The latest set of police recorded crime figures published on Thursday showing accelerating double-digit rises across England and Wales spells serious political trouble for Theresa May and her home secretary, Amber Rudd.
When it came to crime, May was a lucky home secretary. She was able to confound warnings of “Christmas for Criminals” despite cutting police budgets by 18% and overseeing an 19,000 reduction in police officer numbers because for her five years in charge the crime rate went in one direction only – down.
But this latest set of official crime police figures show that this is no longer necessarily true. The last three years there have been year-on-year rises of 3% in 2015, 8% in 2016 and now 10% in 2017.
True, there is a debate about how much of those increases have been driven by changes in police recording practices, rather than actual increases in crime. But the official statisticians are now clear that they, at least in part, are a factor in a number of offences.
The problem for May and Rudd is that the type of offences in which actual increases are taking place are the high-harm, low-volume types of crime that cause the most public alarm – gun and knife crime, murders and sex offences, including robberies at knife-point. It is exactly these types of crime that the usually authoritative Crime Survey of England and Wales – which shows a 7% fall in crime in the past year – is not designed to measure.
The crime survey, based on the experiences of 35,000 households, is good at measuring what is happening with thefts – of which there were 1.8m last year – but not so good at capturing victims of knife crime of which there were 34,000 incidents last year.
The statisticians have also raised the prospect that increases in high level property crimes, such as burglary and vehicle theft, if continued, could soon show up in the crime survey as well raising the prospect that a long-term 20-year decline in crime has come to an end.
The recent media focus on a relatively small number of acid attacks – there were just 114 in London in the first four months of this year compared with around 4,000 knife attacks – shows how fear of crime can rapidly outstrip what is actually happening on the ground.
The crime debate may well get bogged down in the accuracy of police recorded crime figures against the relative authority of the official crime survey but it is unlikely to cut through public fears about rising crime. Similarly ministers are on a hiding to nowhere if they try to argue that there is no direct link between falling police numbers and the rise in crime.
One respected crime expert, Richard Garside of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, actually welcomed the figure on Thursday showing that police numbers had reached the lowest level since 1985. He suggested it was time for the police to withdraw from all the “non-crime” areas they were involved with.
But as the general election demonstrated, the cut in police numbers is an issue with the political potency to cut through even the dullest of campaigns. Tony Blair understood that when he launched his “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” campaign the last time the crime figures were rising sharply under the Tories in the early 1990s. It was enough to help float New Labour. May and Rudd need to develop a coherent crime strategy in response – and fast.