The debate was called by the Petitions Committee off the back of 170,000 people calling for the government to make it the law that nightclubs “search guests on arrival”. There are “too many cases of weapons and date rape drugs being used in clubs”, it says, asking “why aren’t nightclubs required to do more to prevent harmful items making it into their clubs”?
It’s an interesting question because Girls Night In groups around the country have effectively all been calling for the operators of licensed premises to improve security on the doors of their venues – and boycotting until they do. On the assumption that not all will comply and that the story will fade as the press move on, is there a policy lever that will cause them all to improve their practices?
Tonia Antoniazzi (Lab, Gower) was given the job of opening the debate, and summed up a clutch of the key issues in her first few paras:
While those steps from some nightclubs are welcome, what will happen after the media interest has died down? It is not good enough for this issue to be in the hands of some nightclub owners. The Government must realise that something has to be done. A number of clubs have extra security staff on the floors of their nightclubs, so surely it is not beyond the owners’ financial capabilities to invest in making security checks a permanent feature across all clubs in the UK. I understand that this has been a financially difficult 18 months for many venues, but does the Minister agree that some investment in keeping people safe on a night out will make going out a much more attractive proposition and therefore worth it in the long run for club owners?”
Steve Baker (Con, Wycombe) had been contacted by a constituent about a needle spiking incident but decided last night was an important moment to point out that “not all men” are criminals. At the more helpful end of contributions, Geraint Davies (Lab, Swansea West) pointed out that the Police have a tendency to dismiss reports of spiking as “Oh, she was drunk”. Rushanara Ali (Lab, Bethnal Green and Bow) called for a systemic approach to capturing data on the number of incidents from across universities, the police, and health services.
Paul Blomfield (Lab, Sheffield Central) called for a strategy to challenge the whole spectrum of behaviour, which starts with casual harassment and ends with sexual violence. And Rachael Maskell (Lab, York Central) raised the issue of the availability of trauma services, which she said are seriously underfunded and understaffed.
After several other contributions (including a powerful speech from Jess Phillips), Home Office Parliamentary Under-Secretary Rachel Maclean set out the case for the government. Her basic argument was that the Licensing Act 2003 requires local authorities (in England and Walers) to take a tailored approach to granting premises licences in order to uphold the four licensing objectives. One of those is the objective to prevent crime and disorder.
In order to reduce crime, licensing authorities can impose conditions on any business that wants to sell alcohol, which can include requiring the presence of suitably trained and accredited door staff or CCTV. A licensing authority can also require a licence holder to introduce entry searches as a condition of a premises licence.
Intervening, Jess Phillips asked how many licensing committees have their eye on violence against women and girls across the country and will be paying attention to this issue?
And then came the bare faced lie. Maclean replied with:
I can assure the hon. Lady that we insist on it and require them to do so, and it is part of their statutory duty. They are of course accountable to their populations, and they are staffed by locally and demographically accountable members of their council.”
I have news for Maclean. Over the past month in the few minutes leading up to my calls with SUs as part our Wonkhe SUs work, I’ve been reading statements of licensing policy in the areas where a large proportion of our universities in England and Wales are located.
In almost all cases, “crime” is referred to as, broadly, drugs or fights. Sexual harassment and sexual assault is almost never mentioned.
We can speculate as to why. Maybe it’s because local authorities don’t really regard students and/or young people as a key audience when thinking about who they are accountable to. Maybe it’s because these things tend to get written by men (not all men, Steve, but men in general). Maybe it’s because they feel the need to respond to the “crime” that the local force says is prevalent. Maybe the 70 or so I’ve read are outliers.
Either way, given the Home Office supposedly maintains a VAWG strategy, the idea that local authorities haven’t been directed to explicitly include sexual harassment and sexual assault as a particular type of crime that needs to be reduced in licensed premises is extraordinary.
As two SU sabbs put it on the site back in 2018:
The stick is the wonk stuff, the geeky bit. We lobbied our local councils (Canterbury and Medway) to change their licensing policy so that every license holder would have a licensing obligation to actually tackle sexual harassment on their premises. Hopefully it will never have to be done, but if a premises decides not to play ball in making the night time economy safer, they could have their license reviewed and ultimately withdrawn.
It’s not a panacea – you still need cash for training and enforcement – but if it can happen in Canterbury surely it can (and should) happen everywhere else?