There’s a lot more to the work of the Office for National Statistics than meets the eye. In the third part of a series, reporter Kimberley Barber takes a look at how it records crime figures and what they mean.
Crime may be falling but that doesn’t mean workers at the Office for National Statistics are any less busy.
For the crime statistic department at the Titchfield office is busy recording it by conducting its own survey measuring the extent of crime in England and Wales.
It asks around 50,000 households whether they have experienced any crime in the past year and the results are quite surprising.
I meet Mark Bangs and Nicola White who talk me through what the crime survey is, why it’s done and what trends the latest figures have picked up.
Mark, deputy head of crime statistics, who has worked at the ONS for nearly three years, says: ‘Previously crime statistics were produced in central London.
‘There was a big statistic office in the Home Office producing these figures.
‘In 2011, there was a review of how crime statistics were produced and that review raised a number of concerns about public trust in the figures.
‘Some of these things are still being debated now such as whether you can trust crime figures and if crime is really going down like the figures say it is.
‘It’s always been a particularly hot topic.
‘That review recommended to the home secretary that crime statistics should be moved out of the Home Office to give them more impartiality and specifically it was recommended that they were moved to the Office for National Statistics.
‘That’s why we are here now.’
At the ONS, this particular department looks at the result of its annual crime survey.
This survey has measured crime since 1982 and is a valuable source of information for the government about the extent and nature of offending.
It records crimes that may not have been reported to the police and is then used alongside the police recorded crime figures to show a more accurate picture of the level of crime in the country.
A team of 15 work on the production and publication of crime statistics, which are released every quarter telling people if figures have gone up or down.
In addition to that, they do more detailed reports on specific areas of crime such as property offences and criminal damage.
They also produce a report on violent crime and sexual offences, due for release in February.
These figures can be used to look at a wide range of trends.
Mark explains: ‘In our data there’s lots of potential to do analysis about the nature of crimes and the nature of victims – who is more likely to be a victim.
‘We also work with other departments in government particularly the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice as they are involved with different part of crime statistics.
‘We try and join up our statistics as much as possible.
‘We have statistics on crime, the Home Office has statistics on the police handling of crime, and the Ministry of Justice goes into the court statistics such as the number of convictions, the prison population, sentencing, reoffending rates and things like that.’
What is evident from the team’s statistics is that since 1995 crime has been falling.
There’s also a wide gap between the ONS statistics and the police’s own recorded crimes
Nicola, who has worked at ONS since 2003, says, ‘Why there is a big difference in the numbers is that the crime survey captures all crimes that are not recorded by the police. So if you don’t go to the police and record it, we will still capture it in the survey.
‘In the mid-90s there was big peak in crime levels and since then there has been a steady decrease.
‘The police recorded crime levels also show the effect of different rules.
‘The capturing process they use now was brought in in 2003 so there was a peak while the police were getting used to capturing crime and since then there has been a steady decrease.
‘Recently we have seen this level off and we are not seeing any change in police recorded crime, although we are still seeing declines in the survey so we think a lot of the police recorded crime has been because of the pressure on the police to report accurately and police audits.’
The gap between the ONS’s survey rate and the police recorded figures is narrowing each year, reflecting the fact that the police are more accurately recording.
Mark says, ‘There was controversy when the police were discovered to not be putting everything on their books so an inspection was held to examine it thoroughly and that’s why we are seeing this.
‘The inspection found that about one in five crimes was not being recorded by the police so now the police are putting more on their books and recording more.
‘There is a greater compliance with the rules and that is having the effect of boosting the number of crimes recorded.
‘One of the things that helped to flag up the police’s poor recording was our survey and the gap.
‘Police recorded crime was falling faster than our survey recorded rate and that started to ring alarm bells.’
Of course it does not necessarily mean that the figures are 100 per cent accurate and Mark explains that other factors may be having an influence on the final results.
He says that crime may be shifting and that the type of crimes being committed may have evolved into something which is not being captured by the survey or the police’s figures.
But this is something the ONS is keeping a close eye on.
Nicola also adds that other factors such as new laws – like one that requires scrap metal dealers to have a licence, which was brought in last year – and advances on security and technology may also be working to bring the crime rates down.
She says, ‘Things like better vehicle security and advances in technology have had an impact on the crime figures too, with the number of car thefts dropping.
‘Back in 1995 20 in 100 households were the victims of car theft but in 2012 this dropped to five in every 100 so this has an effect on the overall crime rate.’
Advances in technology have also had an impact on the type of thefts being carried out.
Nicola says: ‘We also collect a lot of information on the types of items that are stolen.
‘Of our “theft from a person” statistics, such as pick-pocketing, about half of thefts are mobile phones, then cash and wallets.
‘If you look back over history, cash has also been the most frequently stolen item.
‘It’s something the offender can take and immediately use.’
But what does the crime statistics show about living in Portsmouth?
Nicola says: ‘Hampshire’s crime rate is similar to the UK average, however in Portsmouth you are more likely to be a victim of crime
‘At the moment about 80 people per 1,000 will be a victim of crime in Portsmouth.
‘Now that’s not surprising because it is an urban area.
‘When you look at other cities like Coventry, Plymouth, Southampton or Cardiff, they are all quite similar.
‘Portsmouth is not out of kilter with these areas.’
Violent crime and sexual offences: what the latest survey shows
In 1995 5.3 per cent of adults aged 16 and over were a victim of violent crime.
In 2012/13 the victimisation rate was 2.6 per cent – less than half the rate in 1995.
Recorded homicides (murder and manslaughter) dropped and the numbers for 2012/13 (551) and 2011/12 (530) were the lowest since 1989 (521).
More than two-thirds of homicide victims - 69 per cent - were male in 2012/13.
The police recorded 8,135 offences in which firearms were used in 2012/13, a 15 per cent decrease compared with 2011/12.
Offences involving knives or sharp instruments fell by 15 per cent between 2011/12 and 2012/13 (to 26,340).
Two per cent of women and 0.5 per cent of men had experienced some form of sexual assault, including attempts, during 2012/13.
Who is most likely to be a victim of property crime?
The ONS found that younger people were more likely to be victims across all types of property crime.
Men and women showed similar levels of victimisation in most crime types, with the exception of theft from the person, where women were twice as likely to be victims (1.5 per cent compared with less than one per cent of men), and robbery, where men (0.4 per cent) were twice as likely to be victims compared with women (0.2 per cent).
The type of area in which people live was also an important factor in the likelihood of victimisation.
Across all types of property crime, those living in urban areas were more likely to have been victims than those in rural areas. For example, 3.2 per cent of those in urban areas were victims of bicycle theft compared with in 1.1 per cent rural areas. Households where the person responding to the survey was unemployed (5.8 per cent) were over twice as likely to be victims of burglary compared with those where the person worked (2.7 per cent) or economically inactive (2.3 per cent). This was also true for bicycle theft.
Students are more likely to be victims. This was true for a number of crime types, including bicycle theft and theft from the person.
Respondents in higher-income households were more likely to be victims of plastic card fraud. For example, 7.1 per cent of respondents in households with a total income of £50,000 or more were victims of plastic card fraud compared with 3.5 per cent in households with a total income of less than £10,000.