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15 October 1999

Creating crimes to count

Bruno Waterfield on why the government wants to cook the crime statistics books

The latest recorded crime statistics for England and Wales show a rise in crime of over 14 percent. These were the first figures to be compiled under new Home Office rules which claim to give a 'more accurate picture of the number of victims affected by crime'.

But these new figures do not simply count more crimes. Rather, they reflect the government's tendency to criminalise more and more forms of behaviour.

Under the new counting rules, statisticians will aim to measure one crime per victim. For example, the old rules would have counted an incident involving one vandal and the property of, say, seven people, as one crime (one offender). The new rules would count this as seven (multiple victims, multiple crimes). However, the main impact of this much-vaunted change is restricted to certain property crimes - fraud (+61 percent), theft (+3 percent) and criminal damage (+5 percent) - categories that, except for new trends in fraud, have not been so greatly affected by the new rules.

The real impact of the new count is the expansion of what constitutes a notifiable offence. The inclusion of categories such as common assault in the offence group 'violence against the person' leads to an increase of 118 percent, and the expansion of 'drugs offences' to include possession leads to an increase of 538 percent; inflating the measure of offences most subject to public fears and government law-and-order rhetoric. The expansion of these categories is not a result either of increases in, or the seriousness of, crime. Nor do they reflect the sudden desire of government statisticians to set the record straight after years of Conservative deceit. These statistical changes tell us more about the concerns and prejudices of this government than they do about the world of crime.

Under the previous rules there were 230,756 offences in the offence group 'violence against the person'. Now there are 502,793 - a difference of 272,037 offences. 151,500 offences are accounted for by the inclusion of common assault, and 80 000 by the completely new subset of harassment. These lower level types of violence - often not involving physical injury (HO Counting Rules, Common Assault Classification, 105A) or any physical act and often occurring between 'acquaintances' or intimates - are to be accorded a new seriousness and become the focus for government and police intervention.

The new political orientation is particularly clear regarding the offence of 'harassment' - 80,000 offences. This really is a new area of crime, reflecting the implementation of controversial legislation - particularly the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, with its raft of measures such as Antisocial Behaviour Orders, and the new crime of racially motivated harassment.

Harassment is a notoriously subjective category, which involves causing somebody fear, alarm and distress (HO Counting Rules, Harassment Classification, 8C). Offences in the new count would include harassment of adults by children and persistent pests (HO Counting Rules, Harassment Counting rules 8C). Breach of an antisocial behaviour order automatically constitutes an offence of harassment (Crime and Disorder Act 1998, Section 1[10]). Provisional figures (which have not yet been released) for 1998 show that there were 5809 prosecutions under the swingeing sections of the Protection from Harassment Act.

The seriousness accorded these new crimes reflects a new political determination to police and intervene in more and more forms of behaviour. In short, the expansion of offences recorded effectively 'cooks the books' to serve the illiberal political arguments and policies of politicians like Jack Straw. As he put it, 'revealing more of the hidden iceberg' of violence. Watch this space for more intervention in the home, the housing estate, more behaviour orders on teenagers and children, prison convictions for 'sex pests', court injunctions and bans.

Meanwhile, the government may cloak the revised crime figures in rhetoric about the 'civil liberties of victims' and the 'vulnerable', but the greatest expansion in the count (538 percent) represents a victimless crime: the possession of drugs. First-time offenders will be in the frame (HO Counting Rules, Possession of Controlled Drugs 92B). Police activity bears out this focus: provisional figures for 1998 show that convictions for the possession of cannabis account for over 60 percent of the total - 24,395 convictions as opposed to 14,578 other convictions for possession of drugs. So much for talk of liberalisation.

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