the problem.

One population group has seen in increase in violent injury in the past year but it is not, as one might imagine, young men. It is small children - perhaps reflecting an aspect of the violent crime debate which is not much discussed.

"Violence affecting those aged 0 to 10 years increased by 8% compared to 2008", today's report finds, suggesting that child abuse is a factor.

However the fact that overall violence is on the decline should not detract our society from the need to do everything we can to reduce it still further.

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