Posted on April 18, 2005

Revealed: How the Home Office Hides the True Level of Crime

Daniel Foggo and Carl Fellstrom, Telegraph (London), Apr. 17

The Government is misleading the public on the true level of crime in Britain by instructing police forces not to record many offences, while simultaneously logging crimes in which nobody is convicted or even taken to court as “detected”.

This week the Government will release its latest quarterly figures for recorded crime in England and Wales, the last such release before the general election. But regardless of whether they show an overall fall or rise, they will give a highly distorted picture.

A detailed analysis by The Telegraph of the Home Office’s “counting rules” — the instructions that are given to all forces each April telling them how to compile their official crime statistics — has revealed that the Government has expanded the range of “get-outs” that allow officers to ignore many crimes while taking credit for solving others that have not resulted in successful prosecutions.

In some instances, even if the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which usually has the last word in deciding whether someone should be charged, declares that there is no evidence at all to sustain a prosecution, the police are allowed to claim that they have “detected” the relevant crimes. In this way, a police force that has problems with proper evidence gathering and whose prosecutions have a tendency to collapse can still present a glowing “detection” record.

In the last prime minister’s questions before the election campaign began, Mr Blair boasted: “It’s a well established fact that crime has been falling for years.”

In February he said: “The important thing is crime is actually down, not up. However, that is no consolation if you are a victim of crime. There are also record numbers of police but people don’t always see them out on the street.”

The revelations on the “counting rules” put into stark relief the Government’s claim that it has recently broadened the criteria by which crimes are logged, resulting in a rise in recorded incidents. In fact, under a sub-clause in the counting rules, the police are allowed to record only “one crime per person”. In an incident where several crimes are committed by the same person against the same victim, only the most serious single crime is recorded.

An example given is that “a house is entered [burglary], the female occupant is raped [rape] and her car is stolen from the driveway [vehicle theft]”. The statistics must overlook the burglary and car theft, the Government has ordered. The record should read only: “One crime of rape.”

In another get-out, police are also told to log multiple offences as only one crime if they are all reported at the same time.

The rules make it clear that any number of crimes can be distilled down to a single figure simply according to the timing of when they are reported. One example states: “[If] A threatens B on three occasions [and] B reports the threats to the police on each occasion a threat is made [it is] three crimes. [If] B reports the three occurrences at the same time [it is] one crime.”

The counting rules also stipulate how police forces must record “detected” crime. Most members of the public would understand the term detected to mean solved, or cleared up.

In fact, under the counting rules definition, it means only that the police have an idea of who may have carried out the crime and usually have enough evidence to charge him or her. It does not correspond to the number of people convicted, or even to those appearing in court. As the rules state, a crime is detected if someone is charged or summonsed “irrespective of any subsequent acquittal”.

Despite this revelation, the last annual published figures showed “detection rates” across England and Wales of only 24 per cent.

The rules on penalty charges, which since last year have been used by all of Britain’s police forces to deal with low-level “nuisance” crime, such as shoplifting and public disorder, also enable the police to claim better results than they are achieving. Offences for which a penalty notice has been issued can be logged as detected”, even if the CPS subsequently decides there is not enough — or, indeed, any — evidence to support it.

If an alleged offender contests a penalty notice, the case is referred to a magistrates’ court. Before going to trial, the prosecution must be approved by the CPS, who may decide there is insufficient evidence to proceed. Yet for the purposes of the official crime statistics, the police can ignore such a finding by the CPS, simply by having one of the force’s “designated decision makers” (DDM) — usually an officer of the rank of sergeant — state that he is happy with the issuing of the penalty notice. Although the penalty notice goes no further, the alleged crime is still registered as “detected”.

In all other crimes, from murder downwards, if the case is dropped before or during a trial because the police have not gathered enough evidence, it is still logged as “detected”. The rules state: “If the case is discontinued on evidential grounds, then the detection should not be cancelled if a DDM still stands by the reasons for charging.”

Norman Brennan, a serving police officer and the director of the Victims of Crime Trust, a charity that supports people affected by serious crime, said that most people would imagine that “detection” rates related to those convicted. “We in the police know that detection rates are nothing of the sort, but the public do not” he said. “If we recorded crime accurately the public would be astounded. Violence against the person is up by 90 per cent over the last five years but the true figure is four times that.”

David Davis, the Shadow Home Secretary, welcomed the analysis. “This goes some way to explaining why the Government’s attempt to convince people that crime is going down is completely at odds with the observations and perceptions of the public,” he said. “Yet again we see the Government using statistics for the purpose of spin rather than information.”