Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 400 - 419)



  400. From 1,940 such crimes in 1989 to 1500-odd nearly ten years later.
  (Mr Clarke) I have not got the statistics you are referring to in front of me, but with that qualification I believe you are accurately describing the statistics.

  401. There have been big changes in the system for counting the statistics for criminal offences in 1998, have there not? Can you tell us why they have been made and what effect they are going to have on our ability to spot continuity?
  (Mr Clarke) There has been a real difficulty about the whole basis of police statistics for a long period of time. The first difficulty has been comparative bases of statistics across different forces throughout the country, where different forces have used different bases for counting statistics. The second difficulty has been the definitions of what is recorded crime and in what circumstances does a crime count as a recorded crime or not, where quite different practices have been operating in different parts of the country. That is why the Home Secretary decided, with the support of ACPO and the Association of Police Authorities, to move on to a basis which was comparable across the country and where people knew where they were. That is running through every category of crime, and that is why we have made the changes which you are referring to and which we are developing over a period of time. It is difficulty, as any researcher in criminology will confirm, I think, to be clear on what is the best basis for statistical assessment—what is the ground line in the case of crimes, since there are so many subjective judgments involved in what is a crime and what is not a crime. We are trying to get a comparative basis so that we can discuss it in a more intelligent way. Incidentally, I believe that is something the Select Committee has been pressing for for some time, and rightly so.

  402. It is going to make it jolly hard, is it not, to identify trends over time and might make it impossible to evaluate the effects of the pistol ban?
  (Mr Clarke) Obviously, with any change of statistics there is a discontinuity at the point of the change which makes comparisons more difficult. However, as you know, there are statistical techniques for addressing it, by looking at the comparisons between the streams up to the point of change and the streams after the point of change. We certainly want to make that happen. For example, the statistics that were published before Christmas in these areas were published side-by-side—the old basis with the statistics on the new basis—in order that there could be some form of comparison. I cannot dispute your central point, however, that any change in the basis leads to more difficulties in doing comparisons over time than would otherwise have been the case. We think it is more important to establish a consistent and coherent basis to the system, and we thought that was necessary.

  403. On this point of crime committed with air rifles increasing, do you not agree with me that this may or may not be the case given that we have had a change in statistical methods, which now includes all cases of criminal damage and not just those of over £20, as used to be the case, which can make comparisons unreal?
  (Mr Clarke) I agree with you that the qualification that you have expressed in the statistics is important to take into account when looking at the way figures have moved, but I do not believe it is true to say there is no meaningful information we can get out of this situation.

  404. Fair enough. A couple of last questions. The use of shotguns in crime is falling, is it not?
  (Mr Clarke) That is what the evidence shows at the moment, yes.

  405. Finally, I know you accept the importance of education so far as young people are concerned, but would you accept my general principle that the real problem is not the lawful shooters, of whom there are many thousands in this country, but the criminals and the illegal guns? That is our real problem, and it is a mistake to hammer the former when we should be hammering the latter.
  (Mr Clarke) As I said, fundamentally I do think that is right, and it is right to look at the illegal use of weapons in terms of crime. However, I also think it is important to have a proper regulated system for the legal use of guns. Obviously, the better regulated the system for the legal use of guns then the more difficult it is for guns to slip over that line between legal and illegal, which is why the state—in my view rightly—takes upon itself the job of regulating that properly. I think it is important and, in many ways, the more it is strengthened and clarified the better.

  Mr Malins: Thank you very much.

Mr Stinchcombe

  406. Minister, when Mr Winnick gave you some figures about offences with air weapons at the beginning of his questions you said that you were not worried by them. Those figures—which showed an increase from 4,813 to, I think the figure given was, 7,506 in 1997—were figures to do with reported crimes. Indeed, the figures for 1998/99 show us that there were 8,665 reported crimes. Notwithstanding the comments made by Mr Malins, which have to be taken into account, as to the statistical basis upon which these figures are collected, surely no Minister in the Home Office can fail to be concerned by a virtual doubling in reported offences with a single weapon over an eleven-year period?

  (Mr Clarke) Firstly, no Home Office Minister can be but concerned about any increase in crime with any weapon—whatever it is. I agree with you. As I said in answer to Mr Winnick, however, I think that the question of the extent to which legislation would help deal with this problem is a very major question. I am looking forward very much to the recommendations that you intend to make about air weapons, to see how that moves forward. Yes, I do have a general concern about any increase in crime with weapons of any description, that is right.

  407. Do you know whether the majority of these offences caused by air weapons are caused by air weapons which were illegally or legally held?
  (Mr Clarke) I do not myself know the answer to that question, as you speak, but I can let you have a note on any information we have. I do not know if Mr Widdecombe has any information on that to hand.
  (Mr Widdecombe) Well, by definition they will probably be legal insofar as they are not controlled or certificated. There may be some which were donated wrongly to somebody under 14, but, by and large, because they are not certificated they are legal.

  408. They were legally in circulation?
  (Mr Widdecombe) Yes.

  Mr Stinchcombe: Thank you very much.

Mr Linton

  409. Further on the same point, Minister, did I understand you earlier to say that as far as legally held weapons were concerned you thought they presented no significant risk to public safety?
  (Mr Clarke) I do not recall using those words, but taking it through I do not think they do present a significant risk to public safety, as we stand at the moment, although I believe that we have to be continually vigilant in looking at the way they are regulated.

  410. Is that related simply to the use of weapons in crime? If we just look at the criminal damage, there is a lot of use of air weapons—as I understand it two-thirds of firearms offences are caused by air weapons—and it is almost entirely criminal damage.
  (Mr Clarke) Let me put it like this, Mr Linton. I think there is a case for bringing air weapons within the regulated system more explicitly—I think there is a strong case for that—and it is a matter you will be considering as to how we should operate. That is for a variety of different reasons. However, I think there is a case for having consistency in the way the law operates in relation to different types of weapon. I think one of the problems about the current legislative framework is that it is patchy in the way it operates in different areas. However, when you ask me the question directly "Do I believe that actually these weapons present a substantial and significant threat to public safety", I cannot say that I do feel that that is a major concern. I think the far bigger concern is the whole issue of the illegal use of weapons which we have talked about before and where I think we need to perform better.

  411. What I am inviting you to do is draw a distinction between the use of weapons in crime, where I think it is common ground that it is not air weapons that are mainly used in crime, or cause the problem, and the problem in the use of air weapons mainly by 17- and 18-year olds in the summer holidays on many housing estates. Although it is not a problem of crime in the sense of robbery or burglary, it is, nevertheless, a considerable problem to people living in those areas.
  (Mr Clarke) I accept the distinction you are making, and I was talking about crime in the sense you described it in the first part of the question. I think it would be highly desirable to have a situation where the type of use of air weapons which you are describing was inhibited more effectively by the law, which is one of the reasons why my personal view is that there is a case for having a more coherent system across the whole range.

  412. You do not think it would be impractical to have some kind of certification system?
  (Mr Clarke) I think there would be very significant practical issues, and that is one of the reasons why it has not happened in the past. Do I think, ultimately, it would be impractical? I think it depends upon the precise scheme that can be developed. There are significant practical problems in doing it, which is why it has not happened in the past, but, on the other hand, I acknowledge, as you are implying in your line of questioning, that there are also significant benefits in being able to put such a system in place. It is that balance between the benefits which you are implying and the practicalities of the system which we have to weigh up in deciding where to go.

Mr Howarth

  413. Minister, you explained to Mr Malins why it was that you had introduced changes to the recording of crime in order to reduce inconsistency between different police forces, but you did not explain why you changed the calendar date for reporting, from the calendar year to the financial year. Can you explain that change?
  (Mr Clarke) There is always an argument about years and dates, but the central reason at the time was to ensure that you had comparability between the various targets and approaches that are being set for police forces, basically on the basis of the financial year because the is the legal year that operates, and we wanted to ensure data was collected in a way that was consistent with that so that we could monitor more effectively the way in which different parts of the criminal justice system were operating in relation to that data. That is the fundamental reason.

  414. It was not to tie-in with calculations of budgets and looking at the figures to coincide with budgetary implications?
  (Mr Clarke) It is an interesting debate to go down the whole approach of the role of targeting budgets, and so on, in the way we are trying to develop more efficient public service, but it certainly is the case that I think there is a strong argument for aligning budget years, target years, performance years and data in a way that we can measure more effectively how different parts of the public sector are performing.

  415. Minister, can I tell you that it came as a surprise to us that the changes had been introduced. It was only in the last few days that we have discovered, on this Committee, that the change had been introduced. I understand there has been no public consultation about it, particularly with those who, in this debate on firearms, are very concerned about the accuracy of the statistical evidence upon which we, as law makers, are making decisions.
  (Mr Clarke) I may be talking at cross purposes, and I do not mean to be, if I am doing so, but the data that we are publishing and on which we have moved forward was decided more than a year ago—and I am speaking from memory now.

  416. Consultation took place at the time?
  (Mr Clarke) It certainly did with organisations such as ACPO and the APA, across a wide range of opinion there. I am exercised about what you say about the information to your Committee and I will look at the situation and establish what the time-scales were and let you have a note on that.

  417. I would be grateful, and it is not a point of simple, academic interest, because there are those who might well suggest that the effect of this change in the data that has been recorded on crime is to make comparison with the conditions that applied before the introduction of the framework legislation introduced by this and the previous governments very difficult to make. Those who are extremely cynical might suggest that it has been deliberately done in order to muddy the water so that it is not possible to see what effect the ban on handguns has had on crime.
  (Mr Clarke) I know that you, Mr Howarth, are not cynical in your assessment and motives in any of these areas.

  418. Indeed.
  (Mr Clarke) However, I do think it would be extraordinarily cynical to suggest that the Government has skewed the whole of its data reporting on crime throughout the whole of the criminal justice system in order to bypass some concerns that some of the shooting lobby might have. The fact is we are trying to get to a consistent basis across the whole of the system, for the reasons that you implied and I accepted about the questions of performance and targeting. The idea that it was pushed through in some kind of surreptitious way to hoodwink the shooting lobby, or anybody else, I really think is mistaken.

  419. I am encouraged by that response and, also, by other responses you have made, Minister, but you will be acutely aware that this Committee in its deliberations is under strong pressure from certain quarters to persuade you to introduce Draconian further legislation on air weapons and shotguns, in particular, and that it has not helped a proper and calm assessment of these matters if people are going to bandy around hugely increased crime figures which are not based on reality but are based on the change in statistical arrangements.
  (Mr Clarke) Two or three points, Mr Howarth. Firstly, I think we would all oppose Draconian legislation, in whatever form it arose. Secondly, I agree with that there is always an issue in statistics and arguments for legislative change, and, as I said to Mr Malins in his earlier question, I think the question of how data sequences work is part of that debate but is changed by the way in which we change the basis. I acknowledge that point. However, thirdly, I think it is fair and legitimate to consider—for the reasons identified by Mr Linton in his question—whether some form of tighter legal regulation of air weapons ought to be taken into account. We have been very careful to say, as a Government, that we are relatively open-minded on this point and we are looking to see what the FCC has said—and they have made their view clear—and we will very much be looking to see what the Select Committee says on this matter, and to look at opinion right across the whole range, because there is a difficult balance between the desire of inhibiting the use of firearms in a way that can be dangerous and anti-social, as a minimum—in the way Mr Linton has described—and the practicality of putting the proposition into place. That is the balance and judgment we have to come to.

  Mr Howarth: Can I thank you very much for that comprehensive reply, Minister, because I think you are going to need to be clear to the public about the way in which those statistics are now being dealt with. In particular, in respect of air weapons, I hope you will also take into account that the previous figures, which excluded any criminal damage of less than £20, need to be considered in two respects: not only in the removal of that exemption now, which obviously has inflated the number of offences, but, also, inflation over the period since 1988 itself has naturally increased the likely number even further still. Minister, to move one other subject which I promised the Chairman of the FCC I would raise with you, in their report they did suggest to you—agreeing with you, as they do, that illegal weapons is a real problem—they should undertake research into the origin—

  Chairman: Mr Howarth, I think you were out of the room when we put this point to the Minister and he said they are actively looking at it.

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