Remember all of that media coverage and moral panic about students and “spiking” last autumn?
Despite Department for Education (DfE) ministers uncharacteristically having little to say on the issue, it’s an important component of the wider safety agenda for students – according to a report from the police, some 81 percent of reported spiking victims are students.
So although much of the conversation and concern around it all has died down since November, the Commons Home Affairs Committee has now got around to publishing a report on both preventing and prosecuting spiking – following an inquiry on the issue that it carried out across December and January.
Its recommendations – most of which are for the Home Office but if taken up would go on to concern universities, local authorities, licensed premises and the police – can largely be broken down into three categories. There’s material on education and awareness, proposals on legislation, and approaches to victim support. The first two, at times, seem at odds with one another – but more on this later.
Education, insight, and awareness
The report argues that there is a lack of awareness of both the definition and impact of spiking – and suggests that the Home Office conducts a campaign to encourage victims to report it, sending a clear “deterrent” message to offenders that spiking is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. That message is moderately confusing given that the report also notes that spiking is not, as it stands, a chargeable offence.
The education sector, and in particular universities, are told to offer training and information to students to tackle misogynistic attitudes and address the issue of what is framed as “non-malicious” spiking. That’s something that Norfolk Police have already been conducting awareness campaigns on, with the aim of advising young people that adding alcohol to someone’s drink without their knowledge or consent constitutes spiking, even if it is done with “amiability”, or without intention to commit a crime.
Building on the theme of “motives”, the report also calls for more research into the other motivations, and profiles, of spikers – all to feed into a detailed prevention strategy that can catalogue and uncover the more nefarious motivations that are assumed to underpin some of the incidences.
In a pivot from the soft-touch ”awareness” approach above, the Home Office is urged to consider making spiking a criminal offence in and of itself, rather than leaving prosecutions to rely on tangential crimes such as an assault that may follow the spiking incident. The argument is that doing so would enable the Police to collect better data on the prevalence of spiking – and victims would be more likely to report it if it was a recognised crime. Ministers are asked for an update by October 2022 on progress towards it.
The Home Office is also asked to work with local authorities to use existing powers to develop anti-spiking strategies. Evidence in the report – including from some work we did here at Wonkhe looking at statements of local licensing policy – suggested that while councils were bearing down on venue owners over crimes like fighting or drugs, sexual harassment and sexual assault were not crimes that were usually part of the conversation.
Hence councils are asked to consider revoking the licence of venues that do not put in measures to prevent spiking, and asked to consider similar if they fail to adequately support patrons who believe they have been spiked. The committee also calls for a review of section 182 of the Licensing Act 2003 to specifically include the prevention and reporting of gender-based violence in statements of local licensing policy. It’s also suggested that music festivals be required to give compulsory safeguarding training to all staff, including third party vendors.
The report also acknowledges that the Private Security Industry Act 2001 does not specify that door supervisors are trained in “spiking” but does not make a recommendation that they are – in response to a government petition asking that venues are required to carry out door searches, the reasoning was that that kind of decision should be made by local authorities rather than via a change in the law. However, given serious and worrying national staff shortages in this area, the report does recommend a support package for night-time industries to increase, particularly female, door staff in venues.
Grouping these recommendations, the committee recommends a national strategy to ensure a wholesale approach to promote best practice (based on current, regional initiatives) and require all police forces and local authorities to publish their chosen approach. That’s the sort of recommendation that ought to see some round table work in university towns and cities involving universities, SUs, local authorities and the police – although funding to make that kind of work effective will continue to be a question.
Finally, there’s also a call for a requirement that commercially available drug-testing kits carry warnings about their accuracy and limitations, and that rapid forensic testing is provided for all spiking victims to ensure that evidence is collected in a timely manner and is admissible in court. The report also recommends anonymous reporting tools for spiking incidents due to the number of victims not wishing to report to the police – which you’d have to assume would be supervised by the kind of round table partnership described above
On the face of things, if the Home Office takes up the committee’s recommendations, the “Girls Night In” campaigners that were boycotting venues last autumn ought to be pleased with many of the ideas here. Converting spiking into a proper crime, taking steps to cause licensees to consider sexual crimes as something to bear down on, focussing on awareness and reporting – these are all in the orbit of the lists of demands that were being made when the panic was at its pitch.
The recommendations around victim support, for example, are important. The third most common reason victims of alleged spiking did not report to the police was that it was too late to report by the time they realised that they had been spiked. There is also evidence of victims being “ping-ponged” from the NHS to the police and no tests being taken. Taking steps to address the confusion in emergency services’ remit may also mean we see an improvement in the reliability of data around spiking – most of which is anecdotal.
In January I wrote about the unreliability of self-reported incidents due to students overestimating their alcohol tolerance after Covid, and the symptoms of a panic attack being similar to the symptoms of spiking – alongside the lack of forensic testing. So maybe access to accurate testing will give individuals the reassurance they need. Nevertheless, one issue we can’t avoid – that the report itself highlights – is that the majority of spiking is carried out with alcohol which would not appear on a forensic test had the person been drinking already.
Proposals on anonymous reporting, on the other hand, miss the target – the problem is that the police are perceived to be treating those who report spiking with hostility. The report finds that 92 percent of victims from one survey, and 98 percent in another, did not report to the police – and of those who did report to the police, only 11 percent received support. Of those who received support only half were satisfied with it, with a quarter saying that they were dissatisfied due to being treated disrespectfully or not believed.
As such it’s hard to believe that anonymous reporting can fix a deeper problem with the practice and resultant perception of the police – and while the report reiterates the already existing policing guidance on the Victims’ Code, as well as recommendations on police training from victim support charities, it miserably fails to make recommendations around police conduct.
Pineapple and pepperoni
Taken together, the recommendations in the education, insight, and awareness category, and the legislation category, seem to be at odds with one another. Concerns around spiking are real, and we saw late last year how strongly students feel about it. But that needs a concentrated and targeted approach.
If the report is right – that the majority of spiking incidents are a social faux pas in student houses, where individual autonomy and boundaries are neglected in favour of a surplus of alcohol (albeit in good faith and without malice) we need an open discussion and an educational approach. In those circumstances, a hardline, carceral approach to criminalise the act is either inappropriate or would not work. And how would police forces – who already claim to be underfunded – enforce it? Are they going to arrest every 20-something physics student who gave their housemate 10ml extra tequila because they were eyeballing a margarita rather than using a standardised alcohol jigger?
Clearly, the malicious spiking of drinks with substances should be a criminal act. But the report attempts to both widen the definition of spiking in the public consciousness to include non-malicious acts, while simultaneously suggesting blanket criminalisation. Ham-fisted Police forces putting up posters warning people against the “stranger danger” evils of a new crime on the list are unlikely to generate what’s really required – to cause a proper conversation around boundaries and consumption consent among young people so that they can adapt their interpersonal behaviours.