Monday, March 21, 2005

Shock: Dracula Lies!

Roy Hattersley has a little rant against Michael Howard in today's Grauniad, using Tory billboards which attack early prisoner release schemes as the evidence for a more general argument that Howard is systematically dishonest, both about the problems which beset public policy and the solutions which might be applied. His main lines of attack on the specifics of parole seem to be that in the absence of parole, there is little incentive to reform, and expanding the prison population would be incredibly costly and unlikely to reduce recidivism, both which seem sensible to me. However, Hattersley is a little late to the party. Howard has been playing on what Hattersley correctly identifies as a mendacious politics of fear since he was elected leader of the Tories.

In the aftermath of the release of the last set of Home Office crime figures, Howard went on a little hang-em, flog-em brigade appeasing rant, specifically claiming that the Home Office's willingness to use a victimization survey rather than police figures systematically underestimated the level of crime. The point of doing this is obvious: to make the government seem weak on what is traditionally a strong Tory issue. Having spent two months three summers ago working for Nacro, a month of which was spent preparing an internal document on international comparisons of crime rates (the long and the short of it: it's quite difficult to do them in a reasonably accurate way, even for what might seem like quite simple comparisons), I know a little about official statistics on crime. Probably less than any self-respecting former Home Secretary, but enough to know the problems of using them and roughly how to interpret them, and when I heard Howard claiming this on the radio, I was nigh-on apopletic with rage.

Anyone who knows anything about the collection of crime statistics, as a former Home Secretary should, knows that victimization surveys are better indicators of the level of crime that police statistics, for the simple reasons that a) not all crime is reported to the police and b) not all crime reported to the police is recorded by them. They are also much better indicators of trends in crime, because they are based on the same questions every year, whereas police recording practices change, and the laws change, meaning that the variables which are being measured are unstable across time (and until recently, across space) and so can't give an accurate picture of anything, because the same questions aren't being asked.

Howard also made vague attacks on the survey because it didn't record murders or drug crime. Presumably, murders are usually reported to and recorded by the police, so a victimization wouldn't give us a better picture than police figures anyway, and, further, asking whether people whether they'd been murdered might not give the most accurate picture of murder possible, seeing as how only people who are alive can answer questions. Drug crime on the other hand, doesn't actually produce victims - at least in the sense of people who suffer a loss as a direct result of the act - so, again, asking people if they have been the victims of drug crime, since there aren't any (in the sense above), might be a bit futile. It might also indicate that there's something wrong with the country's drug laws, but that's a different debate.

Basically, Howard made a deeply misleading attack on a set of statistics to allege that the level of crime was much higher than anyone had any reason to believe (because, if the police figures were taken as definitive, due to recording practice changes and various high-profile anti-violent crime campaigns, it looked like violent crime had risen, when the victimization survey looked like it had stayed more or less constant). It would be bad enough if any elected politician was this mendacious, but the fact that Howard, a former Home Secretary, made these attacks means that either he is utterly mendacious and unprincipled in the pursuit of power, or that he was so incompetent as a government minister that he could not understand the single most important set of statistics produced by his department in a year.

The fact that right-wing politicians - and their cronies in the tabloid press - are prepared to make these kind of attacks, to my mind, prevents a more productive debate in this country about what to do about crime, because every single time anything remotely liberal is proposed, there is a baseless moral panic about levels of crime which returns the debate to the middle ages. It just makes me incredibly cross, because it's so hypocritical. Regardless, neither is this the only time Howard has lied and dragged political debate into the gutter. Bartlett's Bizarre Bazaar has a number of letters (links in the post) Andrew Bartlett has written to Howard, asking him to correct factual errors he has made - none of which have been answered, of course - which point out exactly how low Howard is prepared to stoop. So, Hatterley's right, but we really ought not to need anyone to point this out to us, because he's been doing it for f*cking ages.

Disclaimer: this post should not be taken to imply anything about the relative probity of any British political parties.


Pearsall Helms said...

Have you read any of Civitas's stuff on crime? I'd be interested to see your reaction.

Rob Jubb said...

I don't think I have, but I'm more or less familiar with the kind of line they're going to take: punitive, the-liberal-reforms-of-the-sixties-a-mandate-for-crime type thing. I do think this is bollocks, but on the other hand, see my views on chavs, so... I think it's Thatcher's fault, but I would say that. The point is more that Howard lies, and the tabloid press lies and the broadsheet press equivocates. Genuine empirical research, fine, deliberate misrepresentation of genuine empirical research in order to distort political debate to your advantage, f*ck right off. I'll have a look at Civitas though.