Facts Do Not Speak for Themselves the Problem with Our Crime Statistics Is That No Significant Political Decisions Rely on Them

By Slapper, Gary | The Independent (London, England), October 14, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Facts Do Not Speak for Themselves the Problem with Our Crime Statistics Is That No Significant Political Decisions Rely on Them


Slapper, Gary, The Independent (London, England)


THE REAL problem with our annual criminal statistics is that no significant political decisions are ever made because of them.

No self-respecting law and order speech can be seen in public these days without being heavily punctuated with bullet points and ornamental digits from the latest crime figures. Yet rhetoric bejewelled with statistics brings no real policy changes. This is quite ironic, as statistics were originated precisely to permit governments to make sound social policy in accordance with hard evidence.

The formal use of statistics originated in the 17th century as (etymologically) "a science dealing with facts of the state". It was the writer William Petty who really began the process of gathering and using numerical data which he thought might help in making policy decisions and in judging the "moral health" of the nation. In his work, Political Arithmetic, in 1699, he became the first person to advocate collecting crime figures as a better way of guiding policy than the futile strategy of "using only comparative and superlative words". He wanted to make intellectual arguments about policy superfluous by "finding the facts". Finding what all can agree upon as "the facts", however, is not as simple as someone like Dickens's Mr Gradgrind ("facts alone are wanted in life") would have liked. Much crime is unreported to the police and so never ends up in the statistics. The Home Office's periodic British Crime Survey estimates that the true level of crime is more than three times higher than that registered in the annual statistics. Businesses often do not report crimes for fear of lowering their public image, and many citizens today are not insured against car theft or property loss (because they cannot afford the premiums) so they have no incentive to tell the police if they become victims. Sometimes a sharp rise in crime can come from a new policing policy - for example, offences of "lewd dancing" rose by about 300 per cent during 12 months in the Eighties in Manchester, but only because the zealous Chief Constable, James Anderton, had deployed a great many officers in gay night-clubs. Sometimes the enactment of a new range of offences, or the possibility of committing old offences in a new way (such as computer offences involving fraud and deception) can cause an upward jolt in crime levels.

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