what's at the bottom of our pintOh dear. Someone at the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) seems to have been enjoying a tipple in the office whilst drawing up their latest policy wheeze. And, the illicit hooch seemingly having gone straight to his head, last week he was found shouting and brawling about the idea in radio stations. Pic from Flickr by Raquel Van Nice, under a Creative Comms licence.

His name is Adrian Lee, chief constable of Northamptonshire and the ACPO lead on alcohol abuse. And last week he chose to big up the launch of an otherwise eminently sensible ACPO campaign highlighting the impact of excessive social drinking, by calling for inebriated revellers to be held overnight in so-called drunktanks “owned by a commercial company, that will look after them during the night”.

Then, in the morning, when “they are sober”, explained the clearly intoxicated Mr Lee, [the police] will issue them with [an £80] fixed penalty and the company will be able to charge them for their care, which would be at quite significant cost”. Indeed, as the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail dutifully noted, this could be in the region of £400, quite possibly more.

In the drunktank
Chief Constable Lee says that he cannot see ‘why the police service or the NHS should pick up the duty of care for someone who has chosen to go out and get so drunk that they cannot look after themselves’. And he’s not the first to think along such lines: the police and crime commissioner (PCC) for Humberside, Matthew Grove, has led the charge for such drunktanks to ease the strain on police (though his counterpart for Hertfordshire, David Lloyd, also claims credit for the idea), and David Cameron indicated his tentative support in February last year. Westminster Council and the London Ambulance Service even tried out the idea over Christmas in 2010, albeit along the somewhat different lines of the Sobering Centre in Santa Barbara, California, which has taken drunken revelers off the hands of the city police since 1994 but is financed by the city council, with no charge to those who sober up there overnight.

Now, at this point, before anyone accuses me of being ‘soft on crime’ or ‘supporting drunken hooligans’, it is worth making a few things clear. Binge social drinking and cheap alcohol-fuelled disorder are serious social problems that, as Peter Hetherington argues forcefully in the Guardian, have been ‘sidelined by a government that has caved in to the drinks industry’. Chief Constable Lee is not the first to suggest that the cost to the NHS alone is some £2.7 billion, and the total cost of alcohol-related crime some £11 billion.

However, even if we accept these figures – and, as ever, the good people at Full Fact suggest that we might want to do so with just a wee pinch of salt – it is also the case that, each year, HM Treasury rakes in some £16 billion in alcohol duty and VAT.

In short, HMG is making a tidy profit on all that binge drinking, so could perhaps afford – as could the drinks industry – to put a bit more money into the local services that have to deal with the mess.

But what struck me most about Mr Lee’s media binge was the fact that a chief constable should think the ‘solution’ to alcohol-fuelled disorder is to hand the private sector an opportunity to profit from incarcerating people who, by definition, will be both at risk of serious harm and not fully cognisant of their situation (let alone their civil rights). Indeed, I find it deeply worrying that such a senior public servant should not have seen the deep flaws in the idea, long before hitting the airwaves to launch an otherwise laudable campaign.

Here are just a few basic questions that the chief constable might have asked himself (or that Mr Lee’s colleagues at ACPO might have asked him before they allowed him out to launch their campaign):

  •  To what extent would police resources be saved, given that the police would still have to attend and deal with the town-centre disorder, and do the arresting? Or – perish the thought – would the drunktank companies do the arresting too?
  • Under what legal powers would the inebriated – and the suddenly sobered-up – be prevented from simply walking (or staggering) out of the drunktank? And would the exercise of those powers be subject to any judicial or other scrutiny?
  • Given that excessive alcohol intake is a factor in many deaths in custody, could the private sector be relied upon to provide the necessary level of care in drunktanks?
  • As the risk of being arrested and maybe spending a night in a police cell would appear to be a woefully insufficient deterrent, what difference would drunktanks make?

And, assuming that the answer to the last question involves the £400+ charge that the drunktank company would levy, on what legal basis would the company pursue and enforce payment of that sum?

This last question was in fact the first that sprung to my mind when I read of ACPO’s drunktanks proposal. Because the whole idea of private sector drunktanks, run for profit, smacks of an existing get-rich-on-the-back-of-an-intractable-social-problem scheme: so-called civil recovery. This involves shadowy agents acting for major retailers such as Boots and Tesco sending out legalistically-worded demands for ‘compensation for the cost of dealing with the incident’ to tens of thousands of teenagers and others accused (but not necessarily guilty) of petty shoplifting, with threats of county court action and associated extra costs if the sum demanded – usually a pre-determined, fixed sum of £87.50, £137.50 or £150 – is not paid.

In response to two reports on civil recovery, in 2009 and 2010, for Citizens Advice (by yours truly) the retailers and their agents claimed that the civil law of tort provided a county court-approved legal basis for their practice. However, this unsubstantiated claim fell apart in May 2012, when a ‘test case’ initiated by an agent and its retailer client ended in Oxford County Court.

It occurs to me that ACPO’s drunktank companies would face much the same problem. Come the morning after, few if any drunktank inmates would have £400 in their pockets, even if they’d set out with such a wad of cash the evening before. So the drunktank companies could do little more than issue them with a meaningless piece of paper saying ‘you owe us £400’ and, well, hope for the best.

Whatever, all Chief Constable Lee and his ACPO colleagues had to do was listen to their own front-line officers. Back in February 2012, after David Cameron had boosted talk of drunktanks, the Police Federation, which represents the grassroots officers actually doing the policing of town and city centres blighted by alcohol-fuelled disorder, condemned the idea as ‘a dangerous gimmick’. And, last week, the Federation again warned that the proposal ‘throws up more questions than answers’.

Which matters, because by using a patently daft proposal to big up its campaign, ACPO squandered an opportunity to advance more credible and practicable reforms, such as simply increasing the amount of a fixed penalty for drunken behaviour. The curious incident of ACPO and their drunktanks would appear to be yet another case of lions being led by donkeys.

 

Profile photo of Richard Dunstan About Richard Dunstan
Richard Dunstan is a policy wonk who has worked for Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.

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1 Comment

  • Brian Fichardo October 7, 2013 8:36 am

    To be honest, if that was the case, I’d applaud them. Especially considering how much alcohol and alcohol related incidents cost the taxpayer and society per year (vast majority of police callouts post midnight after alcohol related, Plus it can take 15mins to calm down a drunk – if it’s a female drunk then there is the issue of if a female officer is required and that there are more male then female officers. There is the huge policing costs at sporting events because drunk people have less self control/ higher tempers/ impaired judgement, are more beligerent etc. There is the fat that a huge number of hospital beds are set aside just for those who have been binge drinking and to deal with their mistakes/ blood-alcohol poisoning – that those beds take away from more deserving people of accidents/ illness etc that did not willingly choose to binge drink and cause themselves problems and everyone else – then there is the cost and issues of ambulances(and staff) being sent to deal with drunks etc meaning those staff are unavailable for other incidents. The fact that this all raises the numbers of staff needed, that this increases cost when the govt repeatedly cuts the monies available, yet refused to increase the cost of a major source of these costs – ie alcohol… then there is drink driving, the accidents and issues caused by people over recommended limits, the way it effects families and friends, the impaired judgement in general, the way it’s effected culture (the fun=drunk culture) etc… and much much more

    Additionally… in the article… it refers to HMG making a ‘profit’ on binge drinking though alcohol duty… er. Error. Mistake. No. Road tax doesn’t purely pay for roads, Council tax doesn’t purely pay for explicit council needs all monies are raised and distributed together. Taxes are not profit. Yet by mentioning that, the readers would cling to that and less so about the civil liberties etc also referred to. Now let us not forget that police and health staff must constantly deal with drunks being incohearent, abusive, rude and even violent.
    To trial this drunk “tank idea”, under strict guidance, observation and with independent oversight with those involved with ‘babysitting’ the drunks being appropriately trained, qualified and again with proper oversight, I don’t see the problem. Yes there would be a great number of questions to ask, but to have this proposed as a solution is to be applauded. One consideration I would make is that to say those running/managing/overseeing the “drunk tanks” should have no connections directly or indirectly (or through their immediate families) to alcohol production/ distribution services – as that would be an obvious conflict of interest. I’m not convinced the cost to the drunk person is justified or appropriate, but then we having got the breakdown of the expenses. My _guess_ is that councils would contract the running of these services… in a similar way to how they contract out refuse collection, sourcing and maintenance of utilities, transportation, care, support, health etc.

    Sidenote on running such things, I thought of this late into writing this, adding here instead of major editing… Management of a “drunk tank”: certified bouncer/’orderly’ equivalent staff with on site 24/7 social worker(s), doctor(s) and nurses as well as at least one fully qualified police officer (probably supported by police community support officers) – all numbers dependent on scale of operation. Social Workers, PCs and PCSOs to be paid for by the council, but the other security/ health staff could come from the private sector. codes of conduct/ rules/ custody etc to be run by appropriate staff (ie PC on site to charge/ implement criminal charges etc, while social worker and medical staff there to care for those who are drunk (and deemed unfit enough to be sent there). Booking in/out to be carried out in similar way to at a police station etc.
    It’s effectively taking what often happens in in police stations where all these resources are limited.. and moving this to a local other place that is specialised in this. Blood-alcohol tests on entry+every x number of hours+on exit, monitoring by specialised trained staff, oversight by properly trained persons in dedicated facilities (standard police cells aren’t really intended for drunk people, now are they?).
    Closer supervision and restrictions applied by the council could see that the fees applied are appropriately justified, not arbitrarily inflated etc and that in fact the money goes to the council who pay a fixed amount to the contracted firm who runs this. What do I mean? You don’t have refuse persons demanding more for a particular road because persons on it had a party one evening or persons moved out and a lot more refuse is out… the contracted fee is relatively stable each month/calculated annually and I’d expect this to be treated the same as a contracted service. I don’t have the requisite knowledge to specifically address how profits are dealt with beyond that, but this effectively a service being issued and run.

    – Copied from my facebook comment on a share of this article. In SUMMARY: Current procedures and policies fall short. Better to do something different then keep trying the same thing that isn’t working. Things work differently in different counties/states/countries etc, many factors involved. This may be taking the page from someone else’s book, but this obviously isn’t a solution that currently knows all of the finer details and points, documentation and guidelines are not yet written. The author, Mr Dunsten, while I credit with having written a very good article, has risked (in my opinion) having strayed too far towards damning the proposal without being fully constructive of a budget conscious alternative approach. Respectfully I share my own thoughts on this.

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