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How much do we know about the extent of sexual offending?

At the end of last month, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children published their annual report on child protection in the UK, How Safe are our Children?. This gathers together statistics on the safety and happiness of children, ranging from the number of child murders recorded by the police to referrals to social services. Working in the area of sexual offending, TDI is always particularly interested in their data on the number of recorded sexual offences against children (which appear on page 26 of this year’s report). These show a continuation of a trend of rising recorded offences. In 2014/15, the report states, there were 47,008 sexual offences recorded by police against children in the UK. This was the highest number in the last decade.

What does this figure mean, and how alarmed should we be by it?

Where does this data come from?

We usually have two different sources for crime figures, such as those relating to sexual offending. The first is from the police, a tally of incidents which have been reported to them and which they have recorded as crimes. This has some obvious disadvantages, the largest being that it only counts crimes where they have reached the attention of the police. Sexual offending, in particular, is believed to be under-reported; due to shame, fear of the offender, or a feeling that the police will not respond, many victims do not come forward.

We know this, because of our second source for crime figures, the annual Crime Survey for England and Wales. This is a survey of around 35,000 adults and 3,000 children which asks about the experience of crime. This routinely picks up more crimes than are reported to and then recorded by the police. Similar surveys exist for Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, while more sexual offences are reported in the survey than are reported by the police, the numbers are still (thankfully) very small. This means that extrapolating from our sample to the population is an unreliable business. There is also the problem that children are not asked about sexual offences against them.

The NSPCC data, then, relies on police recorded crime of sexual offences on those under 18. This is supplemented by Freedom of Information requests to police forces, asking them to specify how many of these offences relate to those under 16. While this will miss offences that are not reported to the police, reducing the total of offences, it will include historic offences, which will push it up.

How many offences are there really?

The problems with the data make it very difficult to have a firm idea of how many offences are actually occurring. Using a very different methodology which tried to get around the gaps in our knowledge, the Children’s Commissioner for England and Wales released a report last year (which we blogged about in November) suggesting that only 1 in 8 of sexual offences against children were recorded by the police. This led to an estimate of 425,000 cases per year, roughly ten times the levels reported here by the NSPCC.

At the same time, it is very difficult to know if more offences occurred in 2014/15 than in previous years. The NSPCC observe that at least some of the increase they report will be due to people coming forward to report historic offences following Jimmy Saville and Operation Yewtree. Some of the increase is also attributed to changes in police recording practices, which mean that more offences reported to them are entered into the records as crimes. However, these two factors will also encourage people to report offences they would not have done previously, because the publicity around sexual offending allows people to see that crimes have been committed against them and because they have increased confidence that the police will respond.

All of which means that the increase in offences reported by the NSPCC may not reflect more sexual offences, but just more offences being recorded. With adults, this certainly appears to be the case, as our second source of data, the Crime Survey does not show any particular increase in people experiencing sexual offences. With children, we don’t have this data, so cannot be certain.

So how useful are the statistics?

To an extent, then, our data on sexual offending, particularly against children, is an index of our ignorance – we have a figure we know doesn’t capture the actual extent of the problem, is possibly a long way off, and which can’t tell us whether things are getting better or worse. We make efforts to reduce offending, but we can’t know how successful they are.

At TDI, we believe that sexual offending is not simply a matter of criminals and their victims, but about the wider social structures in which offending takes place. In our work we try to empower people to make defensible decisions around the risk of sexual offending in their workplace or community. The statistics, incomplete as they are, represent individuals who interacted with a range of public and private bodies, in public space, in the face of local and national attitudes towards them and their actions. While they cannot tell us how successful we have been, the statistics do highlight the reality of the offending in our midst.

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