HL Deb 15 October 1991 vol 531 cc1004-6

3.21 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will now give up publishing a quarterly statement of offences known to the police in England and Wales.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, there are no immediate plans to do so.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Viscount for that Answer which at any rate preserves the splendid Home Office tradition of brevity. However, is it not unduly alarmist to publish figures which the media for the most part present every quarter as representing an accurate and precise figure for the total amount of crime in this country when in fact they are nothing of the kind? I am sure that the Minister will agree that many offences are not reported to the police at all and that the proportion of offences which are reported is affected by many considerations which have precious little to do with the total volume of crime. Therefore, would it not be better to limit the publication at any rate to once a year, with a full explanation as to why the figures are so unreliable, and at the same time expand the British Crime Survey and carry it out once a year instead of every four years as seems to have become the practice?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we believe that police statistics are important and have their uses, although we accept that they do not represent the whole story. They are a by-product of administrative procedures. They appear regularly in great detail, giving trends and comparisons of different parts of the country. I must tell the noble Lord that it is up to the press to report the crime statistics in a responsible way and to inform the public what they are and what they mean.

With regard to the British Crime Survey, one is planned to go ahead in 1992. There were three in the 1980s, and I believe that that means that there is one about every three years. They show greater in-depth knowledge of certain trends but they are not intended to produce all the answers compared with police statistics; they are, after all, a random survey.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that many of us share the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, that no useful purpose is served by publishing these figures at quarterly intervals? Of course no one is suggesting that the figures should be suppressed. The central question is whether they should be published quarterly. Is the noble Viscount further aware that it is my view and that of many others that the figures do not demonstrate either the scope or the intensity of crime in this country? That is demonstrated by the very different figures produced by the British Crime Survey. Although we appreciate that nothing can be done before the next general election for obvious reasons, many of us hope that the next Government, of whatever political complexion they may be, will publish the figures annually and not quarterly.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I think that we will keep this matter under review. The police statistics represent an accurate account of the amount of crime with which the police are faced. That is the important point. The police need to know and we need to know how that increases or decreases in certain areas of the country. That is important for operational reasons.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that when I was Home Secretary the only reason that I could ever find for these statistics was that they were a very valuable method of attacking the Home Secretary of the day? As there are many other much fairer and better methods for attacking the Home Secretary, it really would be much better to give up these statistics.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am all for not giving anyone the opportunity to attack my right honourable friend the Home Secretary more than is necessary. However, it is up to him to decide whether the figures should be published annually.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I am bound to say that I am a little lost in this miasma. What on earth is the point of publishing statistics which everyone seems to agree are totally inaccurate?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, whether they are published quarterly or annually, the statistics are not going to change. As I have already said, they are not supposed to represent the whole story; they cannot do so. The statistics relate to the police. Much crime is unreported and obviously will not be included in the statistics.

Lord Morris

My Lords, is it not quite clear from the numerous answers which my noble friend has given that the central issue in the supplementary question put by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, is not so much the collating of the figures but the fact that the danger lies in publication? It would be much more useful if the figures were published less often; indeed, annually would be infinitely more useful.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the figures would probably still be available. Local forces may still publish their figures; indeed, they may or they may not do so. It would be quite easy for the national press to put together, say, part of the picture. We believe at present that it is better to continue to publish them quarterly. However, as I said, we shall keep the matter under review.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, are not the Government being offered, uniquely perhaps, the opportunity to save public expenditure on this occasion? Therefore, should not the noble Viscount take the suggestion seriously?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, it is also possible that we are being offered the opportunity of being criticised once a year instead of four times a year. However, as I said, it is a matter for my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

Lord Annan

My Lords, was the Minister's original Answer that the Home Office had not considered the matter perfectly accurate? Alternatively, did the Answer mean that the Home Office had taken account of the Question which the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, was going to put forward and had considered it fully in consultation with the Home Secretary?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I can only say that the Answer was the one I gave. I also said that we shall keep the matter under review.