The trouble with crime is that it’s illegal. Which means it’s secret. Which means that all the king’s forces and all the king’s men and women at every level of every criminal justice agency in the country don’t really know what’s happening.
In the last five years, just about all of them have thrown their hats and helmets in the air to celebrate a steady fall in crime. The Home Office said it was all down to its crime prevention work. The police said it was their new intelligence-led approach. The academics said it was rising consumption, falling inequality, more alarms, fewer adolescent males, a rise in abortions (so fewer neglected children) or a fall in unemployment. The Natural Law Party in Merseyside said it was meditation and occasional levitation by a critical mass of their local members.
But what if it never happened? What if all that research (and all of the political point-scoring which it inspired) is misleading? What if the truth is that crime didn’t fall at all – that it was only the statistics that fell?
There are only two sources of crime statistics in this country. The first is the police. Their figures are deeply unreliable because they deal only with the crime which they record. The weakness is twofold. First, many millions of crimes each year are never reported to them at all: victims of assaults and sex attacks (particularly children) are often too fearful; the stores who are the victims of shoplifting often discover the offence only in their stock-taking and then prefer not to advertise their vulnerability; and a mass of victims of minor crime simply do not bother to contact a system which offers them only a faint prospect of justice.
But, much more important, even if crime is reported, it is frequently not recorded because the police have a long and skilful history of fiddling the figures. They call it ‘cuffing’, because the reported offences disappear up the officer’s sleeve. This is not some kind of occasional sport. In July 2000, HM Inspector of Constabulary reported that in eleven forces which his staff had checked, just about a quarter (24%) of all reported crimes had been misrecorded, either through genuine confusion or deliberate concealment. At the end of that year, the politicians celebrated a fall in the crime recorded by police nationally of 122,344 offences. But if HMI’s snapshot were reproduced across the country, then in that same year, police forces concealed or misrecorded 1,635,424 offences – more than 13 times as big as the claimed fall. In other words, for years, the police statistics have been not just slightly misleading but wholly worthless as a statement of what is really happening.
Last year, the Home Office introduced a new national standard for recording crime. They rejected HMI’s strong advice to make the rules legally binding and to order ‘robust and independent audits’ of police practice. Instead, they simply relied on dip-sampling by the Audit Commission and internal checks, enforced by chief officers – even though past scandals have clearly indicated the collusion of chief officers in delivering false figures. It is not clear whether the new rules are finally killing off or even reducing the cuffing, but the Home Office discounted 5% of the most recent reported crime on the basis that police were indeed obeying them.
The only other source of crime statistics is the British Crime Survey. This is fundamentally compromised because it cannot record crime unless an adult victim tells one of their interviewers about it, so the survey misses all crimes against children (estimated by the Home Office at 600,000), all crimes against commercial victims (all bank robbery; and all shoplifting, which is estimated at anywhere between 7.7 million and 30 million offences a year), all crimes against public sector property (arson, criminal damage, theft) and all murder. So, the survey fails to record at least 11.3 million crimes and possibly as many as 33.6 million crimes, in addition to the 13 million which it does pick up. And that is without taking account of commercial fraud, which the Association of British Insurers blames for a third of the £35 billion annual cost of all crime.
Now, step back and look at the fall in crime figures and notice two important clues. First, it has happened all across the developed world. Jock Young, formerly professor of criminology at Middlesex University, likes to tell the story of the American crime conference which he attended a few years ago where the opening speakers armed themselves with a stage full of multi-coloured graphs and flow charts and announced that they had explained the dramatic drop in US crime rates. It was the effect of the Brady Bill in cutting ownership of handguns, plus the peaking of the market in crack cocaine, plus a dip in the population of adolescent males, plus a little of this and a little of that. All the percentages added up – until a delegate from Spain stood up to say that they had the same fall in crime numbers in her country and none of those explanations, and then a delegate from Canada said the same, and so on around the globe.
Second, this fall has happened at the same time as every developed country in the world reports more blackmarket drug use. In this country, for example, since 1998, according to the British Crime Survey, there has been “a statistically significant increase” in Class A drug use, particularly of crack cocaine. The Home Office’s own assessment of the number of problematic drug users has increased in the last five years from under 200,000 to more than 250,00. These are the prolific offenders, responsible for more than 50% of crime. How can there be more prolific offenders and yet less crime?
The truth is that we can’t be sure, but there is one explanation which fits the facts: the drug users who drive the crime figures are committing a mass of offences which are statistically invisible. Specifically, repeated surveys of drug users in custody show that easily their most common property crime is shoplifting (50% of their offences in most surveys); and, beyond that, most drug users fund their habit by selling drugs, whether to friends or strangers – thousands of them in any major city in the time it has taken to read this story. And, in both cases, this mass of offences are almost entirely invisible to police records (they are recorded only when they are detected); and completely invisible to the British Crime Survey (they have no adult victims). Parallel to that, drug users commit crimes against each other – the Yardie dealers are constantly ripping each other off, pimps rob cash off each other’s working girls, rival gangs beat each other up. And these victims don’t go to the police or sit down with a form from the British Crime Survey.
It is one of the enduring problems of criminal justice systems that they can change the pattern of crime but struggle to change its scale. The one explanation which applies to all the developed countries who have seen their crime figures fall is that they happen to have shifted their expanding population of blackmarket drug users into committing a surge of offences which are statistically invisible. We can’t prove that that is what has happened – because crime is hidden. But it is fair (and essential) to say that the great crime fall is at best unproven and at worst a politically useful myth.
And just look at how it is used. The right have claimed it proves that Michael Howard’s programme of imprisonment was a success. Liberals have spun it in the opposite direction, as supposed evidence that there is no need for any kind of fundamental change in the criminal justice system. This government repeatedly uses it to claim credit for bringing down crime since 1997. They not only ignore the impact of invisible crime, they also overlook the absence of any observable link between the fall and government policy. So, for example, they are almost certainly right to say that in reality, burglary and vehicle crime have been falling: it must be significant that the same downward trend shows up independently both in the police figures and in the British Crime Survey. But they date this from the year they came to power when the truth is that the burglary figures have been falling since 1993 and vehicle figures have been falling since 1992. Nobody knows why, and, during that time, crime policy has changed direction repeatedly.
If you really want to understand the reality of crime in this country, the figures that matter are the research which show that just 1% of the population suffer 59% of all violent crime; that just 2% of the population suffer 41% of all property crime. And where are these victims? Most criminals commit their offences within 1.8 miles of their own front door. In other words, they rob their neighbours. And overwhelmingly, those offenders live in the shabby tower blocks and rotting council estates which have been consumed by poverty and criminalised by the war against drugs. That is where the crime is booming, where, as a single example, an 18-year-old lone woman with a child is more than five times more likely than the average to be a crime victim – far away from the statisticians and the politicians and their celebrations of success. Almost invisible.
Additional research by Tamsen Courtenay