Thursday 27 January 2020
Since March 2020, when our lives were turned upside down by the coronavirus, the crime figures have been hard to make sense of - in terms of comparisons with previous years and identifying long-term trends. Emergency legislation restricting movement, travel and gatherings led to steep falls in many types of offending, including those which had been on the increase.
Periods of lockdown, with most shops closed, meant there were fewer opportunities for thieves. The night-time economy ground to a halt so, unsurprisingly, the kind of alcohol-related offending seen around pubs and clubs and at closing-time fell sharply. There were far less people on the streets and millions more staying at home so robberies and burglaries plummeted too. And, while we spent hours in front of laptops and smart-phones, shopping online and ordering deliveries, so fraud and computer misuse offences rocketed.
These patterns of crime were reflected most clearly in the first set of data to be published after the pandemic began - but they are still evident in the latest figures which cover the 12-month period from October 2020 to September 2021. In some ways, it is even more tricky to highlight trends because, as the Office for National Statistics (ONS) points out, there was “significant variation in the level of restrictions in place across this time period and, at times, further variation across regions”. The ONS says that “creates a challenge in isolating the level of impact that restrictions may have had on patterns of crime”.
As far as crimes recorded by police are concerned, the impact of the restrictions appears to have continued, with significant falls compared with the previous 12 months, October 2019 to September 2020, which included a period of around six months before Covid-19 measures came into force:
Burglary down 21%
Robbery down 18%
Car crime down 14%
Shoplifting down 13%
Knife crime down 10%
Gun crime down 9%
It will be interesting to see whether or not at least some of these downward trends are maintained; there are suggestions that improved shop security, for example, to ensure people wear face masks may have a longer lasting effect on levels of shoplifting which have plunged since March 2020.
Our growing dependence on technology during the pandemic, and therefore our susceptibility to criminals operating online, is demonstrated by statistics from two sources: a large-scale ONS survey and offences reported to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) from Action Fraud and two industry bodies, Cifas and UK Finance.
The survey, which was conducted by telephone, showed there were 5.1 million fraud offences between October 2020 and September 2021 - an increase of 36% compared with the year ending September 2019. The ONS believes fraudsters are “taking advantage of behaviour changes” related to the pandemic, such as greater online shopping and more use of savings accounts.
Computer misuse offences, such as hacking, data breaches and interference with social media accounts went up by a staggering 89% over the same period. Again, it appears to be a reflection of the extra time we have been spending on screens and how the online world has become such a central feature of our lives.
Figures from the NFIB also show marked increases. Compared with last year, fraud was up 27% and there was a 17% rise in computer hacking. Why this surge in online offending hasn’t led to more of a public outcry than would have happened had there been similar rises in burglary or robbery may be explained by findings from the ONS Nature of Fraud and Computer Misuse study which said that 54% of victims were not affected by such incidents. Fraud and computer misuse are growing hugely in volume as criminals exploit our reliance on technology - but the impact, it appears, is not as keenly felt as other types of crime - such as sexual offending.
Here, the long-term trend of rising reports of sexual assaults and rapes seems to have continued, albeit with dips during periods of lockdown. The number of sexual offences recorded by police showed a 12% year-on-year increase in October 2020 to September 2021 to 170,973 offences - the highest number recorded.
Rapes, which accounted for 37% of sexual offences recorded by police, were also at an all-time high for the year, 63,136 offences. The ONS says this was driven by a large increase between April and September. It may be no coincidence that this was the period immediately following the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard when there were heightened concerns about violence against women and girls. Indeed, the ONS says the figures on sexual offending may reflect the “impact of high-profile incidents, media coverage and campaigns on people’s willingness to report incidents to the police, as well as a potential increase in the number of victims.”
Cases of domestic abuse also went up: police recorded 872,911 offences, a rise of 5% on the same period a year earlier. Some of the increase may be connected to improvements in reporting as well as a genuine rise, with reports that women, in particular, were more vulnerable during lockdown.
At the same time as the publication of the crime figures, the Home Office released data on ‘crime outcomes’ - a quarterly analysis of what happens to offences which are recorded by police. The latest set of figures makes for uncomfortable reading with the proportion of crimes leading to a suspect being charged now down to 6%. In 2014-2015, when the statistics were first compiled this way, the charge rate was 15.5%.
The Home Office figures indicate that the key reason why charges have been on the decline is because of an increase in ‘evidential difficulties’ - either because the alleged victim does not support a prosecution or for other reasons.
When charge rates are broken down by crime type, the figures are even more worrying:
Violence against the person 5.4%
All sexual offences 2.9%
Drugs offences 19.2%
Possession of weapons 30.7%
Of course, there are other ways of dealing with offending, as our report looking at alternatives to prosecutions highlighted. But even with out-of-court disposals, such as cautions and community resolutions, the trend is downwards, with 4% of crimes resolved this way, compared with 9.2% seven years ago.
The decline in charge rates may partly be a consequence of the changing mix of crimes reported to police - with sexual offences representing a growing proportion of cases - but it should be of concern for everyone in the criminal justice system; victims in particular need confidence that offenders will be dealt with - these figures provide no such reassurance.