The three-day working week, an energy crisis and criminal behaviour

Monday, 10 June 2019

Gavin Wilkinson on how the economic turmoil in 1970s Britain contributed to pushing people into the criminal justice system and mental health services

Working in a residential rehabilitation unit for people who had become dependent upon illegal drugs in addition to a diagnosed mental health problem, I became aware of a new arrival. He was a 40-year-old man named Frank (not his real name). Frank had a long-standing diagnosis of depression and had been dependent on heroin for over five years. As the senior assessor at the time I was required to complete his induction to the unit and help him settle in before the start of his year-long intensive treatment.

Frank’s life pre-treatment

Frank’s story was interesting to say the least. An intelligent man with reasonable job prospects had seen his early career fortunes and the lives of his parents take an unexpected twist. Destined to follow his father into a stable job in the coal industry, the job he ended up with was more than he bargained for. The economic and industrial turmoil of the 1970s, which led to the three-day working week, and long periods of industrial action, meant long parts of his early working years were unpaid. Along with his father, also working in the coal industry, this meant two members of the household no longer earned an income. Both began exploring other ways to make ends meet.

Frank’s father began stealing raw materials from local building sites, as well as illegally acquiring metals from people’s roofs for sale at scrap yards. Initially Frank wanted no part in this, but long periods of struggling to make ends meet resulted in him becoming very depressed. Eventually, Frank spent some time in hospital after attempting to take his own life, as he despaired at his own situation, and that the head of the household was now engaged in criminal behaviour. 

After being discharged from hospital, Frank decided to join his father in his offending. Gradually, as the call of heroin gripped him, Frank progressed onto domestic burglaries to feed his drug habit, much to the anger of his father. Several short prison sentences and endless periods on probation later, dual diagnosis services (substance misuse and mental health services) finally stepped in.

The pathway to treatment 

After the latest acquisitive offence (theft from a supermarket), a magistrate ordered Frank to be assessed for viability for a residential rehabilitation place which had become available. Frank had been ‘advised’ to take up the offer of help by the probation service or face a custodial sentence. Frank acquired his place in a residential unit for people with dual diagnosis problems quickly, thanks to his geographical area deeming repeat offenders being a priority. Unusually, Frank’s path into residential treatment was quick and relatively seamless compared to that of other offenders.

Frank’s life post treatment

Three years after residential treatment for substance misuse and depression, Frank eventually exited the criminal justice system and mental health services. The post-treatment reports on Frank made for uncomfortable reading. The reports revealed that disrupted employment had exacerbated a series of problems that had been lying dormant within him from early on in his life. Hospital admissions had been a feature of his life, as had mistreatment from an alcoholic mother. A combination of having his routine and hopes for the future disrupted, extracted from within him a set of self destructive tendencies along with his penchant for providing himself with a pessimistic analysis of his own situation.

Despite Frank’s life being derailed by a combination of economic problems within his locality it was the last his probation officer and I saw of him. His lengthy treatment had been beneficial to him. He had finally found some employment working as a support worker in a mental health crisis centre. A man who had been able to process his ‘lived experience’ was useful to the charity and the people they served in the crisis centre.

The impact of economic turbulence on ordinary people

The Britain Frank grew up in during the 1970s was a country in trouble. The three-day working week in 1973-1974 introduced by the Conservative government was a desperate bid to conserve electricity. The UK’s coal miners were on strike, which eventually caused a large electricity shortfall. High rates of inflation meant the government capped public sector pay rises. The result was that pay in the public sector did not keep pace with the cost of living. The increase in the cost of living and electricity shortages meant that life was becoming hard for ordinary people going out to work.

The pre-curser to many of these economic problems and trade union unrest was the oil crisis that began in 1973. The Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries began an oil embargo against countries who they perceived as supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War. The price of oil had risen nearly 400 per cent to almost $12 a barrel by the end of the crisis in 1974. By 1976 the British government was forced to go cap in hand and borrow approximately $3.9 billion from the International Monetary Fund to stabilise the value of the pound. The post-war economic consensus had come to a grinding halt.

The impact on crime and mental health rates in Britain

Meanwhile crime rates in 1970s Britain had continued to rise. The post war crime increases showed no sign of stopping. In fact the crime rate in the 1970s had almost doubled since the start of the 1960s. The advent of the British Crime Survey began to highlight the notable increases in crime and to its eventual peak in the 1990s. The 1970s also began to see a rise in the proportion of working days lost to mental illness. The number of claims for Invalidity Benefit for a mental illness increased by 47 per cent.

Frank was part of the post-war baby boom generation who had been promised everything, but had soon realised the reality of unmet promises for them could always have potentially disastrous consequences for them personally.

Gavin Wilkinson works with Internet sex offenders, and has 16 years of experience working in mental health and criminal justice services