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Fraud may be our most common crime but policing has failed to catch up

Fraud may be our most common crime but policing has failed to catch up
3 min read

Voters always worry about crime, and politicians always want to offer them reassurance. That usually means talking about police numbers, and often about “bobbies on the beat”. But such conversations fail to take account of the fact the nature of crime has changed.

Fraud is now the dominant form of crime in Britain, yet neither politics nor policing have caught up with that fact. But voters have. The general public is all too aware of the scale and extent of fraud, a crime that now costs the UK economy more than £130bn a year.

According to police-recorded crime statistics, fraud accounted for 15 per cent of all crime in 2020/21. But when you ask the public about their experiences, that proportion rises sharply. The Crime Survey for England and Wales, which relies on public responses rather than official records, shows that fraud is now 39 per cent of all crime. 

The figure itself is shocking, but startling too is the gap between those two numbers, which indicates a huge amount of fraud is not being reported to police. That’s probably because victims assume the police don’t have the wherewithal to respond properly. That assumption is generally correct. There are nowhere near enough police officers focused on fraud. 

For each police worker focused on fraud, there are around 2,500 acts of fraud every year

According to official statistics on the police workforce in England and Wales in 2021, just 1,753 officers and civilian staff were deployed in roles primarily focused on economic crime such as fraud. That amounts to 0.8 per cent of the total police workforce dedicated to the most common form of crime.

Worse, that share has remained largely unchanged over the last decade, even as fraud has grown in frequency. The result is that for each police worker focused on fraud, there are around 2,500 acts of fraud every year. 

On that basis, we calculate that increasing the number of police staff working on fraud to match fraud’s share of total crime would mean redeploying – or hiring – around 30,000 staff to the task. That would be a seismic change for police forces whose officers currently number around 135,000.

That seems unlikely to happen, but there are quicker, cheaper, changes politicians could and should make to ensure the forces of law and order properly match the criminals and their activities. 

These are partly structural, because the current systems to manage anti-fraud work are a confusing mess. Instead of responsibilities being scattered between local forces and national agencies, an expanded and empowered National Crime Agency should take charge. Its work should be overseen by a new leadership in Whitehall, including the Treasury. 

But the biggest change is attitudinal: politicians need to take fraud more seriously. There are positive signs that politicians are starting to catch up on fraud. The House of Lords Select Committee on the Fraud Act 2006 and Digital Fraud, chaired by Baroness Morgan, is making a good start on pushing the issue up the agenda. 

Others should follow that example and recognise this is a national problem affecting everyone. There is sometimes a perception that fraud is a problem for older people. In fact, fraud affects all age groups (and indeed, most demographics) fairly evenly. If anything, younger people are slightly more likely to be victims of fraud than older ones. Fraud is the law and order story of the early 21st century, but our debates about crime are too often stuck in the 20th century. And that risks leaving us with 19th-century policing structures and priorities. For the sake of the whole country, politics needs to catch up soon.

James Kirkup is Director of the Social Market Foundation

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