21 May 2024

We’ll never reduce crime unless we address family breakdown


Keir Starmer wants to make Britain’s streets safer. In a key pre-election speech delivered last Thursday, the Labour party leader pledged to provide communities around the UK with 13,000 new officers as part of a broader mission to tackle crime and ‘take back our streets.’

Starmer’s speech centred on a critique of short-termism and ‘sticking-plaster politics’, predictably levelled at the Tories, whose ‘gimmicks’ and ‘quick fixes’ he said have made a mess of the country. But as the speech progressed, the irony of Starmer’s critique as it applied to Labour’s stance on crime appeared lost on him. 

Labour wants to increase neighbourhood patrols, hire new specialist investigators, introduce new youth programmes, and increase the pool of criminal prosecutors. For a country that has seen a significant increase in violent crime over the last decade, these proposals are welcome.

But for Starmer, who can seemingly identify the pitfalls of late-stage intervention in other policy areas such as immigration (Labour wants to focus on ‘smashing the criminal gangs’ instead of stopping the boats), he doesn’t seem to understand that by the time the neighbourhood patrol is alerted, the investigator is on the case, and the date for the trial is set, the crime has already been committed.

Family breakdown, and in particular the absence of fathers or positive male role models, is one of the most reliable indicators of antisocial and criminal behaviour. Since the 1970s, the rate of incarceration in the UK has more than doubled, with over 70% of men in prisons across England and Wales coming from fatherless families. Children who grow up without fathers are more likely to join gangs, more likely to carry weapons, and more likely to commit violent crimes. So why is Labour’s response to tackling crime more government intervention? 

In her 1993 memoir, Margaret Thatcher wrote that a society ‘could only get to the roots of crime and much else besides by concentrating on strengthening the traditional family.’ While some government programs such as the Youth Justice Sport Fund have garnered positive outcomes, such as at-risk youth reporting higher levels of self-esteem and improved attitudes to education, others, such as deterrence-based schemes, have been found to be not only ineffective, but actively harmful, leading to an increase in youth offending.

In short, government programs that ‘tackle crime’ are often unmethodical and haphazard in scope, and are often implemented in an ad hoc manner. Labour’s ten-year Young Futures programme may offer some value, but like all the other programmes that have preceded it, it will not be able to replace the presence of a father or positive male role model in the home.

Britain continues to lead the way in family breakdown, with over 1m children growing up without a father in their lives. The consequences of this phenomenon fall disproportionately on children and teenagers growing up in the poorest 20% of households. These children are not only more likely to get involved with crime, but are also more likely to fail school, experience mental health problems, and potentially become homeless.

If Starmer wants to ‘rebuild security’ and ‘take back our streets’, increasing funding for police officers and special investigators will only solve one part of the puzzle. In order to address the root causes of crime, a more robust approach to family policy is required.  

Today, there are few financial incentives for families to stay together. ‘Couple penalties’ in the tax and benefit system incentivise couples to separate or live separately, while the complicated and administratively-burdensome Marriage Allowance is difficult to use, with over £2bn having been left unclaimed by married couples since the introduction of the allowance in 2015. 

Moreover, the traditional family is now considered an ideologically divisive topic that politicians do not want to talk about. Once thought of as the cornerstone of a healthy, thriving society, the nuclear family now draws criticism from those who claim it is sexist, heteronormative, and a tool to benefit white people.

The Labour Party does not see family breakdown as a problem. In a speech delivered at the 2023 Labour Party Conference, Labour MP and Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry announced that a Labour government would reform cohabitation laws in the UK, making it easier for women to ‘leave unhappy relationships’ with more financial security.

Cohabitating couples already separate at a higher rate than married couples, and unmarried parents are 60% more likely to split before a child turns 14 compared with 21% of married parents. But to legislate on the basis of these facts would be to recognise the importance of family cohesion; something Labour is unwilling to do.

In his speech, Starmer was right to highlight the failings of short-term ‘sticking plaster’ politics. Without dealing with the root causes of a problem, any solution will be short-lived and unsustainable. Nowhere does this rule apply more than in the area of crime, where family breakdown does not only cause the problem, but perpetuates it too. Which is to say that a fatherless child is not only more likely to commit a crime, but also more likely to abandon a child who is then more likely to commit a crime. And so, the cycle continues.

If the Labour Party is serious about ripping off the plaster and truly tackling crime, they should start by uplifting the family.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Tanika D'Souza is a researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.