While there were 763 recorded violent offences in England and Wales in 2011/12, violent crime has in fact fallen in the last few years from its peak in 2002/03. Over a much longer timescale, there is no doubt that violent crime has gone up hugely – but measuring how much it has increased by is made extremely difficult by a disagreement between the two main measures (police recorded violent crime and the British Crime Survey). A rough compromise between the two would still show violent crime rising about six fold in the last 50 years! This is a massive increase and, one might say, a massive indictment of the way we have been living in recent decades. A civilised, educated and prosperous country should be seeing reductions, not large increases, in violent crime.
For a more detailed analysis of the complex world of violent crime figures, read on!
If you take a longer view, based on police records, the trend for violent crime is dramatically upwards. In 1898 there were 4,221 recorded violent crimes. That level didn’t change much until the Second World War and remained under 10,000 a year until 1942. Then came the sustained increases, reaching 20,000 in 1950, and 30,000 in 1957. But take the last 50 years: there we see an increase from 35,800 in 1959 to (wait for it!) 1,001,300 in 2009/10 for England and Wales.
We need to be careful here, because there was a big change in the way violent crime was recorded in 1998, and a smaller, but significant, change in 2002/03. Allowing for those changes, we see a 28 fold increase reducing to something like a near 14 fold increase. Either way, that is a massive, massive increase.
According to police recorded crime figures, Britain has far more violent crime than any other leading European nation. While France and Italy (with similar populations to Britain) recorded 332,000 and 147,000 crimes in 2008 respectively, the UK recorded 1,094,000 violent crimes. Even Germany, with a population one third bigger than the UK, only recorded 211,000 violent crimes. (Source: Eurostat) In other words, these figures suggest we have the worst problem and it is increasing the fastest. In 2008, 42% of all recorded violent crime in the 27 EU nations was recorded in the UK! (The UK has about 12% of the EU’s population).
However, police records are compiled differently in different countries and Eurostat does not attempt to analyse the differences. The figures are not directly comparable, but they show such a stark difference that not all of this can be illusory. The combined effects of the 1998 and 2002 changes in compiling violent crime statistics will roughly have doubled the apparent UK violent crime rate, purely through using different methods of recording. But other countries might be just as diligent in their counting as we now are, or more so! And, even if we were to halve the 42% of European violent crime to 21%, it would still remain nearly twice as high as it should be, given that the UK has 12% of the EU population.
British Crime Survey
Another health warning: police recorded crime can be misleading because there can be trends in what makes people report crimes or not. For example, if you need a police record for insurance purposes, you will report a crime that you otherwise might not. On the other hand, “A substantial proportion - even a majority of some categories of violent offences - which result in NHS treatment do not appear in police records”. (Violence Research Group, Cardiff University School of Dentistry). With this in mind, there is a major survey undertaken each year, called the British Crime Survey, which asks about 50,000 people about their personal experience of violence (and crime in general) during that year. In some ways, this is more reliable, in some ways less.
The first conclusion of the British Crime Survey is that there are actually twice as many violent crimes as get reported to the police. (The figure for 2010/11 is 2.2 million violent crimes.) On the other hand, over 25 years, this survey only shows virtually no increase in violent crime, compared with a nearly four-fold increase in police reported violent crime over the same period (again, adjusted for the 1998 and 2002 changes in the way that violent crime is recorded). Which is right? Police figures or the British Crime Survey?
Which is the best measure?
In fact, the truth probably lies somewhere in between the two verdicts – perhaps reducing a four fold increase in police recorded violent crime since 1981 by half – and consequently implying approximately an eight fold increase over 50 years, still a massive increase, by any measure. Adjusted for population growth, a seven fold increase over 50 years is a reasonable estimate. The limitations of the British Crime Survey are that:
- It only goes back to 1981, (recorded violent crime went up another four-fold between 1958 and 1981)
- It didn’t until very recently include under 16s (who are often victims of violence)
- As the Home Office says, it could be influenced by changes in “attitudes as to what is acceptable behavior”. In other words, we no longer mention some minor crimes because we see them as part of normal life. A September 2010 report by the Chief Inspector of Constabulary says that there has "been a degree of normalisation" around anti-social behaviour of all kinds.
- The British Crime Survey picks up a huge amount of domestic abuse (only 16% of which is reported to the police, often because much it is seen as being “too trivial” to report). This has fallen about 70% since 1994, masking a significant increase in other kinds of violence, especially mugging, which has nearly doubled since 1981.
The other thing to note is that violent crime levels can be greatly impacted by recession. There was a big increase in British Crime Survey levels following the recession of the early 1990s, and a falling back from the mid 1990s. We may be set for a steep increase in the next few years, following the post 2008 recession, although there is so far no sign of this happening.
What we cannot ignore is the prevalence now of security staff in pubs and clubs, and even in schools and public offices – or the lawlessness of town centres on Friday and Saturday nights. According to the Stop the Rot report by the Chief Inspector of Constabulary (September 2010), there are about 14 million instances of anti-social behaviour annually, only a quarter of which are reported to the police. Something is clearly going on! Something has profoundly changed.