Danny Shaw, Senior Associate
Thursday 21 July 2022
Crimes recorded by police in England and Wales are at historically high levels and the number of offences which are being resolved are at their lowest point since new statistical methods were introduced eight years ago. But is the crime picture really as bleak as the figures suggest? Crest’s Senior Associate, Danny Shaw, has been studying the data.
With the exception of some offences, such as knife crime and homicide, the police-recorded figures do not give an accurate representation of how many crimes are really ‘out there’ - because they depend on the willingness of people to report offences and how effective forces are at logging them. But the police figures do really matter.
They matter because they show how many and what kind of offences police officers are having to deal with, in other words, they indicate the level of demand on police time and resources. And they matter in political terms because they can be used to attack or defend the law and order policies of the government of the day.
The latest set of data, published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), does not, in the main, make comfortable reading for the Government and it suggests police forces are facing an extraordinarily challenging and complex caseload.
The overall number of offences recorded by police in the 12 months between April 2021 and the end of March 2022 was the highest it has been since new crime counting rules were introduced 20 years ago. There were 6.3 million crimes - which is 4% higher than in the year before the coronavirus took hold, 2019-20. The previous annual high was in 2003-04 when there were 6 million offences.
The chart, below, from the ONS, shows recent quarterly changes and how pandemic restrictions and lockdowns have affected the figures in the past two years.
Much of the recent rise in recorded crime has been driven by a surge in fraud and computer misuse. The number of offences logged by Action Fraud or referred to the police by industry bodies Cifas and UK Finance has more than doubled in ten years to over 965,000. A report from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) in 2021 found that although people were more likely to be victims of fraud than any other crime it was “rarely” seen as a priority by police. The latest ONS figures will only serve to amplify calls for a new approach.
Even when fraud and computer misuse are excluded from the figures, police-recorded crime is the highest it has been for 16 years. There were 5.3 million offences, compared to 5.4 million in 2005-06.
One reason for the increase is a steep rise in ‘violence against the person’, which last year reached 2.1 million offences, the highest total in two decades. Although there have been periods when some types of ‘high-harm’ violent crimes, involving knives, have gone up, much of the rise is likely to be due to changes in recording practices and definitions of ‘violence’. For example, there has been a 22-fold rise in recorded cases of stalking and harassment, largely a reflection of legislative reform and greater awareness of the problem.
In contrast, the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), which is based on people’s experiences of crime and includes offences that police are not notified about, suggests there has been a significant decline in violence from around 1997. The latest CSEW estimate is a 19% drop since 2019-20. So, while there is no evidence that, overall, we have become a more violent society, we are more likely to report violence and police are more likely to record it, adding to the burden on investigation teams and detectives.
In terms of sexual offences, between 2002 and 2012 the number of cases logged by police each year fluctuated between 52,000 and 60,000. After the Jimmy Savile revelations and the launch of a high-profile police investigation into sexual abuse against against Savile and other celebrities, Operation Yewtree, the number has kept on rising, apart from a dip during lockdown and social distancing restrictions. In the last 12 months, police recorded over 194,000 sexual offences, including 70,000 rapes - both an all-time high.
England and Wales quarterly data from January 2010 to March 2022
As with violence, there is nothing to suggest that sexual abuse is more prevalent than it was. Rather, it is that people are no longer prepared to tolerate certain behaviour and are more willing and able to report it. The impact on police is significant, though. These crimes are typically harder, and take longer, to investigate, while the service is suffering what Sir Tom Winsor, who led HMICFRS until March, described as a “chronic shortage of experienced detectives”.
On the positive side, police recorded a drop in some offences in 2020-22 compared to 2019-20, the year before the pandemic:
Knife crime down 11%
Car crime down 23%
Robbery down 27%
Burglary down 31%
It is too early to establish whether this is part of a long-term trend, or if it was partly due to Covid, with some travel and social restrictions still in force during certain periods in 2021. Nevertheless, the Government is likely to seize on these particular figures as evidence that its ‘Beating Crime’ plan is working.
Ministers can take little comfort, however, from the Home Office ‘outcome’ statistics. They show that in 2021-22, only 5.6% of offences recorded by police in England and Wales led to a suspect being charged or summonsed to appear in court. The previous year the figure was 7.1%. It means only one out of every 18 crimes currently leads to a prosecution. The proportion dealt with by an out-of-court disposal, such as a caution or community resolution, also fell, from 4.4% to 3.6%, though there has been a slight uptick in the use of diversion schemes.
The charge rate, however, is the key metric. It’s the figure that gets the most attention; the figure that is considered to be a sign of police effectiveness; a sign that offenders are being caught. The record in recent years is dismal: the charge rate has been on continuous decline since 2014-15, when a new framework for compiling the statistics came into effect. That year, 15% of crimes were resolved with a charge or summons. So why has there been such a steep drop?
One probable reason is the changing mix of cases in the police in-tray which are more complex and require analysis of digital devices: many more sexual offences, more violent crime, more online offences and frauds, as demonstrated by the latest police figures, and fewer ‘traditional’ acquisitive crimes, such as burglary and car theft. Some of the ‘growth’ crimes require the active involvement of victims for a prosecution to have a chance of success. The latest data suggest that has become a serious problem, with over one-quarter of cases closed because of ‘evidential difficulties’ where the victim doesn’t support police action or a prosecution, compared to one in ten cases seven years ago.
Outcomes for offences recorded by police in England and Wales, 2014-15 to 2021-22
Another likely factor is the reduction in police officer numbers and the shortage of detectives. That is thought to have affected how quickly and effectively police respond to incidents and conduct follow-up inquiries, as well as the standard of case files sent to the Crown Prosecution Service. There is evidence that cases are taking longer to investigate: the proportion of crimes that have not been assigned an outcome went up from 7.8% in 2020-21 to 11.7% in 2021-22.
Average (median) length of time for police to assign an outcome to a crime in England and Wales, 2015-16 to 2021-22
Some cases that weren’t assigned an outcome in 2021-22 will be finalised in the months to come, so the charge rate is likely to go up. The police officer recruitment programme, which started three years ago, should also help to bring about improvements in the years ahead. But there is a real risk that police will end up chasing their tail: although they may successfully resolve more crimes, more crimes are being reported and recorded. And that means ever more work for the police.