Danny Shaw, Senior Associate
Thursday 27 October 2022
The latest set of crime figures paints a confusing picture. The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), which estimates levels of offending based on a sample of 13,500 households, suggests overall crime is falling, with a steep decline in theft. But crimes recorded by police in the 43 forces are on the increase, with offences of violence rising sharply. Crest Advisory Senior Associate Danny Shaw untangles the data.
The Covid-19 pandemic and government restrictions on social contact, which began in March 2020 and continued in various ways until early this year, have had a profound effect on crime. With fewer people travelling and gathering, and with shops, pubs and clubs closed for a time, offences like robbery, theft and knife crime dropped. As more of us spent time on computers, laptops and smartphones, online offending surged. But there are signs in the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that some of the effects of the pandemic are fading.
Take fraud, for example. After an increase during the pandemic, when many of us switched to buying and ordering goods over the Internet, the ONS says it has stabilised. In the year ending in June 2022, there were 3.8 million fraud offences, compared to 3.7 million between April 2019 and March 2020, a rise which the statisticians do not regard as “significant”. Computer misuse offences, which went up significantly, have fallen back. Estimates from the CSEW show a 27 per cent drop to 641,000 offences, including a reduction of 72 per cent in computer virus attacks.
Overall, the CSEW indicates that crime decreased by 8 per cent from July 2021 to June 2022 compared with the 12 months before Covid restrictions were first introduced. The decline was driven by a substantial drop in theft, of 19 per cent. Theft offences, which include burglary, shoplifting and car crime, fell during the pandemic and here, in contrast to fraud, the ONS says the coronavirus appears to be having a “sustained impact”, though it cautions that it is too early to say that it represents a new long-term trend.
Estimates of theft offences from the Crime Survey for England and Wales
Theft offences recorded by police have also shown large reductions with burglary down 28 per cent, robbery down 23 per cent and car crime down 19 per cent. But in other ways the two sources of crime data are markedly different.
Researchers who conduct the CSEW ask people if they have been a victim of crime; offences are included whether they have been reported to police or not. That is why the estimates are larger than crimes recorded by the police. The survey methods are broadly the same as they were when it started in the early 1980s, although the research was carried out by telephone between March 2020 and October 2021 to avoid the spread of infection during the pandemic. In contrast, the collection of police statistics has changed considerably over the years, with HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) placing a renewed focus on accuracy and consistency. That has resulted in some types of crime apparently increasing in volume when in fact they are simply being recorded more assiduously.
In the year to June 2022, police in the 43 forces recorded 6.5 million offences, that’s 7 per cent more than in the 12 months to March 2020. The ONS says changes in reporting and recording practices were largely responsible for the rise, notably in the way some offences of violence are identified and logged. There were 2.1 million violent crimes, a rise of 20 per cent on pre-pandemic levels. The CSEW, on the other hand, shows “no significant change”.
One category where police figures show a considerable increase is ‘stalking and harassment’. There were 718,317 such offences in the 12 months to the end of June, more than double the number four years ago and over ten times the total in 2014-15. Has there been an explosion in stalking or harassment across our towns and cities? Probably not. It is mainly due to Home Office alterations to crime ‘counting rules’ for stalking and harassment, backed up by firm advice from HMICFRS on the way they should be implemented.
The police data also show a 21 per cent rise in sexual offences, taking the total to 196,889, including 70,600 allegations of rape. Both figures are at record levels, reflecting media coverage of high-profile incidents, campaigns to tackle violence against women and girls and a greater willingness to come forward to report attacks.
Sexual offences and rapes recorded by police in England and Wales
The ONS sets out another possible explanation for the rise in sexual offences: a “potential increase in the number of victims”. That is a theory which requires further in-depth study; until now the evidence suggests that more reporting and improved recording are the main factors. In terms of other ‘high harm’ violent crimes, on which police statistics are more reliable than survey data because of their comparatively small numbers and high rates of reporting, the latest figures show reductions compared to the 12 months before the pandemic.
There were 679 homicides (murder, manslaughter, infanticide) - down from 716. Robbery dropped by 23 per cent; firearms offences fell 10 per cent; and knife crime dipped by 9 per cent. It all points away from an upsurge in violence; instead, the figures from the police show a continuation of a long-term improvement in crime recording practices and confidence in reporting offences.
While that is good news, it does represent a huge problem for police: the demands on their time and their caseloads are greater and more complex than they ever were. That is one reason why there has been a drop in the proportion of crimes which result in a suspect being charged. New data from the Home Office, for July 2021 to June 2022, show that only one in 20 offences led to a prosecution, 5.4 per cent. Last year it was 6.5 per cent; in 2014-15, it was 15.5 per cent. The use of out-of-court disposals is on the decline too.
There is no firm evidence from the latest figures that crime is really on the rise, despite the increasing number of cases recorded by police. However, they, and their partners in the criminal justice system, face a mounting challenge - to reverse the disturbing decline in clear-up rates.