Crime must pay up for research

October 10, 1997

Crime does not belong to the usual pile of neurotic imaginings that gnaw at our sense of wellbeing. Incomplete and imperfect, the official figures are still appalling. Theft and burglary amounted to Pounds 3.5 billion last year, credit card fraud Pounds 97 million and retailers' losses an estimated Pounds 1.9 billion. Personal crime flourished. There were 344,000 crimes of violence, including 228,000 woundings, 74,000 robberies and 6,000 rapes. Domestic burglary produced 600,000 cases.

We spent Pounds 3.5 billion on private security, home insurance premiums were Pounds 2 billion, motor insurance another Pounds 6 billion. The state spent Pounds 10.75 billion on policing, prosecuting, adjudicating and punishing crime. Fear, constraint and inconvenience cannot be quantified, but crime causes all of them. The 1996 British Crime Survey found that a third of female respondents were very worried about rape and more than a quarter were equally worried about mugging and burglary.

Yet despite crime's ubiquity and consequences we are not greatly concerned to know more about its nature and causes, nor about the effectiveness of our costly counter-measures. It is as though everyone is an expert on crime: we know what needs to be known, and it is not worth spending money to confirm what is self-evident. This view is not taken of other ills and worries. Cancer research funding was Pounds 263 million last year (including Pounds 25 million from the Department of Health), HIV-Aids funding Pounds 13.7 million. Such levels of funding emphasise the immense gap between talking and doing in criminal justice.

The largest concentration of research is in the Home Office's research and statistics directorate, which has 46 in-house researchers engaged in 115 projects, all of which must support ministerial objectives. The directorate has Pounds 800,000 to fund external research - a sum which would support 32 of our present 62,000 prisoners for a year, or pay for 30 new constables for London.

Miserly though this spending is, such was the contempt of some politicians and senior officials for criminological research that a year ago rumours were circulating in the Home Office that the directorate was to be broken up altogether. Certainly funding for commissioned research was completely withdrawn for the current financial year, and was restored only when another Home Office department scraped together a substitute sum. Crime has become seriously party political, and research has the unfortunate property of stepping between a minister and his rhetoric.

Other sources of state-funded criminological research are equally inadequate. The Economic and Social Research Council spent Pounds 887,000 on criminal justice research in 1995/96, and just under Pounds 1.1 million in 1996/97, out of a total research budget of Pounds 41 million. The Lord Chancellor's department - responsible for a wide range of judicial services, prosecutions and legal aid - has given its newly established research secretariat a budget of Pounds 220,000 for commissioned research: this is to cover civil, criminal and family law matters, and is provided out of a total operating budget of Pounds 2.7 billion. The private grant-awarding bodies are scarcely in a position to address the deficit in funding. The Leverhulme Trust, one of the country's largest foundations, has presently just over Pounds 500,000 invested in criminal justice research. The Nuffield Foundation makes some awards, but not on any large scale.

"The private sector'' - the politicians' tooth fairy - contributes almost nothing to criminal research. The security industry has revenues of Pounds 3.5 billion but, according to its association's spokesman, offers no organised support for criminological research - though individual retailers, manufacturers or finance houses occasionally make small grants. British insurance collects Pounds 8 billion a year in motor and home premiums, yet supports no criminological research at all.

Fifty years ago Parliament empowered the home secretary to give grants to criminological research. So little use was made of this power that when Rab Butler became home secretary the sum expended was "the biggest single shock which came to me in the whole area of penal policy". It was in response to his realisation that such funding was "hopelessly inadequate'' that in 1957 the Home Office Research Unit was founded, and the Institute of Criminology established in Cambridge.

Sadly, Butler's words are as apt today as they were 40 years ago. At most, sponsored criminal justice research attracts perhaps Pounds 4 million a year. Measure this against expenditure: Pounds 10.75 billion on criminal justice administration; Pounds 5 billion, say, on insurance and private protection; think of the 5 per cent research and development rule of thumb in industry and commerce - and ask if we are completely mad.

Se n McConville is professor of criminology at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

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