A blind eye to violence The losers get violent

The Home Office is concealing a sharp increase in criminal assault - and no wonder, says Oliver James
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The Independent Online
THE Home Office's best-kept secret is that violence has been rising at an unprecedented rate since 1987. This is not just a statistical artefact, as successive Home Secretaries have maintained. There has been, as most members of the public know perfectly well, a large actual increase in the amount of kicking, punching and knifing.

Why, then, does the Home Office persist in denying it? Perhaps because the likely suspect for this wholly avoidable slide into American-style violence is the Government's economic policy since 1979.

The Home Office uses two arguments to support its contention that nothing special has been happening over the past decade. First, it argues, violence has been rising since 1950, through periods of both Tory and Labour government. This is true. But it is also true that the rise has accelerated dramatically since 1987. Between 1950 and 1980, crimes of violence against the person rose steadily, at about 3,000 a year. Between 1980 and 1987, the rate accelerated to 4,000 a year. Since then, the number has shot up: each year, on average, an extra 12,000 violent crimes are committed.

As any criminologist will tell you, most crime is committed by juveniles. And juveniles are indeed largely responsible for the rise in violent crime - the numbers of those aged between 10 and 16 who are cautioned or convicted has risen by 38 per cent since 1987. Yet the number of juveniles in the population has fallen; by 1993, there were 20 per cent fewer of them around to commit violent crime than there were in 1987. This makes the steep rise in the overall figures all the more remarkable.

The second Home Office argument is that the figures - though published by the Government - do not reflect the real world. The Home Office director of research, Christopher Nuttall, recently told Radio 4: "We know that in the early Nineties a lot more people were reporting violent crimes to the police than they were at the beginning of the Eighties. Violence has gone up much less than what the police record." This is scandalously misleading.

MR NUTTALL bases his argument on the Home Office's British Crime Survey. At various intervals over the past 13 years, the survey has asked 10,000 members of the public to recall all crimes committed against them in the previous 12 months. The Home Office considers these surveys a more reliable indicator of crime rates than other official statistics because they are supposed to iron out the anomalies caused by changes in police practice, or public willingness to report crimes.

That may be true if we want to look at, say, theft or burglary. But, as a guide to crimes of violence, the survey is no better than the official police statistics, perhaps worse. First, men aged between 16 and 29 from the poorest homes - who are most likely to be the victims as well as the perpetrators of violence - are under-represented in the survey. Such men are more likely to be out when an interviewer calls. No under-16s at all were interviewed for the survey. Second, many violent incidents - wife- beatings or pub brawls, for example - may not be regarded by the victims as crimes, even though some of them may be reported to the police. In other words, violent crime is probably under-reported in the British Crime Survey. The researchers have admitted this: "The BCS count of violence is unlikely to be a full one," they wrote in their report of the 1992 survey, "... many incidents will go unmentioned in the interview... the BCS cannot be taken as providing hard-and-fast figures."

So the repeated mantra from the Home Office that the public hugely overestimates the risk of violent crime can no longer be trusted.

The causes of violence are better researched than almost any other behaviour. Throughout history, and in all countries, violent crimes have been committed mainly by young males from low-income families. According to one recent British study - funded by the Home Office and carried out by David Farrington of Cambridge University - as many of 42 per cent of boys from the poorest homes have become seriously violent by the age of 32.

STUDIES of identical twins and adopted boys prove that the difference between the violent and non-violent man is almost never caused by genes, brain abnormalities or any other biological feature. It is caused by three aspects of parenting in childhood: severe physical abuse usually dressed up as punishment; marital disharmony with or without fighting; and maternal irritability nearly always caused by depression. In these families, punishment is inconsistent: instead of being modified according to the child's behaviour, it is driven by the parent's state of mind, by anger and depression. As a result, it is ineffective and there follows an escalation in the punitive currency from tellings off to shouting to slaps to full blown beatings. As each method of control loses purchase through inconsistent use, the parent is forced to up the ante.

These patterns are far more common in families with low incomes. Constant money worries, lack of support from machines (cars, washing) and depressing housing all make poor parents prone to semi-permanent irritability. The parents' lack of education makes words a less powerful method of controlling the world in general and offspring in particular.

So, if you have more boys being raised in low-income homes, you will have more violent men a few years later. And this clearly applies to Britain in the past 15 years.

In 1979, 19 per cent of boys were being raised in a low-income home, defined as 140 per cent of supplementary benefit, which would be about pounds 160 a week today. Since 1981 the proportion has been 30 per cent. No wonder, then, that violence started to mushroom in the late Eighties. No wonder that the Government is reluctant to accept it.

The usual riposte is that people were much worse off in the Thirties, but did not turn to violence. In fact, the idea that the Thirties were peaceful is largely a right-wing myth. The rise in violence in the developed world began between the two world wars, not after them. Malicious wounding, for example, doubled between the first and second halves of the Twenties and doubled again in the Thirties.

But the more telling point is that it is no use saying to parents in low-income homes - or to their children - that people were worse off in the 19th century and still are in sub-Saharan Africa. Anger and frustration are caused when people see others in the same society enjoying a significantly better standard of life than theirs - by envy, it could be said.

Indeed, there is substantial international evidence that unequal societies are more violent ones. Assaults are twice as common in developing as opposed to developed nations. Between developed nations, murder rates correlate strongly with the size of the gaps between rich and poor in the nation.

Switzerland and Japan, two countries that have escaped the worst of the post-war rise in violent crime, are among those with the smallest gaps between rich and poor and the most comprehensive welfare systems. The United States, by contrast, has a very large proportion of its population living in almost shanty-town conditions with virtually no welfare support. It also has by far the most millionaires. This, far more than its gun laws, explains why the US is easily the most violent developed nation, with five times more murders and three times more assaults than Britain, even if we exclude crimes involving firearms. That welfare support is critical is shown by comparisons of individual states. A study in the Seventies found that Texas was both one of the most violent and the least supportive of its poor people; Wisconsin was one of the least violent and most supportive.

ECONOMIC factors cannot wholly explain the rise in violence - and particularly not the steady increase from 1950 to the mid-Eighties. But to pretend that poverty and inequality have nothing to do with violent crime flies in the face of the evidence. The gap between rich and poor in Britain has increased enormously since 1979, as has the proportion of people on low incomes, however defined. One quarter of Britons had an income of less than half the average in 1991-92, compared with 9 per cent in 1979. The real income of the poorest 10th of Britons fell by 17 per cent during this period, compared with a 62 per cent rise in real income for the wealthiest 10th.

State benefits have been reduced and, as the British Medical Journal has chronicled, the health of the poor has worsened dramatically since 1979. On top of this, a divisive and destructive winner-loser culture has been fostered - those who had been known as "disadvantaged" or "underprivileged" people were dubbed "losers". It is hardly surprising that their anger and frustration has grown. And it is hardly surprising that the Home Office prefers to pretend that the rising graph of violent crime dates back to 1950 and that nothing specially dramatic has happened since 1987.

Oliver James is a clinical psychologist. His book 'Juvenile Violence in a winner-Loser Culture' is published this week by Free Association Books.

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