Yesterday (11 August) the National Farmers Union Mutual Insurance Society, the UK’s leading rural insurer, published a press release referring to its annual ‘Rural Crime Survey‘. The press release’s headline reads: ‘Cost of crime in the countryside rises to £44.5 million’. It was picked up by the media and the story provoked some debate (e.g. Mark Forrest on BBC Radio Cornwall). But the problem is that there isn’t a report only a press release and the information on which its ‘Survey’ is based is wholly misleading.
The NFU Mutual’s press release states that the cost of crime rose by 5.2% in 2013, driven by thefts of high-value tractors and livestock theft. However, their calculation is not based on actual levels of crime but simply on the value of insurance claims. So while the overall level of claims rose (by 5.2%), the number of vehicles actually stolen fell, which suggests that the average value of each claim has risen, which probably just reflects the increasingly sophisticated (and hence costly) nature of plant machinery. Furthermore, no account is taken of the effect of an increasing customer base (more customers would mean more claims).
The press release also fails to point out that even on this highly dubious proxy for actual crimes, the 5.2% rise occurred on the back of a 19.7% fall the year before. So, if a two year window was taken, the cost of crime (or rather the total value of insurance claims made to NFU Mutual, who insure about three quarters of the farming community) fell by nearly 15%. The headline could therefore equally have read: ‘Cost of crime in the countryside falls by 15% since 2012’.
A cynical interpretation of this press release might suggest that such a headline would hardly be in the interests of an insurance company keen to widen its client base by suggesting that the problem farmers need to insure against is getting worse. Furthermore, the implication which the media were quick to pick up on is that more police are needed, which means the insurance company wins again more police equals less crime, equals fewer claims.
Recorded crime data published by the Office for National Statistics on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, shows that rural crime (like crime in urban areas) has fallen steadily; that rural crime rates are lower than urban crime rates and lower than the national average crime rate. None of this comes as a surprise. Recorded crime data also tells us about crimes other than the theft of property from those insured by NFU Mutual (although the NFU press release refers to ‘crime’, it really only counts crimes against those it insures). Thus a more complete picture of crime would show that violence, burglary and vehicle offences are all falling in rural areas and that the risk of being a victim of such crimes is much higher in urban areas. So, not surprisingly, the British Crime Survey tells us that twice as many people living in urban areas worry about crime and antisocial behaviour than people living in rural areas. The case for less, not more policing in rural areas could hardly be stronger.
All of this is not to say that rural crime isn’t a problem. It is a serious problem for farmers, whose livelihoods already depend on thin profit margins and the vagaries of the weather. Rural crime is also much more of a concern in counties like Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, where the proportion of crime that’s rural is greater. (There is even research that suggests that the gap between rural and urban crime rates is narrowing slightly, although this is likely to be the effect of the urbanisation of some rural areas, especially those bordering urban areas). But what is most important to bear in mind is that police resources are valuable, finite and declining, which simply serves to emphasise the importance of ensuring that decisions about where to allocate them are made on the basis of a rational assessment of threat, harm and risk, not the commercial interests of insurance companies.