Scottish Labour in retreat over crime claims

Scottish Labour has backtracked on its claims of the health costs of knife crime – first brought to attention on this website  - as its sources distanced themselves from the figures. 
“Labour’s claim knife crime costs the NHS £500 million a year is slammed as ‘a deception’” was The Scotsman’s headline yesterday, while The Times’ Scottish edition went with “Labour’s knife crime policy ‘descends into disarray’”.
While nobody has seriously challenged my assertion that the £500 million figure is a fantasy, to be fair to Scottish Labour I have taken a fresh look at the main source they cited and tried to trace the claim back to the source it failed to cite, but has since disclosed.
Labour’s source was a report from the Violence Reduction Unit of Strathclyde Police, dated March 2006, which stated (page 20):

“The health service bears a significant burden from violence. Conservative estimates from England and Wales suggest that 3 to 6 per cent of the annual health service budget is used in the treatment of violence. This equates to an annual cost of between £258 million to £517 million per annum in Scotland.”

The figures refer to all forms of violence, not just violence involving a knife, a point seized upon by the Scottish National Party and the source of yesterday’s headlines. In response to journalist queries, the VRU said that the claim came from a Home Office report. I’ve searched unsuccessfully for a report that makes the precise point claimed.
The closest I can find is a widely-cited report published in June 2005 by a Home Office group entitled The economic and social costs of crime against individuals and households 2003-04. (Home Office online report 30/05)     
This covers England & Wales, and concludes (Table 4.1) that the cost to the NHS of offences categorised as “wounding” was £1.719 billion in 2003 prices. Updated by inflation, that would be £2.1 billion today.
This figure is based on an estimated number of offences, multiplying the number of woundings actually recorded by the police by 1.8. The assumption here, based on the discrepancy between police-recorded crime and crime measured by the British Crime Survey, is that some woundings that require treatment by the NHS go unreported to the police. So the actual cost figure depends strongly on the choice of the multiplier. 
There may well be room for argument over this. Is it likely that so many wounding offences go unreported? However, since what we want to know is whether the £500 million claimed by Scottish Labour is consistent with the Home Office estimate, let’s stick with the £2.1 billion figure for woundings in England & Wales. Let’s also ignore the fact that crime has fallen since 2003 – the number of people recorded by police as handling an offensive weapon in Scotland fell from 9,278 in 2003-04 to 7,042 in 2009-10, for example.
The next question is what proportion of woundings are by knives? The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London , in a report published in December 2007, estimates it is between 5 and 10 per cent, with a central estimate of 7 per cent. On that basis, the cost of woundings by a knife to the NHS in England today would be £147 million a year – or between £105 and £210 million.
Adjusted for population, the England & Wales total would equate to a figure of £13.9 million per year for Scotland (range £10 million - £20 million). Since the level of violent crime per head is higher in Scotland, the upper figure may be the most plausible.
Given the uncertainties, it is reasonably in line with the findings of a study I cited earlier (Injury, 2008) which reached its conclusions by actually asking hospitals how many patients they treated, and at what cost. That produced a figure of £10 million a year for the numbers we know to be treated annually in Scotland.
On Newsnight Scotland on Tuesday, Labour leader Iain Gray distanced himself from the £500 million claim, saying that what mattered was not the cost to the NHS, but saving lives. “I don’t know how much it costs” he admitted.
Perhaps he should have a word with Andy Kerr, a former health and finance minister and Scottish Labour candidate for East Kilbride, who claimed in his campaign literature that the actual cost to the Scottish NHS was £3 billion – more than a quarter of the total budget. When challenged, he said it was a typo. The figure of £3 billion was the cost to the whole Scottish economy, he said.
That sounds a bit high to me. The Home Office report I cited earlier estimated the total cost to the economy of all violence against the person in England & Wales at £13.3 billion in 2003-04. Adjusted for population, that’s £1.26 billion in Scotland at the 2003 value of the pound – or £1.5 billion, after taking inflation into account. And that’s all violence, not just knife crime, which as we know represents a small fraction of the total.
But don’t get me started.