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Crime in focus: what do the latest figures mean?



Danny Shaw, Senior Associate

Friday 20 October 2023

Crime is up - or is it down? The latest figures, published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), paint a confusing picture. Crimes recorded by police have increased - but according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) levels of offending have fallen. Separate statistics, from the Home Office, show a marginal rise in the proportion of crimes that result in a suspect being charged, though the rates remain historically low. Crest Advisory Senior Associate Danny Shaw untangles the data and picks out five key points:

1. The best measure of long-term trends in crime is the CSEW - and it suggests that overall levels of offending are continuing a decline which started in the mid-1990s. The survey is conducted face-to-face with 35,000 people aged 16 and over who live in households across England and Wales. They’re asked if they have been the victim of a crime in the past 12 months, regardless of whether the offence was reported to police. The survey findings are then used to produce an estimate of the total number of crimes.

Between July 2022 and June 2023, the ONS says there were 8.4 million offences, a fall of 10% compared with the 12 months to June 2022 and 18% down on the pre-pandemic year, ending in March 2020.

Statisticians say the drop was largely driven by a 28 per cent reduction in criminal damage and a 13% fall in fraud. Around 84% of people did not experience any of the crimes asked about in the survey.

The results of the main survey do not include sexual offences and crimes against businesses. The CSEW is not an accurate measure of some specific low-volume offences, such as gun crime, and its methods changed during Covid, which has affected some of the findings. The ONS says the latest estimates should therefore be treated with “caution”. Nevertheless, the overall, long-term trends are clearly downwards.

2. In the year to the end of June, there were more crimes recorded by the 43 police forces in England and Wales than ever before - 6.7 million. That doesn’t necessarily mean that crime is really rising - but it does reflect a genuine increase in offences reported to and logged by police, illustrating the growing demand on officers’ time and resources. In almost a decade, there has been a 67% rise in recorded crime.

As the ONS points out, improvements to police recording practices, the creation of new offences and variations in police activity have all contributed to the increase. The willingness of victims to report crimes is also a significant factor.

Over the past 12 months, the rise in police recorded crime was 4%, partly fuelled by a 13% uptick in fraud and computer misuse offences, such as hacking and spreading malware. The fraud statistics include crimes against businesses which may explain the divergence with the CSEW, which only covers fraud against householders. However, like the police data, the survey figures also show a substantial rise in computer misuse - which suggests there is a genuine problem in this area, rather than simply a manifestation of more reporting.

Theft recorded by police is on the rise, too, up 10% overall, with retailers’ concerns about shoplifting supported by the data. There were 365,164 thefts from stores, a 25% increase on the previous year and the highest number since 2018-2019. Car crime and robbery also went up significantly; these types of crime tend to be reported to police so it suggests the increase represents a real change.

3. Some types of violent crime appear to be increasing. Police recorded 6,645 firearms offences, 13% more than the year before, and 50,833 knife crimes, up 3%. The levels of both are broadly back to where they were before Covid struck, though gun crime remains well below the record highs of the early 2000s when there were 10,000 offences each year.

Overall, however, there appears to have been little change in patterns of violence, with both the police figures and the CSEW showing small decreases compared with a year earlier. Offences of stalking and harassment, which make up one-third of all police recorded violence but are not part of the CSEW, were down 2%. And there were 602 homicides (cases of murder, manslaughter and infanticide), 65 fewer than the previous year. The homicide numbers can vary significantly every 12 months, depending on whether there has been a terror attack or major incident, but they have generally remained around the 600 mark for the past 15 years.

The figures point towards the need for a clear drive to tackle knife crime and renewed efforts to ensure that gun crime doesn’t return to the levels seen near the turn of this century.

4. There are signs that after ten years of near consecutive increases in police-recorded sexual offences the number has plateaued. In the 12 months ending in June, there were 193,096 sexual offences, including 68,109 rapes. The figures have altered little in the past four years after the sexual abuse scandals relating to Jimmy Savile and a number of celebrities led thousands of other victims to come forward. In 2011-12, before the Savile revelations came to light, 52,760 sexual offences, including 16,038 rapes, were recorded by police.

There has also been little change, year-on-year, in the number of domestic abuse cases recorded by police, with 885,393 compared with 892,132. Forces do not have a specific offence of domestic abuse but they are meant to flag crimes in which it features. The figures, which do not include Devon and Cornwall, demonstrate the scale of the problem, though the ONS has a separate survey which suggests the prevalence of domestic abuse has fallen slightly in recent years. The results indicate that 5.1% of people aged 16 to 59 were the victim of domestic abuse from April 2022 to March 2023, compared with 6.1% in 2019-20 - a decrease officials describe as “significant”. Further information is due to be published by the ONS next month.

5. Finally, a tiny sliver of encouraging news on charge rates, published by the Home Office. The proportion of crimes recorded by police that led to a suspect being charged edged up over the year from 5.4% to 5.7%. However, it still remains a pitifully small figure given that in 2014-15, when the ‘outcome’ statistics began to be compiled in the way they are now, the charge rate was 15.5%.

As Crest has noted before, the changing mix of crimes, with many more sexual offences and allegations involving more complex investigations, together with a shortage of officers and detectives, are likely to be among the reasons for the recent dramatic decline in charge rates.

What is more puzzling is why there has been a fall in out-of-court disposals, which are administered by the police. Of all crimes recorded, 0.9% resulted in a formal out-of-court sanction, such as a caution, compared with 1.1% the previous year, while the rate of informal penalties, including community resolutions, fell slightly, too. Are charges simply replacing cautions? It’s a theory that needs careful examination.

This year’s charge and caution rates will go up over time as investigations are completed and suspects are arrested and questioned. With police officer numbers now restored to the level they were in 2010 and a drive to increase prosecutions, I’d expect charge rates for later this year and next to be higher, too. But they remain at historically low levels and are one of the main causes of disillusionment and dwindling confidence in the criminal justice system


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