Burglar Bill and statistical insignificance

Burglar breaking into a house (model)Image source, SPL

Padlock your doors! Bar your windows! Burglar Bill is back in town! Or is he?

It's that time of year again when journalists scour the crime figures for England and Wales for reasons to send us whimpering to the locksmith.

The political narrative requires a story about how recession and cuts are driving a wave of lawlessness, and so it is no surprise that the headlines scream of a 14% rise in burglary, based on today's data from the British Crime Survey (BCS).

The figure has been grabbed by lobbyists eager to find evidence for their campaigns. The right-leaning think-tank Policy Exchange hails the burglary stats as proof that the wind has changed. The head of their Crime and Justice Unit Blair Gibbs said:

"The years of falling crime are over. The rise in burglary is a real concern because of the traumatic effect it has on victims. The recession is certainly driving more property crime but unfortunately the police have taken their eye off the ball."

The Chief Executive of Victim Support, Javed Khan, has also jumped on the figures to back his arguments.

"The rise in burglary is a deep concern as is the fact that there are still over 25,000 new crime victims every day. Yet too many hear nothing after they have reported a crime and too often they feel they have been treated unfairly by the justice system."

Both statements are a questionable interpretation of the crime statistics published today. First, the "14% rise in burglary" figure comes with a clear warning from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The increase, they say, "should be viewed in the context that the estimate from the 2009/10 BCS was one of the lowest since the survey began and the current estimate is more in line with those for the previous five years. Thus it would be premature to view this as evidence of a newly rising trend in domestic burglary."

Let's look at the burglary rate for the last few years.

Well, there we have it. People's experience of burglary is at an historically low level - down 62% from 1995, down 58% from 1997 and down 28% from 2001.

Incidentally, the number of burglaries recorded by the police has fallen yet again, down 4% year on year and down 40% in a decade.

What about the Policy Exchange claim that "the recession is certainly driving more property crime"? Well, the latest BCS figure is almost the lowest ever recorded, only one year in the last thirty has seen a lesser risk and that was last year. In the year before the recession, 2007/8, property crime was 3% higher than it is now.

Finally, let us consider the argument that "the years of falling crime are over". I suspect there will be all too many wanting to trot this one out. So, let's look at the big picture.

Image source, Other

What do you see?