The latest crime statistics show that crime, as measured by the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), continues to fall. It is now at its lowest level since the British Crime Survey (the forerunner of the CSEW) was launched in 1981 and less than half its peak level in 1995. Police recorded crime also continues to fall.
This is unexpected it was widely anticipated by criminologists that the current economic climate would see property crime rise but crime statistics have never told the full story and maybe they tell even less of the story today. Could it be that the long term reduction in official crime rates is actually being partly offset by an increase in so-called new’ crimes, particularly cyber-enabled crime and new forms of fraud, which are not being properly captured by official figures? Offences such as illegal money lending, rogue trading, the theft of personal data and investment scams typically target the most vulnerable – families on benefits, children in care, foreign students, new migrants, small businesses and the elderly – but are rarely recorded as crimes or covered by victimisation surveys. Meanwhile the internet offers attractive new opportunities for committing crime and selling stolen goods.
With this in mind, our Oxford Policing Policy Forum earlier this year discussed the question What’s happening to crime?‘. At the event, there was a debate amongst attendees who included senior police officers, PCCs, civil servants, academics and statisticians as to whether crime has really fallen (or fallen by such a magnitude) or whether it has instead migrated to areas which are harder to identify and measure, particularly crimes that take place on, or are enabled by, the internet. At the moment, we can’t answer this question. There simply isn’t the data available. So while we know that recorded fraud went up by 27% last year, this may just be a reflection of changed recording practices. Similarly, while we know that 310,000 households nationally are borrowing from loan sharks (perhaps not surprisingly given the recession), we have no idea whether this is increasing or decreasing as there is no baseline to work from.
But we do know from the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey that the public is more worried about credit card theft and identity theft than any other forms of crime, neither of which really pitch up in the official crime statistics. And we know that UK consumers lose more money to online fraud than those from any other country in the world. A recent report from Europol also points to a doubling of the black market in counterfeit goods during the early years of the recession as demand for cheaper goods increased, social tolerance of the illegal economy rose and companies turned increasingly to illegal labour to cut costs.
It must be right to welcome falling crime rates, particularly the falls in crimes such as burglary and car crime which are clearly not the problem they once were. But perhaps a healthy degree of scepticism is needed too. Maybe the criminologists who said that the recession would inevitably lead to an increase in property crime were not so wrong after all. Maybe the official crime figures are just not picking up the extent to which new opportunities for fraud, theft, handling stolen goods, counterfeiting, smuggling, trafficking and illegal money lending have emerged, particularly online where the risk of detection is so much lower and the rewards potentially so much higher. Instead of resting on their laurels, politicians and the police should ensure that they are more aware of new and emerging challenges, while researchers should focus on finding out what’s really happening to crime.