by Emma Wincup, author of Understanding crime and social policy, publishing this month.
I have been reflecting since the death of Thatcher last month why there has been so little discussion of crime issues given the enormous amount of media coverage devoted to analysis of the impact of the policies she pursued. The run-up to her entry into Downing Street is widely cited by criminologists as one of the first General Elections in which law and order issues featured prominently alongside the usual suspects of health, education and the economy. Looking back, 1979 has become a watershed year; one in which the main political parties started to develop their distinctive crime agenda, which has too frequently ended up in a game of leapfrog with parties competing for who can be the toughest on crime.
We can easily look back and identify policies which might have contributed to rising crime rates throughout the 1980s, alongside increasing inequality: unemployment, and it’s devastating effects on communities; restrictions on eligibility for welfare, especially among young people; and reduced access to social housing. There is ample evidence to suggest that reduced welfare spending and unemployment are linked to crime, even though this has always been fiercely contested by the Conservative Party. There are always multiple explanations for rising crime rates, and increased expenditure on policing might be one of them, alongside actual increases in crime. Whilst reduced public expenditure was actively pursued across many areas of public policy throughout the 1980s, state investment in the police increased in the Thatcher years, and was coupled with the granting of greater police powers, most infamously and controversially demonstrated during the Miners’ Strike.
The real impact of her crime control policies were witnessed after she had left office. Widespread privatisation is the most obvious: criminal justice functions were put out to tender after the use of private sector companies had been tested elsewhere, most notably in health. If we take, for example, the current proposals to contract out probation supervision for all but the most risky offenders, or the widespread introduction of payment-by-results schemes through criminal justice, we can attribute much of this to the legacy of Thatcher. Radical changes in the financing and delivery of public services are, of course, not peculiar to the crime control functions of the state.
I still haven’t come up with an explanation for the neglect of crime issues in the media. It might be because much of the media coverage has been anti-Thatcher, and, whilst many of Margaret Thatcher’s policies are deeply troubling for those with academic interests in crime or who work within criminal justice, there were occasional glimpses of an alternative vision of criminal justice which many academics and professionals would support. Part of her legacy was to pave the way for the introduction of the Criminal Justice Act 1991, reserving custody for only the most serious offenders. The agenda which drove this was probably a desire to reduce state expenditure rather than a commitment to reduce the use of imprisonment in itself, but, had it been allowed time to bed down, we might not see almost 84,000 people locked up in custody in 2013.