Nightclub Safety Debate

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Department: Home Office
Monday 8th November 2021

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall
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Rachel Maclean Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Rachel Maclean)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am extremely grateful to all Members who have spoken in this debate. It has been wide ranging and excellent, with some good contributions from across the House.

I am incredibly grateful to Hannah Thomson for starting the petition. The hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) has outlined her tribute, and I want to add my voice to that. It is not a small undertaking to present a petition to Parliament at any age, particularly at Hannah’s. I want to pay tribute to her and all the other campaigners in this space, who have successfully brought a debate in Parliament. We are now discussing these issues and I hope we are according them the seriousness that they deserve.

I agree with the hon. Member for Gower when she said that we women are 51% of the population and we wield considerable financial muscle. Part of the natural financial muscle is going on a night out. That is something I am absolutely sure all of us have enjoyed in the past. For some of us it is the more distant past—Mr Gray, perhaps?

Rachel Maclean Portrait Rachel Maclean
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Perhaps not. I certainly, in common with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), remember many nights out in various Birmingham nightclubs, including the one she referred to and many others.

Florence Eshalomi Portrait Florence Eshalomi
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On the point of going out in the past, would the Minister agree that we need to see more women and girls going out and supporting our full range of businesses in the night-time economy, because of that financial muscle power? That will not happen until they feel safe.

Rachel Maclean Portrait Rachel Maclean
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The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the night-time economy is vital. It is very important that we have thriving local economies. It is a vital to our financial prosperity, and it is part of our building back better agenda.

Turning to the issue and petition at hand, there are, of course, growing concerns about safety in the night-time economy. The specific focus on searches in nightclubs comes as no surprise. We know that over 172,000 people have added their name to the petition. I am sure that that is driven by concern over the rise of media reports on spiking. It is perhaps not a completely new issue, but there has been a focus on the needle aspect as something that is new. It is certainly receiving a lot more attention than it has done in the past. However, Members have rightly said that the spiking of drinks is something we have seen for some time.

Reports of spiking, whether that is adding substances to drinks or injecting people with needles, are extremely concerning. I have every sympathy with victims and anyone who might feel unable to go out and enjoy a night out without fear. The fear factor is very serious, and no one should feel frightened or vulnerable when they go out. We utterly condemn the people who perpetrated those attacks, and they should be brought to justice. I want to begin by saying very clearly that I want to reassure Members that this is something that we are taking seriously. The day on which we heard the first accounts—I think it was a few weeks ago—the Home Secretary wasted no time in getting reports, requiring additional data and convening police chiefs at the highest level.

Let me be clear: any spiking constitutes criminal conduct. The necessary offences are on the statute book. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), where a drink is spiked and where there is sexual motivation, administering a substance with intent is an offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and could carry a 10-year sentence. Depending on the specific nature of the assault and offence, it could also be classed as common assault, which includes grievous bodily harm, and could carry a sentence of five years up to a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment. I want to reassure him that this is a serious criminal offence. As with any crime, it falls to the police to investigate it and ensure that those responsible are dealt with in accordance with the law.

I want to update the Chamber on the fact that there is no doubt that police are taking this seriously and are working at pace to gather intelligence and identify perpetrators. It is a changing and evolving picture. We have been gathering reports from forces across the country, and at the time of my making these remarks, we have 218 reports of needle assaults and injections since September. Over the same period, the police are aware of 250 drink spikings. Those numbers broadly chime with what Members have reported to me. Those numbers are subject to change as the police continue to gather information. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley is right in saying that this is a crime in which not all instances are reported. I strongly encourage anyone who has been a victim to report it to the police. It is difficult to make comparisons with the past, and I have stressed to my team that we need to understand more about this crime, and that is absolutely what we will do.

Members may be pleased to know that there have been at least three recent arrests for this and a number of active police investigations are under way. I very much hope that we will be able to bring more perpetrators to justice in the coming weeks.

Steve Baker Portrait Mr Steve Baker
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I am very grateful for what the Minister has said. Will she undertake to carry out some kind of public information activity to make sure that potential perpetrators are aware of the gravity of the offences that they are considering? We need to make sure that people are dissuaded from what, I think we all agree, is a very serious set of crimes.

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Rachel Maclean Portrait Rachel Maclean
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My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We have a number of communication plans within the wider violence against women and girls strategy, and we will absolutely make sure that this issue is included in that work, which I am sure he will welcome.

The Home Secretary has already asked the National Police Chiefs’ Council to urgently review the extent and scale of the issue, and we are receiving regular updates from the police. We are working locally, regionally and nationally, including with our partners in the National Crime Agency. The NPCC has convened a group of policing leads, including Jason Harwin and Maggie Blyth—the Government’s new lead on violence against women and girls—which is meeting several times a week, with the aim of understanding the issue and ensuring that there is a strong police response.

Turning to the licensing regime, I think it was the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) who referenced the fact that not all of these cases occur in nightclubs. [Interruption.] Apologies, it was the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). Not all of these attacks occur in nightclubs, but our understanding is that the majority of these settings are probably targeted specifically by offenders.

Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield
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There are lots of numbers floating around, and many of them probably underestimate the scale of the problem. My understanding is that the Alcohol Education Trust has done some work on this, and has suggested that there are slightly more incidences of drink spiking in house parties than in nightclubs. How will the Government reflect that in the strategy that they are looking at?

Rachel Maclean Portrait Rachel Maclean
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I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, and it is important that we continue to ensure that we gather data from all these incidents, regardless of whether they take place in homes or nightclubs.

I turn now to the issue of nightclubs, which is the subject of the debate. It is really important to say that there is nothing preventing a nightclub from introducing searches on entry, and a number of nightclubs are doing that already. Lincolnshire police are working with their local licensing authority and a local nightclub to address concerns about spiking. The club has made an extra search on going into the premises a condition of entry and, additionally, it is using stickers to place over the tops of drinks at key locations within the premises. Many other clubs across the country are doing that as well, and we have heard references made to the work in Devon and Cornwall. In fact, I did a quick straw poll with my children, who are all of clubbing age. Two of them had been out clubbing in London over the weekend and had seen in action some quite detailed and thorough searches when they went into clubs.

Rushanara Ali Portrait Rushanara Ali
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Will the Minister clarify what she will do quickly to make sure that all nightclubs follow the good examples that she is citing? She is responsible for making it happen and for giving families across the country the reassurance they need that, whichever nightclub young people go to, they can go safely.

Rachel Maclean Portrait Rachel Maclean
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I am coming to that, and I very much hope to satisfy the hon. Lady. It is important that I make it clear that premises such as nightclubs have a responsibility, which I will set out, if she will bear with me.

Premises that have a high volume of customers are required to assess what steps they think are needed for the venue, but we are not solely reliant on venues taking action themselves. The law already allows relevant conditions to be imposed. The Licensing Act 2003, which governs the control and issuance of licences to sell alcohol, allows local licensing authorities to take a tailored approach to granting premises licences in order to uphold the four licensing objectives. The most relevant is of course the objective to prevent crime and disorder. It is important to state that the Act applies only to premises in England and Wales, as licensing is devolved in Scotland. I note that the petitioner is from Scotland, so I definitely encourage her to have similar conversations with her local authorities. I very much hope that they will consider those issues.

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.

We have a rich and diverse night-time economy across the country, catering to many different communities: big cities with a large student population—many Members have referred to their local universities—towns with a high proportion of families and holiday visitors, and rural areas with local pubs. We have venues and villages, and everything in between. It is a fundamental and important premise that, with very few exceptions, decisions on which licences to grant, and on how premises should be managed, take into account local issues, demographics and circumstances. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to licensed premises. We do not wish to see mandated national conditions, which could be disproportionate and burdensome to some venues. Even among nightclubs, there is a huge diversity of premises, so what is required for one will not work for another.

Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips
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Will the Minister give way?

Rachel Maclean Portrait Rachel Maclean
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I will allow the hon. Lady to intervene, but I also need to allow some time for the hon. Member for Gower to sum up.

Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips
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How many licensing committees does the Minister think have their eye on violence against women and girls across the country and will be paying attention to this issue?

Rachel Maclean Portrait Rachel Maclean
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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 want to make the House aware that the police already have considerable powers to take action where they think there is a problem. They can call for a review of a premises licence and work with the management and licensing authority. Local mechanisms can introduce searches where they are needed more quickly than waiting for a national mandate to be brought into effect. Licensing laws allow longer-term measures as well, to improve management of the night-time economy. For example, the night-time levy, with which some Members may be familiar, enables local authorities to collect a financial contribution from businesses. Some of the initiatives are really helpful and have been used to fund additional police officers, community protection officers and local projects, such as club hosts and taxi marshals, all of which can help keep people safe.

The Act also allows the licensing authority to carry out a cumulative impact assessment, to help it to limit the number of types of licence applications granted in areas where there is no evidence to show that the number or density of licensed premises in the area is having a cumulative impact and leading to problems that could undermine the licensing objectives.

As I have said, the night-time economy is varied and diverse, and covers many types of areas. Alongside the specific measures I have outlined, there are other things that local areas can and should be doing. I have been impressed by some of the initiatives I have seen around the country. Some areas have introduced safe spaces, where a combination of medical assistance, supervised recovery and other support services are provided to intoxicated, injured or vulnerable individuals.

In another area, I saw a scheme where door staff convert into street marshals at the end of the night, across the whole city centre. I pay tribute to other organisations, such as Street Pastors, who provide invaluable assistance. Members have highlighted good work going on in their local forces and in some of their local universities. In addition, initiatives such as Ask for Angela, X Marks the Spot, Safe Havens and Good Night Out provide opportunities, help and support to everyone who is concerned for their safety.

Many Members talked about the wider and broader issues of violence against women and girls, which I come to now. We published our new cross-Government tackling violence against women and girls strategy this summer, to help to ensure that women and girls are safe everywhere. I fully agree with all the comments that have been made by hon. Members that this is not about blaming women, or requesting or expecting women to change their behaviour. It is about tackling the root cause of the violence.

I recognise what my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said about this not being about all men perpetrating these crimes, but about recognising that in the majority of the spiking incidents the victims that we know about are young women. It is at the forefront of the Government’s mind and our priority is to tackle the perpetrators and prevent this from happening.

On the specific work we have already funded, we are delivering a pilot £5 million safety of women at night fund, focused on preventing violence against women and girls in public spaces at night, particularly in the night-time economy. That is in addition to the £25 million safer streets fund, which focuses on improving public safety, with an emphasis on the safety of women and girls, and their feelings of safety in public spaces.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley referred to doorkeepers and their qualifications, which is an important issue. I have met the Security Industry Authority and I assure her that it is cognisant of the issue. It is working to ensure that qualifications for door supervisors and security guards include specific content relating to violence against women and girls. It is now working at pace to remind the industry and those operatives of their role and responsibility to keep people safe, with a focus on women’s safety. In our violence against women and girls strategy, we have committed to further work to see what more we can do to strengthen those safeguards.

I want to conclude my remarks and allow time for the hon. Member for Gower to respond. Violence against women and girls is abhorrent. As I have set out, the Government are taking wide-ranging action to prevent these crimes, support victims and pursue perpetrators. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower on her speech. I fully agree that some of the issues that she highlighted around our sexist and victim-blaming culture are wrong and need to stop. We in the Government are completely behind that. The measures that I have set out, and more, are the measures that we will be using to bear down on this abhorrent behaviour. We are putting the full force of the Government behind tackling the issue, because we want women and girls to feel safe when they are going out at night.