THE BLOG

Drunk Tanks: An Easy Answer to a Complex Problem

25/09/2013 12:48 BST | Updated 24/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Britain has a serious alcohol problem. Visit any town or city street on a Friday night and you'll witness the serious harm caused by people drinking too much.

Alcohol misuse not only costs the economy billions every year in terms of lost working days and violence-related crime. It also destroys lives and families.

How we tackle this country's negative relationship with drink is an issue which is rarely off the political agenda.

The latest proposal from Chief Constable Adrian Lee, the national policing lead on alcohol harm, is that people who are so intoxicated they cannot look after themselves should be sent to drunk tanks to sober up overnight.

These welfare centres, as the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) prefers to call them, would be privately run and the problem drinker would get a bill for their stay along with a fixed penalty fine.

The idea, which no doubt appeals to headline writers, seems like a simple solution to an age-old problem which is why it concerns me.

Quick-fix solutions to complex problems never work, and alcohol addiction is a very complex issue that drunk tanks alone will not overcome.

Besides, who is going to staff these places and what happens with those who cannot pay? Surely the fee will deter people who need support from seeking it. Will the companies running these tanks be tasked with chasing unpaid fines?

Those details would need to be outlined fully if these were to be rolled out in our communities.

Of course we've been here before. In the 1800s, police used mobile wooden huts to house the inebriated until they sobered up, and Victorian police stations had tiled cells to hold the drunk and incapable. Drunk tanks have even inspired lyrics by The Pogues.

Last year, David Cameron gave his backing to these overnight holding centres which have already been introduced in Canada, Australia and Russia.

In Poland, anyone who ends up in a 'hangover hotel' is given a surgical gown, no telephone access and can be detained for up to 12 hours.

I do sympathise with officers on the beat who have to deal with anti-social behaviour that is fuelled by too much drink.

There is no question that we must reduce pressure on them as well as on A and E staff who are already overstretched.

Drunk tanks could have a part to play if they were able to signpost people to the most appropriate services for their needs by providing immediate support to problem drinkers. The point being the need for early interventions which people will actually benefit from.

Turning Point already runs an A and E alcohol liaison service in Gateshead and Sunderland. It works by frontline health staff in hospitals first identifying dependent drinkers then referring them on to one of our workers who are based in hospitals in the area.

This service doesn't just look at alcohol use but also issues such as housing, employment and mental health. No one is forced into treatment because we know that wouldn't work.

We've also been involved in the 'booze bus,' a London-based scheme which picks up people who have drunk to excess. Our staff give people advice on how to avoid an alcohol problem.

If we're going to lock intoxicated people up then appropriate facilities are needed which are designed for overnight stays.

When I say appropriate, I don't mean police cells (ACPO agrees they shouldn't be used) or hospital beds. It means a place where the correct clinical support is available.

To tackle our unhealthy relationship with alcohol, both on and off the streets, we need to get at the underlying causes of why that relationship exists in the first place.

Drunk tanks may have a place. But they will never be a substitute for effective treatment programmes which actually save money in the long-term.