It's the family, stupid: continuities and
reinterpretations of the dysfunctional family as the
cause of crime in three political periods
Strong families are the centre of peaceful and safe communities. Parents have a
critical role in teaching their children the difference between right and wrong ...
Respect is all important, and this is missing in families that behave
(Home Office, 2003, p. 8)
So states the recent White Paper Respect and Responsibility: Taking a Stand against
Anti-Social Behaviour (March 2003). Here the Labour Government places the family as
the most fundamental bulwark in the control of crime and anti-social behaviour. During
the preceding year the newspapers were full of the problem of street crime, of the
youths who committed these crimes and the poor parenting which supposedly caused
it. One columnist spoke of 'feral children' (literally wild beasts), who stalk the inner city
estates, and praised the Prime Minister Tony Blair's suggestion that the state benefits
for single mothers should be withdrawn if, as Bruce Anderson puts it, 'they fail to keep
their brats under control' (the Independent, 29 April 2002). Meanwhile, a woman was
sent to prison for allowing her children to truant, and the government has allocated £90
million to help schools develop the electronic tracking of pupils in order to halt truancy,
while the Metropolitan Police have proposals to create a database of potential young
offenders including those youngsters - some as young as six - who have never
committed crimes. Once again, the focus of government is on the family and family
breakdown as the cause of crime.
In May 1997 the New Labour government was elected by a landslide. A major focus in
its policy, through a series of legislative Acts, has been crime as a major problem in
society and the family as the key building-block of a civilized society. In this chapter I
want to suggest there is nothing new in this, and trace both the differences and
continuities in the attitudes of governments from the 1960s onwards, highlighting three
separate moments: first, the social democratic ascendancy of the period up until the
Conservative election of 1979; second, the radical neo-liberalism of the Conservative
years of Thatcher and Major; and, finally, the present New Labour government. But, as
an introduction, it will be useful to contrast the way in which radical criminology views
the role of the family in the genesis of crime with that of right-wing or establishment
The central tenet of a radical criminology, as its name suggests, is a criminology that
deals with the root causes of crime and which locates these in the class-based and
patriarchal nature of contemporary societies. This also locates crime in the nature of
market capitalism: in its unequal class structure and in the rampant individualism that
the market engenders; that is, within a class structure which systematically frustrates
the meritocratic ideals that serve to legitimate the system, and within the core values of
a competitive individualism that shape and guide people's anger and frustrations.
Furthermore, radical criminology locates crime within a patriarchal system, where the
hegemony of dominance of men over women, when threatened, results in violence and
aggression against women. As Anthony Giddens points out in The Transformation of
Intimacy (1992) such hegemony was particularly threatened by the massive entry of
women into the labour market in the postwar period and women's increased level of
In contrast, the historic role of establishment criminology (in its many varieties, from
positivism to control theory) is to ignore the causes of crime in the wider structure of
society and to locate it within the microstructures of society (the family, the school) or
the individual's genetic or psychological predisposition. Juvenile delinquency, for
example, is blamed on maladministration in controlling the young (whether in the
schools or the family) and on the inherent nature of individuals, perhaps influenced by
events earlier in life. Thus, establishment criminology takes attention away from
criticism of the wider society while reversing the direction of causality: it is not a
problematic society that causes delinquents but delinquents who cause problems for
society. Solve the problem of delinquency, solve the problems of administration and
predisposition, and you have solved the problem of crime. In this equation the family
has been the perennial fulcrum of analysis, its key role usually taken as obvious. For
radical criminology such 'obviousness' is severely questioned. First of all, it must be
noted that the family is a prime site of crime. In my own study a full half of violence has
been found to occur within the family (Mooney, 2000): it should not be thought
automatically that 'crime' is something out there that occurs outside of the sanctuary of
the family. Second the institution of the family is very frequently a cause of crime. I
have mentioned Giddens's notion of violence occurring as a threat to patriarchal
dominance. The 'strong' family may well be the repressive family, to both women and
children, where violence breaks out in an attempt to maintain authority. In such a
situation the break-up of the family often results in the lowering of violent crime. In this
context it should be seen as a crime-prevention strategy not a delinquency engendering
one. Furthermore, the strong traditional family that uses violent child-rearing
techniques may well create notions in children that violence is a major way to solve
problems, a belief that fits well with much wider cultural values portrayed in the
cinema and television. Third, the family is often a fundamental and necessary building
block of successful organized-crime networks. Organized crime needs the strong family.
The extended family is a haven of trust in a divided society and is scarcely an inhibitor
of corporate crime, where often the needs of the family over the rest of society is used as
a rationale by offenders. There is, of course, the residual rational kernel of the 'weak
family leads to crime' thesis, which holds that the disorganized family (of whatever
shape or structure) may contribute to community disintegration and to crimes of
disorganization (in contrast to crimes of organization and control as discussed
previously), such as vandalism, petty theft and so on. Here it must be admitted the
argument is on surer footing; but the problem of establishment criminology is that,
given its underlying axiom of ignoring the wider structure, it puts emphasis on the
family as if it were separate from the wider society. It commits what Elliot Currie (1985)
calls 'the fallacy of autonomy'. For crime does not spring fully fledged out of the weak
family, but is a product of the criminogenic nature of a wider society of which the family
Thus, to summarize, radical criminology believes that certain types of crime are
uncontrolled by family socialization, others are augmented by successful socialization,
while crimes of disorganization are facilitated by a weak family structure although
engendered by the criminogenic nature of the wider society. The problem, in the latter
instance, is not that the role of the family should be ignored but rather that in
establishment criminology it is overstressed and decontextualized. Let us now look at
the three periods mentioned above in this light.
The Social Democratic Labour administration
Crime in the postwar period up to the 1990s was viewed in the context of a well-
established welfare state, full (male) employment and constantly rising living standards.
In this scenario politicians of both major parties, but particularly those within the
Labour Party, saw crime as a marginal phenomenon, a product of dysfunctional families
who had been untouched by progress and prosperity. It was a temporary phenomenon,
and one that trained social workers would eliminate by targeting that minority of
families whose child rearing was insufficiently capable. As Gordon Hughes states:
By the 1960s in the UK ... it was argued that deprivation or lack of opportunity
could no longer be considered to be at the heart of the social problem of
delinquency. Instead the source of the problem was viewed as residing within
the pathological characteristics and dynamics of certain 'problem families' and
in the transmission of 'inadequacies' from one generation to the next.
Delinquency was thus seen as a temporary problem residing in certain working-
class families left behind in the post-war social democratic prosperity. In turn,
the new quasi-professions of the welfare state, such as health visiting and social
work, were seen as being crucial in tackling this problem. It was their task to
educate families in child-rearing and to rehabilitate the residue of young people
that came under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system. The family
therefore had to be reformed if delinquency was to be tackled.
(Hughes, 1998, p. 47)
Crime was viewed, therefore, as a marginal phenomenon of a successful welfare state
where, given these terms of reference, it was 'obviously pathological' and the product of
dysfunctional families. The role of the welfare state was to intervene and integrate.
For the first decade and a half of the postwar period the crime rate fluctuated but rose
only marginally; however, from the 1960s onwards the crime rate rose remorselessly
each year. The Conservative and
Labour governments of this period were faced with a recalcitrant and sizeable
phenomenon. Yet the family remained the key institution used to explain criminality.
The pivot of this explanation shifted from the dysfunctional family to the broken home,
the growth in divorce and illegitimacy paralleled the growth in crime, and it was then
but a short: step to presume that the one caused the other.
The Conservative years
The Conservative administration, 1979-1997, was characterized by a neo-liberalism
which trumpeted the ascendancy of the market. Crime was located firmly in the
individual rather than in society. Thus, Michael Howard, then Home Secretary, said in
We have to recognise where crime begins. I don't mean that we should listen to
the woolly-headed theories that society is at fault. ... Of course not - we can
leave that message to others. We must do more to teach children the difference
between right and wrong. ... It must start at home. And it must also be taught in
our schools. ... Above all, it must be taught by example.
(speech to House of Commons, June 1993)
By 1991 the number of crimes known to the police in England and Wales passed the 5
million mark. The previous ten years had seen the largest numerical increase in
recorded crime since records began. It would not have taken much mental agility to
correlate such a quantitative leap with the economic recession and a period of
Conservative government which was intent on deepening the market society. But it was
not in the market place but in the family that commentators chose to find the cause of
such an increase in crime. For example, in the furore about youth crime that followed
the James Bulger' murder, Peter Lilley - a senior government minister - made it clear
that the crime wave was, in his view, unrelated to the recession. Meanwhile the Prime
Minister, John Major, categorically stated that to seek the causes of crime in the wider
society was futile. Instead, he said we should look at the problems of the family, and
rather surprisingly he blamed socialism - by this he meant the welfare state. In this
context the figure of the single mother became the focus of all the hostility that the
Conservative Party held towards the welfare state. She was presented as a welfare-
dependent scrounger, who had chosen to get pregnant to gain priority in council-
housing lists over the respectable married poor. It was remarkable that, in order to
avoid putting any blame on the economy, the Conservatives blamed the ills of society on
its most deprived members.
The focus, once again, was on the family, and crime was conflated with juvenile
delinquency. But the crime rate was enormous, and the notion of a few dysfunctional
families scarcely fitted the bill. A more substantial case, therefore, was needed, but
again one that would not touch the wider inequalities of society. So, the neo-liberal
explanation was that the welfare state had created a dependency culture of single
mothers and feckless fathers, which had, in turn, created a maladjusted population.
Thus, the social democratic diagnosis is reversed - the welfare state causes, rather than
prevents, delinquency. And free will, and thus responsibility, enter the equation: the
feckless underclass chooses not to work and consequently generates a culture that
schools its children in delinquency.
Thus the Conservative years sought to exclude rather than include. The Conservatives
sought to roll back the welfare state, and conjured up the notion of an underclass,
which was demonized and blamed for the troubles of society. And for Conservatives
private crime-prevention measures became a major strategy against crime; the public
were held as responsible for crime control. Indeed, there was an element of returning
crime-control to the community. Overall, the Conservative years represented a period
when the crime rate rose seemingly inexorably year by year. It was an era where the
state very understandably tended to disclaim responsibility for such a recalcitrant
problem. In contrast the situation for New Labour in the period that followed was that
of declining crime rates and a situation where the 'the sovereign state' would claim, in a
very precise way, to be in control of crime rates (see Garland, 2001, Young, 2003).
The New Labour government was first voted in, in 1997, on a manifesto in which crime
control was a central pillar of policy. This was in contrast to past Labour
administrations, where crime and delinquency were distinctly minor concerns.
Furthermore, the maintenance and shoring up of the family was a matter that
permeated so many policy statements. Tony Blair is famous for his couplet 'tough on
crime, tough on the causes of crime', and the last line of this, for many, signalled that
the Labour administration would once and for all locate the causes of crime in the deep
structure of society. But this was not
so: in practice, the first line of the couplet meant punishment and maintenance of a
large-scale prison system, the second located causes of crime within the family and
poor parenting. The key research influence was the work of David Farrington who, in a
1995 article with Michael Tonry, prioritized above all 'developmental prevention' a major
strategy to combat crime; that is, intervention in the family and
the school to ensure that the development of the child occurs in a way that is 'normal'
and ipso-facto non-delinquent. As they noted, 'the central insight is Shakespeare's that
the child is father to the man. .. Developmental prevention is the new frontier of crime
prevention (Farrington and Tonry, 1995, p. 10).
The New Labour administration took on board much of the Conservative rhetoric about
underclass and fecklessness, but these notions have been incorporated into its central
policy motif, `social inclusion' (see Young and Matthews, this volume); that is, it views
the underclass as socially excluded, and therefore what is necessary is to incorporate
its members fully into society. Thus, New Labour's intention is to return the single
mother to work (often in ways that would seem financially absurd), and to tackle head
on problem families and estates rather than leave them to their own devices. Thus, the
first policy decision in office was to set up the Social Exclusion Unit to coordinate the
process of social inclusion. The forceful nature of such inclusionary policies, both in
terms of inclusion in the workforce and inclusion in the family (witness the Social
Exclusion Unit's proposals (1999) on teenage pregnancies), has strong echoes of
Clinton's awesomely entitled 'The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of
But it cannot be overstressed that genuine social inclusion should not be confused with
coercive inclusion in the labour market at poverty wages or forcefully created families
backed by the threat of hostel accommodation for single mothers. And there cannot be
any doubt that such measures are not perceived by the people concerned as
inclusionary measures but as exclusionary ones, which confine them not to the middle
of society but to the margins.
The stress of New Labour is on creating a responsible citizenship by a proactive state. In
this attempt, they contrast both with social democratic Labour (which talked of citizens'
rights, playing down individual responsibility, and advocating state intervention) and
Conservatism (which talked of the responsibilities of the citizen and attempted to
reduce state intervention). But the continuity throughout, despite fundamentally
different political philosophies, has been in the idea of the weak family as the key to the
crime problem. The wider structural factors are explicitly denied. Thus, at a Nexus
Conference on the Third Way held in London, Jack Straw (Home Secretary 1997-2001
talked of how good schools occur in poor areas because of good headteachers and that
poverty does not link with crime because many impoverished parents have good
parenting skills. Time and time again the rising statistics of one-parent families,
teenage pregnancies and divorces are placed against the rise in crime and the 'obvious'
The most profound change that has occurred in the social structure since World War II
is the massive entry of women into the labour force, although concentrated in low-pay,
low-status occupations. If this has been accompanied by a rise in the level of
aspirations and possibilities !or women, and a greater ability to deal with marriages or
partnerships :hat do not work out, well, all to the good. The levels of domestic violence
against women scarcely suggests there is no justified reason for the break-up of many
families, even when it is economically disadvantageous.
The greater flexibility in family relationships scarcely explains the crime rate. The 5
million crimes reported to the police every year in England and Wales, with an
estimated 10 million or more unreported, cannot conceivably be blamed on that fraction
of single mothers who are on state benefits and have adolescent sons. Further a new
scenario has developed, for since 1995, two years before New Labour came to power,
the crime rate has been falling for the first time since the 1950s. During a period where
the number of single mothers and broken families continued to increase, the crime rate
did not continue upwards but did exactly the reverse. At the present time the crime rate
is at the level it was in the 1980s, and remains a massive problem of course. But what
is important to stress is that the weakening of the family cannot explain the change in
direction. Indeed, as 'broken' homes and single parents continue to proliferate, the
crime rate has dropped. Yet the New Labour government, as Jock Young has
emphasized (in this volume), has not credited this fall on the wider structural factors of
prosperity, a drop in unemployment and economic stability but has perversely insisted,
once more, on continuing to blame the family for the crime that remains.
So there we have it: governments at all three political moments described have
attempted to disconnect the wider social and economic situation from the facts of crime,
locating the weak family as the prime cause of criminality. Yet the supposed weakness
of the family, although a constant theme, is recast with each political change, seen as
isolated patches of dysfunction in social democracy, welfare-dependent and excluded
under neo-liberalism, and welfare dependent yet redeemable through work and self-
discipline under New Labour. Nowhere are the deep inequalities that stretch through
our society mentioned, nowhere is class or patriarchy - the wider structural problems -
allowed to enter the equation.
Let us return to basics and examine how market forces dominate and disrupt the basis
of people's lives. It transforms the poor, who deserve more, into an underclass of
undeserving poor. So many of the factors which are said to lead to delinquency are a
product of the predicament of poverty; it is not a wilful fecklessness that generates the
predicament in the first place. It is not the sins of the past that lead to
underachievement in school but children in their teens realizing the future holds little
in store for them. As one of the kids on a North London housing estate put it:
Although I'm not saying I commit crimes, if you just look at some of the flash
cars that can be seen in this area, you can see why crimes are committed.
People need money, clothes and food. They are bored and even if there are
things to do, you still need money and the dole does not pay that much. When
we leave school we can only look forward to unemployment. ... Sometimes, it is
exciting to commit crimes, especially when you get away with it.
(Mooney, Miranda Estate Survey, 1994)
Academic achievement is of little significance if schooling has no purchase on the
future. And how do you hold the children in school once the penny has dropped that
there is little to gain from staying in school? To say that underachievement and truancy
correlate with delinquency, and all are closely associated with family poverty is correct;
but to imply a line of causality from family to school performance to delinquency is a
nonsense. For it is the poverty engendered by the wider society that dominates both the
past and the future of the children and adolescents involved. To mistake the symptoms
for the causes is to reverse causality and to distract attention away from the severe
social problems we face.
Postscript: criminalizing disorder and claiming precognition
The recent White Paper Respect and Responsibility: Taking a Stand against Anti-Social
Behaviour (Home Office, 2003) represents the culmination of New Labour's concern
with law and order and its reinterpretation of the family as the cause of crime and anti-
social behaviour. First of all it clearly recognizes that the crime rate in England and
Wales has declined, yet it insists its response is not to reduce expenditure on crime
control (see Young, this volume) but to widen the net of behaviour to be controlled by
the criminal-justice system. Thus, anti-social behaviour (noisy neighbours, harassment,
drunken and abusive behaviour, vandalism, litter, etc.) becomes criminalized, and a
multi-agency system of control, including a larger and elaborated police service, is set
up in order to tackle it. Deviancy is therefore defined up (see Moynihan, 1993), and
lessened tolerance of deviation from the norm is embraced as part of what is seen as an
important 'cultural shift' (Home Office, 2003). Indeed, the White Paper notes tellingly
that despite falling crime rates public fear remains high, and it claims that not only is
this a problem in its own right but is a function of incivilities. So, anti-social behaviour
as engendering fear of crime is seen, in part, as a rationale for pressing on and
expanding the social-control apparatus. What is interesting here is that this is the very
reverse of social democratic Labour. Then, likewise, the boundary between crime and
anti-social behaviour was blurred and to an extent obviated. But in the case of the
earlier Labour administrations the aim was to decriminalize - particularly juvenile
delinquency - placing both delinquency and incivilities into a category of anti-social
deviant behaviour. Now the reverse is occurring, and incivilities are being criminalized.
Also, the White Paper, as one might expect, views the family as the central institution in
the control of crime and as the main site of the teaching of 'rights and responsibilities'
in order to produce a 'something for something society'. But conversely a few
dysfunctional families are seen as contributing largely towards the problem of anti-
social behaviour. For this reason a wide range of controls are proposed including:
Parenting Orders to compel parents to be responsible for their children, coupled with
fixed penalty fines for noncompliance; intensive support schemes for families, including
residential 'options' for parents - perhaps as a 'requirement' attached to a Parenting
Order; parenting contracts for parents who permit their children to truant; Intensive
Supervision and Surveillance Programmes (ISSP) for young offenders, of twelve-months'
Furthermore, the success of developmental psychology in impressing policy makers and
reinforcing the family as the prime site of intervention can be seen in the forthcoming
(at the time of writing) Green Paper, Children at Risk, where not only is developmental
support focused on the family but a precognitive assessment of the risk of child
delinquency is proposed.
The White Paper makes some reference to the discourse of social exclusion/inclusion
and the wider problems of area, employment and deprivation. But such inclusionary
discourses place crime in a wider structural context only to give way easily to the focus
on individuals and their families. It is this lack of balance that is seen throughout the
politics of the postwar period, and which is reproduced in a particularly repressive form
Anderson, B. (2002) 'The Time for Sentimentality is Over. Let Us Tame These
Feral Children, the Independent (29 April), 12.
Currie, E. (1985) Confronting Crime, New York: Pantheon.
Garland, D. (2001) The Culture of Control, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Giddens, A.
(1992) The Transformation of Intimacy, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Farrington, D. and Tonry, M. (1995), 'Strategic Approaches to Crime Prevention', in D.
Farrington and M. Tonry (eds) Building a Safer Society, Chicago:University of Chicago
Home Office (2003) Respect and Responsibility: Taking a Stand against Anti-Social
Behaviour, Cmnd 5778, London: Stationery Office.
Hughes, G. (1998) Understanding Crime Prevention, Buckingham: Open Univer
Mooney, J. (1994) Miranda Estate Survey, London: Middlesex University, Centre for
Mooney, J. (2000) Gender, Violence and the Social Order, London: Macmillan.
Moynihan, C. (1993) 'Defining Deviancy Down', American Scholar, 62 (Winter), 17-30.
Social Exclusion Unit (1999) Teenage Pregnancy, London: Stationery Office.
Young, J. (2003) 'Searching for a New Criminology of Everyday Life', British Journal of
Criminology, 43(1), 228-42.