The alarming acceleration in crime, particularly violent crime, in England and Wales revealed by the latest set of police recorded crime figures will set the alarm bells ringing in Downing Street and highlights the lack of any coherent strategy on the issue from Theresa May or her home secretary, Amber Rudd.
May was a lucky home secretary. The persistent fall in the crime rate during her six years at the Home Office meant she was able to confound police predictions of “Christmas for criminals” after she presided over an 18% cut in police budgets and a 19,000 fall in officer numbers.
But the accelerating year-on-year increases in police recorded crime – from 6% two years ago, to 8% last year, to 14% now – look as though the long, 20-year fall in crime since its 1995 peak is over.
When this is coupled with police officer numbers reducing by 930 over the last 12 months to possibly the lowest level since 1985 – at a time when police budgets were protected – it now looks as though the prime minister’s luck on crime is beginning to run out.
The initial reaction from ministers to Thursday’s crime figures was denial. The police minister, Nick Hurd, issued a statement that focused on a long-term 40% fall in the crime survey headline figure since 2010. He failed to make any specific mention of the 20% rise in violent crime recorded by the police, including a 29% increase in robbery, a 21% rise in knife crime or 21% rise in gun crime.
Instead, he talked of improved police recording of crime and of more victims being willing to come forward to report domestic abuse and sexual violence. True, there is a debate about how much the increases in police recorded crime have been driven by such changes, and the persistent picture of continuing falls according to the crime survey of England and Wales complicates the picture.
But the most reliable indicator of all – the homicide rate – can be taken as indicative of the underlying picture on violent crime. The headline rate shows a slight 1% dip to 685 killings in the 12 months to September 2017. But the Office for National Statistics (ONS) says this figure masks the underlying trend because it includes multiple victim incidents including last year’s terror attacks, in which 35 died, and because, in 2016, the comparator year, the 96 victims of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster were included in the figures because their inquests were finally concluded.
“If the cases related to Hillsborough are excluded from the year ending September 2016 and the London and Manchester terror attacks are excluded from the year ending September 2017, then there was a volume rise of 57 homicides (a 10% rise, up to a total of 650). This follows the general upward trend seen in recent years and contrasts with the previously downward trend over the last decade,” says the ONS crime bulletin.
What’s worrying for May and Rudd is that it is not only this genuine rise in violent crime that is politically alarming. The inclusion of 4.7m fraud and online offences within the 10.5m offences estimated by the official crime survey demonstrates the changing nature of crime. Hurd’s comfort claim of a 40% fall on the crime survey headline rate only stands up if this level of online crime and fraud is ignored and not included in the headline figure.
But also of concern is that the ONS says that there are now emerging signs that high-volume offences such as domestic burglary and vehicle and car crime are starting to show real increases, too, for the first time in 20 years. Domestic burglary is up 32% on these figures and vehicle crime up 18%, both of which are types of crime less affected by changes in policing activity or recording practice. Victims of these crimes are counted in the hundreds of thousands each year rather than the tens of thousands of violent crime victims.
May risks facing a repeat of the period from 1988 to 1992, when police recorded crime figures doubled in England and Wales. The Tories were in power then and the sharp rise in crime gave serious political traction to the anti-crime campaign by a young Tony Blair, promising to be “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”. It proved a key factor in Labour’s 1997 landslide victory and May rapidly needs an answer if she is to avoid a repeat.