MPs call to make spiking a crime – but students have alternative suggestions

MPs have the will to combat spiking, but the suggested way forward may be misdirected.

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

Richard Graham led a Westminster Hall debate on the prevention of spiking yesterday which saw many ministers – including Judith Cummings,  Rachel Maclean, and Jane Hunt – raise concerns over the government’s recently announced position to not create a specific criminal offence for spiking.

The reasoning, as Home Office minister Sarah Dines explained in a letter published to Labour MP Dame Diana Johnson, who chairs the Home Affairs Committee on Spiking, is that several offences already cover spiking incidents. This includes Section 24 of The Offences Against The Person Act:

Whosoever shall unlawfully and maliciously administer to or cause to be administered to or taken by any other person any poison or other destructive or noxious thing, with intent to injure, aggrieve, or annoy such person, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and being convicted thereof shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude.

And Section 61 of the Sexual Offences Act states that it is a crime to

Administer a substance or cause a substance to be taken by another person without their consent with the intention to stupefy and overpower them.

Graham – contradicting his opening remark that the debate was not needed due to “all the evidence showing why spiking is such an increased modern risk” – pointed out the lack of concrete data for spiking incidents and argued that a specific criminal code for spiking would allow more accurate data collection. This is compared to current data which always links a spiking incident to another offence (such as sexual assault or robbery). He also argued that much of the public already believe spiking to be a crime anyway.

However, during the debate, it was stated that despite this misperception the Home Affairs Committee found 72 per cent of alleged victims do not report incidents, Dianne Johnson claimed the figure was at 75 per cent, and Judith Cummings claimed that non-reporting stood at 79 per cent.

If the public already thinks spiking is a crime and are not reporting incidents to the police, then how will criminalising it change reporting habits? In light of such low reporting, my question would not be around the criminal status of the act but instead around police conduct and treatment of victims.

While the debate focused on spiking in the general population as a whole – a welcome move away from focusing on it purely as a student issue – several MPs stressed that it was an issue that impacted students in particular, with Alex Sobel MP noting reported spiking incidents in his constituency in West Yorkshire are concentrated in the Autumn when student arrive for Freshers’ Week.

I do wonder, though, if this concentration is a result of young people finding themselves with new-found independence and being introduced to drinking are simply yet to be aware of their tolerance levels or the tolerance levels of those preparing drinks for – after all, as Stamp Out Spiking reports – the majority of spiking occurs with alcohol and in a private, domestic setting.  And I have argued on the site before that the discourse surrounding spiking can lead to reasonable but inaccurate assumptions of being spiked when one feels too drunk or otherwise unwell.

This brings me to another concern. The highly carceral approach, pushed by the vast majority of MPs at the debate, would not translate well regarding student behaviour. If indeed spiking in and of itself becomes a crime – or as Richard Graham articulated – “no matter how you spike someone, it is against the law” – then so-called non-malicious spiking would criminalise thousands of students a year. Because technically, the friend that gets their housemate a double to try and be generous when they asked for a single would be a criminal, the coursemate who eyeballs a shot of vodka in a kitchen at a house party – which amounts to 75ml rather than 25 ml – would also be a criminal.

Besides how preposterous this would be, how would police forces have the time and resources to investigate such cases? Not to mention how would we forensic test for surplus alcohol as evidence for spiking in an alleged victim who has already been drinking alcohol?

It would seem that what is needed more than a crime code is a wider conversation around alcohol culture and tolerance, as well as community responses to keeping people safe.

There were several mentions of the role universities can take in addressing this “epidemic”. Rachel Maclean stressed that universities play a crucial role and nodded to the guidance for universities published by the Department for Education and Universities UK in Autumn. The guidance went through what you would generally expect – a joined-up approach, working with stakeholders, focusing on perpetrators and not victims etc. However, how the remit of universities intersects with the proposed criminalisation of spiking as an offence in and of itself – given universities cannot prosecute, or even investigate, non-student perpetrators – remains unknown.

This brings me to by far the most impressive contribution was from Harry Hughes, President of the University of Loughborough Students’ Union, who was absent from the debate but ventriloquised through his local MP, Jane Hunt.

In a statement, Hughes outlined the need for pub and club staff and security to be aware of the risks of spiking – perhaps through industry authority training – and to take steps to protect their patrons against the ordeal the need for students and the general public alike to feel comfortable around venue staff and police officers so that they are more likely to report any incidences of spiking and seek medical attention as early as possible, rendering data more accurate.

Importantly – and I would say with greater impact than other proposals – he outlined the need for Section 182 of the Licensing Act to include premises needing to put in additional measures to protect their patrons, giving local authorities revoke licences where venues do not take sufficient measures to protect their patrons, as well as giving them the power to enforce pub and club watch schemes where all venues must have mandatory membership. These would include student unions’ that operate as a form of pub and night-time economy – there’s that joined-up approach.

These are concrete suggestions which avoid needlessly criminalising behaviour that can be curtailed with culture change, and avoid a multitude of No Further Action crime report statuses when investigating becomes near impossible due to no evidence and no linked offence. These suggestions would not only keep students safer – but all citizens who use the nighttime economy.

So it would seem that in all the confusion over what is and is not a crime – or what should or should not be a crime, in the conflicting – or missing – data, there is something certain, and that is students know what they need to feel and be safer. Hopefully, MPs will listen to them.

One response to “MPs call to make spiking a crime – but students have alternative suggestions

  1. Spiking is a much wider problem than just students, though the spiker in several cases I’ve been involved with was a student who spiked non-students, in one case for revenge on a former girl friend, in another over jealousy that their target had a reasonable paying job in the RN, that they lost because they didn’t seek medical attention or declare to the Provost Marshall they’d been or suspected they’d been spiked immediately, with the spiking drug residue showing up during their bi-monthly surprise drug (piss) test. In both cases no theft or sexual assault occurred, so a specific crime of spiking would have been helpful.

Leave a Reply