This leads the Office for National Statistics to underestimate the extent of violent crime. When the survey’s cap is removed, and the raw data examined, the number of violent crimes increases by 60%. The amount of violent crimes against women, and the amount of violent crimes by domestic perpetrators, both increase by 70%.
We also found that the cap skews the reported distribution of violent crimes. In particular, the significance of domestic violence and violence against women is diminished by the survey’s limit, since these kinds of offences are often repeated many times against the same victim. Our research shows that women are the victim of 45% of violent crimes, and that the majority of perpetrators are known to the victims. Violent crime perpetrated by strangers against men – the conventional understanding of “violent crime” – makes up only 25% of cases.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has defended the cap: it says the limit is necessary “to ensure that the estimates are not affected by a very small number of respondents who report an extremely high number of incidents and which are highly variable between survey years”.
This was once a reasonable judgement. But today, the survey’s much larger sample size and the advancement of statistical techniques means that this argument is no longer valid.
Setting the record straight
And there is a further problem: the survey collects – but does not publish – information about the gender of the victims of violent crime at the same time as their relationship to the perpetrator. This means that there are no official statistics on the number of violent crimes that are domestic violence against women.
The problem continues throughout the criminal justice system. Domestic violence is invisible in police-recorded crime statistics because there is no legal category (and thus no crime code) for “domestic violence”. Although there are crime codes for “homicide” and “assault”, there is no categorisation of these offences by perpetrator-victim relationship or by the gender of the victim within these police recorded crime statistics.
There have been attempts to address this problem: for instance, there was an experiment with “flagging” domestic violence in 43 different police forces. Separate from the main statistical series, police were asked to record whether the incident was “domestic”. But the verdict of HM Inspectorate of Constabulary was that, “in view of the extreme variation in the information provided, it is unlikely that some forces’ data accurately reflects the number of repeat victims”.
Further confusion is caused by the fact that domestic violence is nearly invisible in prosecution and court data. This is because there is no legal category of “domestic violence” – though, again, there is an experiment with “flagging”. A further difficulty is that the Crown Prosecution Service and courts use different units of measurement from the police – counting perpetrators, not crimes – making it hard to identify the success (or otherwise) of the criminal justice system in convicting the perpetrators.
Room for improvement
There is clearly scope for improvement across the survey, the police force and the courts. The Crime Survey for England and Wales is one of the best in the world, with an excellent history of innovation. It is time for the survey to remove the cap on the number of crimes that are reported in official statistics, and also to categorise violent crimes by the sex of the victim and the relationship between victim and perpetrator.
The categories for victim-perpetrator relationship and victim gender should be embedded within legal categories and crime codes to ensure a common measurement system throughout the criminal justice system. The police, prosecution and courts should all be required to collect data on the number of crimes, their victims and their perpetrators. There is a precedent for this: the crime of “rape” is differentiated by the gender of the victim, in order to identify male as well as female victims
UK statistics are as good as any in Europe. But the Council of Europe is asking for better statistics from those countries that sign and ratify the Istanbul Convention to Combat Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, so some improvement can be anticipated in the future.
By developing a consistent, comprehensive system to measure and analyse domestic violent crime, we will be better able to assess what works (and what doesn’t) in the effort to reduce – and eventually put a stop to – this violence.
Sylvia Walby is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and UNESCO Chair in Gender Research at Lancaster University.