Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham.

‘There’s been a 29 per cent increase in shoplifting in Durham, and it’s because of welfare reform.’

The statement above is not just untrue, it’s useless. Yet Ron Hogg, our local Police and Crime Commissioner, just won’t give up on it.

Uncontextualised percentage-based statistics are futile. We all use them, but they don’t mean anything. The commissioner conceded in a radio debate that, in this case, an increase of 29 per cent meant just 386 extra cases, over a whole county, in a three-month period. Not quite so newsworthy — particularly when pitted against the 10,000 people who gained employment in the North East in the last quarter. Life is gradually looking up, and it’s socially and fiscally dangerous to reduce morale mindlessly.

Correlation doesn’t equal causation. Several other Labour commissioners have suggested a link between shoplifting and welfare, and all have abandoned it pretty quickly, each confessing a lack of evidence for their claims. If we accepted that two sets of statistics behaving similarly meant they were dependent, or indeed that that statistical development was simply caused by concurrent change, we would be guilty of very narrow thinking.

Welfare reform is not inherently bad. We inherited a bloated welfare system which was neither viable in times of economic stricture, nor providing any incentive for people to work. Welfare is essential; the state must provide a safety net for those in genuine need. But this can be jeopardised when its forces are over-extended. Work doesn’t just provide an income, it offers self-worth, a place in society, and inspiration to those around you.

And finally, we mustn’t make excuses for criminal behaviour. Apologism of this kind is incendiary, offensive, and exploitative. It’s dangerous to sink into blame culture: we’re all guilty of it, but when law- enforcers use it to condone criminality, we risk chaos.

Localism is great. Transferring power from Westminster gives regions increased autonomy, and cuts bureaucracy. And this is why the commissioner role was introduced. But, and this is the hub of the problem, the post can be easily exploited for partisan gain. It’s based upon the values of trust and honour, and where this works, it works well. And our overall strategy is certainly successful. After all, crime has decreased by 10 per cent in the North East since the Conservative-led government came into power. Oh, wait a minute!

Damn the power of statistics…

104 comments for: Rebecca Coulson: Lies, damned lies, and…claims about shoplifting and welfare reform

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