Posted: Monday 30th September 2013
Alcohol problems in our towns and cities have received much coverage in the media recently, together with suggestions of how we could deal with those individuals who behave irresponsibly when drunk. One suggestion is to introduce so-called ‘Drunk Tanks’ similar to those already operating in the United States and Australia. More on those later, but first let’s examine the scale of the problem.
The relaxation in alcohol licensing in previous years has been an ongoing catastrophe unfolding before our eyes. Instead of turning Great Britain into a continental café culture as was suggested, 24-hour bars and low-priced alcohol piled high in supermarkets have seen a new generation ‘pre-loading’ with cheap booze at home before heading into town, already well under the influence. Before anyone accuses me of being a killjoy, I know that the vast majority of us enjoy a drink and behave responsibly, there are also those who have a serious alcohol dependency problem and need proper care and support. The problems we face are caused by a small minority who take no responsibility for their behaviour, then throw themselves at our emergency services as if they were an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Every Friday and Saturday night across East Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire, our police officers and the NHS are stretched to the limit dealing with drunken behaviour. I have seen the effects myself as I have recently accompanied Humberside Police response officers on night shifts. The vast majority of calls were related to drink and drugs, but mainly drink. I have stood queuing in a custody suite with an officer waiting to book in a prisoner for being drunk and disorderly; often it was a long queue. I asked him if this was unusual and with a resigned expression he said ‘No Matthew, this is what we do every week’. If the offender has committed a serious crime like an assault or criminal damage then a police cell is where they belong, but a huge number are there for being drunk and anti social. Once the officer has booked in his prisoner and returned to the streets it is then down to the custody staff to manage that person’s behaviour for the rest of the night. The screaming and shouting, banging on cell doors, the abuse and drunken threats, all in a night’s work.
The strain this puts on our police service is huge. Our public services are a finite resource, and every officer tied up dealing with a drunken idiot is one less officer who should be doing what we all want them to do, prevent crime and catch criminals. As a taxpayer, are you happy that your money is being spent on babysitting an increasing number of people who frankly need to grow up and take responsibility for their behaviour? I for one am not, and I want our police officers to do what they do best, protect and serve the law-abiding members of society.
There is no ‘silver bullet’ solution to what is a significant social problem, but something must be done. The police officers I speak to are telling me that, and so are the public at my Street Surgeries and community visits. We need to show these offenders their behaviour will not be tolerated and the best way to do that is hit them in the pocket. In countries such as the United States and Australia, welfare centres nicknamed ‘Drunk Tanks’ are used as holding areas for those who are drunk and incapable. Police drop the individual off with qualified staff who will look after their welfare until they have sobered up, at which point they are issued with a bill for their stay, which will hopefully make them think more carefully about their behaviour in future. Who would run these centres is up for debate, I’m open to ideas from all sectors. My biggest concern is relieving the pressure on our police service.
In East Yorkshire, Humberside Police in partnership with the local council are piloting a new scheme to deal with drunken offences. First time or low level offenders will be offered an opportunity to accept a conditional caution rather than be prosecuted. The condition is that they attend an appointment with an alcohol support worker who will assess their drinking behaviour and offer further support where needed. A large number of drunken offences are committed by people who have never been in trouble with the police, and this scheme aims to divert them from future offending.
The police already have tools at their disposal such as Section 27 dispersal orders which force someone to leave an area for up to 48 hours or face arrest, and drink banning orders which have been extremely successful in keeping regular troublemakers out of our town and city centres, as can be seen in Hull where the city holds a Purple Flag Award for making the city centre a safer place.
We need a ‘stick’ and ‘carrot’ approach to dealing with the alcohol issue. We must get upstream of the problem and educate people to take responsibility for how they handle alcohol, but we also need a zero tolerance approach to those who think anti-social behaviour is part and parcel of their big night out; their poor choices are having a massive impact on the law-abiding majority. We must find ways to ensure the consequences of drunken behaviour last longer than the hangover.
*This article originally appeared in The Yorkshire Post on 21st September.