The latest idea to tackle people who become drunk and disorderly is the “drunk tank”.
In case of any confusion, a drunk tank has nothing to do with a think tank, in fact it’s quite the opposite.
It’s a holding cell to keep people who are so inebriated they’re a nuisance, at least until they sober up. The kind who might ask, “what seems to be the officer, problem?”
And not without cost: the excessive drinker will be charged for their stay, according to the Association of Chief Police Officers, which raised the idea.
Will it work, as its proponent, Adrian Lee, Northampton chief constable and national policing lead on alcohol harm, hopes, to reduce the burden on police and health services?
You might say it depends on whether you see the glass as half full or half empty. FactCheck’s taken a look.
Drunk tanks: brave new world?
No. Drunk tanks have been around for quite a while – even the Pogues began their classic hit Fairytale in New York with the line, “it was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank”, way back in 1987.
They were commonly used during the 1950s, as with this one, below, from a jail cell in Los Angeles in 1950.
As well as in the US, they operate in Europe, for example in Poland – a legacy of its communist history, although they are steadily dropping in number due to local government cuts.
They also operate in Australia. Police began operating the tanks in Sydney city in July to coincide with a British and Irish Lions rugby decider against the Wallabies. Those who refused to go home were taken to the centre, and faced a fine.
Last year, David Cameron supported the idea of drunk tanks.
However, few, if any, are the responsibility of private companies.
What does ACPO want to do?
If people are found to be incapable because they’ve had too much to drink, police should be able to send them to “welfare centres” where they can be looked after and kept secure until the morning, or whenever they sober up, presumably whichever comes first.
They would be issued with a fixed penalty notice, and a bill for their stay.
Constable Lee said a commercial company should own the drunk tank, look after the drunkard, and provide private medical care at the same time.
ACPO are not in a position to name companies involved in operating the tanks – they don’t even operate yet, if ever.
However, FactCheck understands that it would be a company “that has a reputation in the field of security”.
The company would also need to have some kind of background in health care.
ACPO says that by setting up the tanks, taxpayers will be saved from shouldering some of the burden drunk people place on policing and health services.
Would it be like getting a parking ticket?
Obviously, the medical aspects make it slightly different.
But it would involve a fixed penalty notice, which is often used for minor traffic offences.
Likewise, if a private company were to impose a bill, if someone didn’t want to pay it, or couldn’t pay it, as with private parking companies, they could face court action.
How much will it cost to stay at a drunk tank?
We don’t know, as yet. Some reports have suggested £400 a night, based on the cost of a night in a police cell, but we don’t know if that’s how much it will end up costing.
In Sydney, they cost $200 for the first stay, and $800 for the fourth.
Police can also issue a fine of up to £80 for being drunk and disorderly.
Under current guidelines, it would be up to the company running the tank.
Seems like a good idea, doesn’t it?
It’s difficult to compare the proposal with other drunk tanks to see whether they’ve worked or not, as we don’t know of any which are run by private companies.
Jamie Bartlett, a senior researcher at Demos think tank, suggested a couple of years ago that a “booze tank”, or an “alcohol recovery centre”, could keep binge drinkers for a time and provide them with medical care.
He suggested that if local authority and health trusts commissioned their use, they could use revenue – fines, of £80 for example – to fund it.
When FactCheck spoke to him about the latest proposals, he said: “One of the things we concluded with binge drinking was the importance of taking responsibility for actions.
“Those who drink should be made to do so responsibly. Fines for being drunk and disorderly, and asking someone to sober up, may be one way of doing that.”
But he added: “Private companies charging whatever they like for dumping people into cells and then billing them for it, I can see problems with that.
“That is charging someone for a private service without their consent.”
Sergeant Nigel Rabbitts, chairman of Devon and Cornwall Police Federation, took the point a step further, saying that drunk tanks would require changes to legislation.
He pointed out that the police can only detain someone in a lawful, licenced place, and under police procedures, or they could be de-arrested and taken to a hospital or medical centre. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act lays out guidelines for detention.
The problem, he said, was involving the police in handing someone over to a private company, for detention.
“Is the person going to be handed over to a private company, for their safety and health, who is going to make a profit?
“If the police are expected to hand them over, then are we happy as taxpayers, for that to happen?”
Others have raised concerns that being thrown into a drunk tank could end up as a “badge of honour”.
Some drunk tanks have also led to costly court action.
In April 2009, a Polish woman was awarded 7,000 euros in damages at the European Court of Human Rights after she spent a night in one of the drunk tanks.
The court found the 52-year-old woman was subjected to degrading treatment after she ended up in one following an argument with a taxi driver.
Once detained, she was stripped by a female and two male officer, and then strapped to a bed for 10 hours before being freed.
Will it save the taxpayer money?
Alcohol abuse is expensive, there is no getting away from it. It costs us more now, even though we’re drinking less.
Earlier this month, the Centre for Social Justice said that alcohol abuse costs taxpayers £21bn a year, more than drug abuse, which costs £15bn.
The Centre also said that 1.6 million people are dependent on alcohol in England – one in 20 adults.
And alcohol related admissions to hospital have doubled over the last 10 years, to 1.2 million in 2011-12, and an expected 1.5 million a year by 2015.
Much of this relates to long term alcohol abuse, however, which the tanks aren’t designed to be a solution to.
Long-term alcohol abuse costs the NHS far more than short term A&E admissions, as treating a patient for days or weeks for liver damage or heart failure will be more costly than a sprained ankle.
A&E alcohol-related admissions cost £636.3m in 2010/11. Alcohol-related inpatient admissions were more expensive, at £1,993.57m, according to Alcohol Concern.
So while it may provide some relief for A&E services, it would mean using resources for the cheaper part of the problem.
Opponents, including the Police Federation, say that drunk tanks are a sticking plaster to a far wider problem which requires deeper, structural solutions, rather than overnight stays in cells.
Alcohol Concern has suggested that for every pound invested in specialist alcohol treatment, £5 is saved on health, welfare and crime costs.
Much also depends upon take up. In Australia, earlier this month, one drunk tank had held just 53 people in its first seven weeks, leading one politician to claim they weren’t working and the police still had to “babysit drunks”.