Problems with knife crime statistics at PMQs

20 October 2011

"Has the Prime Minister read today's article article in The Sun revealing 40 per cent of all knife crime is carried out by under eighteens? Why won't he deliver on his promises and put them in jail?" John Spellar MP, Prime Minister's Questions, 19 October 2011

"The fact is, despite all his promises, fewer people caught carrying knives are going to prison now than under the last government." Ian Austin MP, Prime Minister's Questions, 19 October 2011

As a new Bill on sentencing guidelines passes through the House of Commons which will bring in a minimum sentence of six months imprisonment to persons aged 18 or over found guilty of aggravated knife possession, several MPs from both sides of the House have voiced concerns that similarly severe punishments are not being handed out to juveniles.

Labour members John Spellar and Ian Austin raised the point with the Prime Minister yesterday at PMQs. But were the figures they used to demonstrate the scale of the problem accurate?

Where's this number from?

Mr Spellar takes his cue from a story in the morning's Sun newspaper which claims that new Sentencing Council research reveals that a "quarter of serial crooks beat jail".

Within the article, it stated: "any over-18s convicted of a new offence of using a knife to threaten or endanger life will get a mandatory six-month term. But juveniles are exempt — despite statistics showing they are involved in more than 40 per cent of knife crime."

This figure was repeated in an article in The Sun today. It referred to "a blacklash over the dumping of a pledge to jail ALL blade thugs" in PMQs yesterday.

The implication is that new statistics have revealed this 40 per cent figure. However, when we looked over the figures released by the Sentencing Council we found the proportion of juveniles involved in knife crime was nowhere to be seen.

After further investigation we found the same claim in the Evening Standard, in an article which referred to a letter about the problem written in July by MPs Nick de Bois and David Burrowes to the Prime Minister.

copy of this letter can be found on Mr de Bois' website. It raised concern regarding the frequency of knife crime incidents in the Enfield borough, particularly among youths:

"Unfortunately, our borough continues to be affected by knife crime. As recently as a week ago there was a distressing incident in Enfield North where two rival gangs publicly fought with machetes, knives and guns. The members of these gangs were youths, and a sixteen year old was stabbed in the hand...These incidents confirm the Borough Commander's estimation that over 40 per cent of all knife offence prosecutions involve young people under the age of 18."

So, it seems that a figure quoted as fact by The Sun, and more importantly, repeated by an MP to put forward his question in PMQs, is based on an estimate, by one police commander, referring simply to one part of London; it is hardly therefore an accurate representation of nationwide knife crime among youths.

What's the real figure?

The Ministry of Justice Knife Possession Sentencing Quarterly Brief, published on 1st September 2011, documents the number of offences involving a knife or offensive weapon resulting in a caution or sentence.

From April to June 2011 there were 978 offences involving a knife or an offensive weapon resulting in a caution or sentence committed by people aged 10 to 17, while 4,212 offences were committed by those over 18.

Of the total number of 5,190 offences committed by all ages in this period therefore, the 978 juvenile offences represent 19 per cent of the whole. This is significantly lower than the 'estimate' put forward by the Sun.

Fewer criminals locked up?

Next to consider whether the proportion of knife offences resulting in imprisonment has decreased, since Labour left office.

The same Ministry of Justice database shows that in reality things have not changed substantially over the last few years.

In fact, out of the total number of offences involving a knife or offensive weapon resulting in a caution or sentence, the proportion of those immediately imprisoned has only changed by a couple of percentage points.

Under the Labour Government, from January to March 2010, 21 per cent of offences involving a knife or offensive weapon led to immediate imprisonment.

From April to June 2010, 21 per cent were imprisoned.

For the periods July to September 2010, October to December 2010, and January to March 2011, 22 per cent were imprisoned, showing a very slight increase.

Finally, from April to June 2011, this proportion decreased to 20 per cent. Although Ian Austin may have been referring to these latest figures which show 1 per cent fewer offences are leading to imprisonment (compared to early 2010), the long-term picture remains fairly static.

However more importantly, the MoJ note that these figures are likely to be revised upwards in the coming months. As we pointed out last month when we factchecked a similar claim, Mr Austin seems to have missed this crucial caveat:

"Note — immediate custody figures for the latest quarter are likely to be revised upwards as final decisions regarding deferred sentences are recorded by the police, this typically increases the proportion by 1 to 2 percentage points."

What happens next?

Both of these claims therefore have substantial problems. While we must wait until any revisions are made to the sentencing data before we can comment definitively on Ian Austin's claim, the 40 per cent figure used by John Spellar does seem to have been taken out of the context in which it was made. We are trying to contact Enfield Borough Police to confirm its heritage.

However this does serve to highlight the ease with which inaccurate information published in the press can make its way onto the biggest of political stages at PMQs, potentially damaging and misinforming the legislative process. Once we've confirmed the sources for these stories, we will therefore be contacting The Sun and the MPs involved if any corrections need to be made.

Update (25/10/11): While Enfield Police still hasn't confirmed to us the scope of the 40 per cent figure attributed to its Commander, the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke today confirmed to the Home Affairs select committee that it is not accurate when applied nationally, as the Sun and John Spellar did. As we outlined, the true proportion is "about half that," he said. (Video available here, with remarks coming at 12:52.)

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