A strong link between the closure of heavy industry in Britain during the Thatcher era and a 20% increase in crime committed by young people over the following 20 years has been shown by a new study.
In the first study of its kind, three University of Derby researchers found that in areas where the coal, steel, ship and railway industries were devastated during the 1980s, young people were much more likely to get into trouble with the police.
Professor Stephen Farrall, Dr Emily Gray and Dr Phil Jones analysed data from the Birth Cohort Study of 16,000 people born in the same week in April 1970 and the UK census and cross-referenced this with cautions they received from the police and their area’s employment level.
They found that in areas with the highest level of job losses the number receiving cautions was 21% higher than those areas with the lowest rise in joblessness (a change of three percentage points, from 14% to 17%, a rise of 21.4%).
Professor Farrall told the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in Glasgow today [Thursday 25 April] that the study was the first to quantifiably link the long-term effects of the collapse of heavy industry on young people’s crime records.
“No one has ever attempted to study the link individual offending careers to political decision-making,” he told the conference. “Current approaches adopted by criminologists tend to focus on the offender’s personal characteristics, and have failed to engage with the way that political decision making shapes the lives and life courses of citizens.”
The researchers found that by taking the survey data on the cohort’s housing, neighbourhood, relationships, health and psychological wellbeing, they could make an approximate link with the number of cautions they received from the police between the ages of 10 and 30, from 1980 to 2000.
But when they added in data on the rise in unemployment in their area, which could have affected the parents of those surveyed, the researchers could be much more as precise about predicting how many cautions the people received.
They found that an analysis of the data which did not include economic change only explained about a quarter of the offending, but one which included the loss of jobs explained almost a half.
“Our analysis is much more accurate in predicting the criminal activities of some of the young people, by including the rise in unemployment in their area,” said Professor Farrall.
This proved how important the government policies during the 1980s which led to the collapse of heavy industry had been in ‘kick-starting’ offending careers.
“If you had a dad who was down the pit or in steel mill, you were expected to follow him into that occupation, and if his pit or mill closed, that pulled the economic rug from under you.
“So the process of deindustrialisation took away young people’s hope and aspirations when they were young by making their parents unemployed and hitting their own job prospects. That could lead to them turning to drugs and crime.”
Professor Farrall said that the monetarist policies, which doubled overall unemployment in Britain from just over 4% in 1979, to over 8% by 1981, hit the industrial heartlands of Britain hardest. The rate stayed high during the later Thatcher years and the Major government.
“The radicalism of the early phase of Thatcherite economic policies created quite profound and immediate economic problems which fell disproportionately on those communities which had relied on heavy industry – mining, steel work and the associated industries such as railway yards and locomotive depots.
“The budget of 1981 increased levels of unemployment, which affected the lives of some of the cohort’s families. Their peak age of conviction would not have been for around another nine to 10 years in 1990-1991, and those who remained engaged in crime would have done so well into their late-20s, the late-1990s, as suggested by our modelling.
“The substantive message that our research delivers is that the background structural causes of offending at the individual level may rest as much with a country’s politicians as they do with ‘street-level’ actors.”
- Areas where unemployment stayed low – at 4% – 14% of people surveyed had police cautions. In areas where it rose to 8%, 17% had cautions, a rise of three percentage point, or 21.4%.
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- The researchers analysed data from the British Cohort Study, which has followed 16,135 people born in one week in April 1970, interviewing their parents and (from age 10 onwards) them at regular intervals since. Teachers and headteachers were also interviewed.
- The British Sociological Association’s annual conference takes place at Glasgow Caledonian University from 24–26 April 2019. Over 600 research presentations are given. The British Sociological Association’s charitable aim is to promote sociology. The BSA is a company limited by guarantee, registered in England and Wales. Company Number: 3890729. Registered Charity Number 1080235 britsoc.co.uk