“Crime has been falling, and not just, by the way, because we took the precaution of locking up the public for much of the last 18 months, but because you have a Conservative government that understands the broken windows theory of fighting crime.”
The Prime Minister has claimed in a speech at the Conservative Party conference that crime has been falling and that this is “not just” because of pandemic lockdowns. It’s correct that there has been a small drop in police recorded crime, though these figures don’t include fraud or computer misuse. The evidence suggests that this trend was strongly influenced by the various lockdowns.
According to Home Office statistics which look at police-recorded crime, across the whole year ending March 2021 there was a 13% fall in crime in England and Wales (excluding fraud) from five million in the year ending March 2020 to just over four million offences the following year. This reduction was “driven by falls in acquisitive crimes such as burglary, theft of and from vehicle offences and shoplifting.”
But the statistical release emphasises that these figures have been “significantly affected” by the pandemic and says “the suppression of normal crime levels makes meaningful comparisons with the previous 12-month period challenging as the crime mix in [the] year ending March 2021 differs from the previous year.”
We can also look at crime data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which looks at police-recorded crime and results from a telephone crime survey. It said that although some types of crime fell, fraud and “computer misuse offences” were up by 36% compared to the year ending March 2019. It used the telephone survey to measure these figures, and the most recent comparable data for this was 2019, rather than 2020.
The ONS states: “While there were decreases across a range of individual crime types, particularly theft offences, these were offset by rises in fraud and computer misuse offences, resulting in no change in overall levels of crime.”
And it added that the pandemic and lockdowns are “significant” in explaining the fall.
The ONS explicitly said: “Patterns of crime in the year ending March 2021 have been significantly affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and government instructions to limit social contact.”
In fact the largest decreases in recorded crime were seen during the three months of the first lockdown, in the second quarter of 2020. The ONS also reports that crime levels fluctuated with the lockdown restrictions—rising as the first lockdown was eased before falling again when the second lockdown began.
Telephone crime survey data indicated total crime excluding fraud and computer misuse also decreased by 19% in England and Wales compared to the year ending March 2019, largely driven, it said, by a decrease in theft offences.
Boris Johnson said crime had fallen “not just” because of lockdowns, but because the government “understands the broken windows theory of fighting crime”. The ‘broken windows theory’ of policing generally refers to the idea that tackling lower level disorder, for example, broken windows, eventually prevents serious crime. This is hard to assess from the data, and is not mentioned either by the Home Office or the ONS as a reason for falling crime levels.