Harold Wilson is widely attributed as saying "A week in politics is a long time" and this is never more apt than in the national conversation about alcohol and how to deal with those who use it irresponsibly, whilst not punishing those who quietly enjoy a tipple without causing society at large a huge problem.
Successive administrations have looked at the societal ills of binge-drinking, long-term alcohol abuse and the like, and have come up with various solutions, for instance, minimum pricing. With a bit of luck the issue of minimum pricing is a dead duck, although Newcastle City Council still seems to think it's a good idea by trying to introduce a licensing condition of a minimum price of 50p per unit. I think the argument against minimum pricing has been won for now and alternative strategies will be sought and promoted.
One such strategy being mooted this week by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) is the introduction of commercially run American-style "drunk tanks". Drinkers who get so intoxicated they cannot look after themselves would be cared for in holding cells until they sober up and charged for the pleasure, as well as being fined for being drunk and disorderly. Police believe a commercially run initiative would act as an extra deterrent to excessive drinking as well as freeing up officers from having to deal with late-night drunkenness. The ensuing media frenzy today in is superbly timed to coincide with the national police "week of action" during which pubs and, I trust, other alcohol retailers are "reminded" of their duties and responsibilities under the licensing law.
The suggestion has won the backing of some police and crime commissioners, who are keen to tackle alcohol-related problems and keep policing costs down. Yesterday, Adrian Lee, the chief constable of Northamptonshire and ACPO's lead on tackling alcohol problems, said:
“I do not see why the police service or the health service 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. So why don’t we take them to a drunk cell owned by a commercial company and get the commercial company to look after them during the night until they are sober. When that is over we will issue them with a fixed penalty and the company will be able to charge them for their care, which would be at quite significant cost and that might be a significant deterrent.”
ACPO estimate it costs between £300 and £400 a night to hold someone in a police cell, while police can only issue a fine of up to £80 for an offence of drunk and disorderly. So there is clearly a discontinuity between the cost of dealing with this problem and the police's ability to cover their costs, in this instance it would appear crime does pay.
More than 31,000 people were given a fixed penalty for the offence last year, whilst it is not known how many of those would have been so drunk that they had to be held in a cell overnight, I'll bet there are plenty of custody suite and A&E managers who would welcome the proposal. On the cost-benefit front only 25% of fixed penalty recipients would have needed to sober up in a cell for the proposed scheme to break-even, so the economic imperative is compelling.
Another attractive element to the proposal is the principle of the "polluter pays", those who get so bladdered they cannot stand, pay for the cost of their care. Alcohol-related crime is estimated to cost the economy around £11 billion a year including £2.7 billion to the NHS alone, so anything that reduces those bills has to be welcomed.
Mr Lee added that commercially run cells might also be a safer environment for drunks because medical staff could be on hand to look after them. Sir Hugh Orde, the president of ACPO, said drunks were “very high risk” and needed checking every 15 to 30 minutes:
“It is a huge cost on staff and when one of these people tragically dies, the service is quite rightly criticised.”
The idea seems to have support from some Police and Crime Commissioners too and A Home Office spokesperson said:
“Local authorities, the police and other agencies already have a range of powers to tackle alcohol-related crime and disorder. We believe local communities are best placed to take action in response to local problems.”
I have to say the idea does seem attractive, with all the empty retail units in our high streets there would be plenty of room to covert them into DrunksRUs™, Plenty of scope for employment for custodians and medics, and the inevitable layers of management involved in any commercial enterprise.
So who will run these commercial drunk tanks? Will it be those paragons of efficiency Group 4 or Serco who seem to run most of our "public services" these days? I can just see the adverts now:
Or could we please just deal with one of the root problems of binge-drinking, the ridiculous "pocket money" pricing by the off-trade, most notably the big supermarket chains? Jeremy Browne, the crime prevention minister, said:
“The Government is taking a wide range of action to tackle alcohol-related crime and disorder. This includes introducing a ban on alcohol sales below the level of duty plus VAT to tackle the worst cases of very cheap and harmful drink.”
Well Mr Browne, how about getting local licensing authorities to just impose the same sort of licence conditions for off-trade licences as pubs have with regard to "responsible" drinks promotions? Or don’t you and your colleagues in government and parliament have the political balls?
Or why not just increase the cost of fixed penalty fines to a level that will deter anti-social behaviour such as being drunk and disorderly?
Just a thought...