Leader comment: Cause for concern in crime figures

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The publication of new statistics by Police Scotland has attracted considerable attention for one welcome headline figure showing that recorded crime has fallen in the past year.

The force has endured a torrid time of late and its senior officers have every reason to be pleased by this downward trend, as do members of the public across the country.

The 3.2 per cent decrease is a not inconsiderable achievement and it demonstrates that, across the board, Scotland is a safer place than it was this time last year.

The tranche of statistics contains other positive findings, not least evidence showing that the detection rate has seen a modest rise from 50.6 per cent to 51.6 per cent, while the fall in the number of murders – down six on the previous 12 months to 49 – is especially reassuring,

However, as well the force knows, such statistics only tell part of the story. A detailed look at the figures reveals there remains cause for concern. There have been increases in fire-raising and malicious mischief, for example, but the most worrying trend is the 5.3 per cent increase in crimes of violence – with 6,775 recorded over the past year – and the 6.2 per cent spike in sexual crimes, which rose to 10,273 over the same period.

The former development is in stark contrast to the rest of the UK. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), for example, there has been a 4 per cent drop in violent incidents, the latest in a general downward trend of year on year decreases.

Comparisons between Police Scotland’s data collation and that of the CSEW are inexact and in any case, Scotland’s national force has pointed out that many of the offences recorded over the past year are historical. Even so, the fact that more violent incidents are being recorded is worrying indeed.

There will be back patting for the overall reduction in crime, but Chief Constable Phil Gormley should be reminded that serious assaults have increased by 24 per cent, while attempted murders are up 10 per cent. Changes to reporting guidelines may be a factor, but it is not the only one at play.

It should be noted that Police Scotland has had a very difficult start to its existence and it is paramount that the force has the support and resources with which to reduce crime. After all, this is its overarching remit and Mr Gormley deserves time to implement change.

But searching questions must be asked of his organisation’s capacity to halt the disconcerting increase in violent crime, let alone reverse it, at a time when its financial woes are well documented.

A report presented to the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) yesterday showed Police Scotland “overspent” its 2015-16 revenue budget by more than £18 million. That deficit will result in further pained discussions about how the force can cut its cloth accordingly. Let us hope Mr Gormley and the SPA have some very honest conversations about what such numbers will mean in terms of police efficiency. Achieving those savings while keeping the public safe is a balance that must be struck.