In the deluge of proposed amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill currently going through the House of Lords, there are four short proposed clauses which would be easy to overlook but which could prove to be the most useful tool for tackling crime we have had in years – not to mention a great leap forward for localism in the UK. I refer to the clauses to allow Boris Johnson to pilot a Compulsory Sobriety scheme for drunken criminals in London.
The link between alcohol abuse and certain crime types is clear. Anecdotally, we all know it. We have all seen our market towns and city centres transformed into violent, ugly places come Friday and Saturday eve, replete with fights and mindless vandalism. We hear it from those on the front line – almost any police officer or A&E doctor will tell you that alcohol abuse is the most significant contributing factor to domestic violence and town centre hooliganism. Ask any judge about their despair at trying to stop the repeat drunk driver. It is a huge drain on the public services, but it is also a series of personal and family miseries on a national scale. Baroness Helen Newlove, who wrote movingly on this subject for ConservativeHome yesterday, knows only too tragically the price she and her family and friends have paid.
The statistics bear out this sense we have of a drinking culture out of control. One in five 999 calls is due to alcohol. The Home Office estimates that 60 percent of domestic violence cases have alcohol as a complicating factor. The British Crime Survey estimates that almost a million crimes a year are fuelled by alcohol.
If you are convinced that there is a problem, let’s think about solutions. Drinking is a personal health issue, but when people beat their spouses, get into fights, spoil our town centres and endanger us all with drunk driving, it becomes a matter for the criminal justice system. And the Metropolitan Police Service, under the Mayor's remit, sees more than its share of drink-fuelled criminal behaviour. If this sounds familiar, you may recall Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse's campaign on the issue.
The Metropolitan Police Commissioner supports the idea of a Compulsory Sobriety scheme based on the US model where offenders can be ordered by a court to stay sober. This can be either in conjunction with a prison term or, for less serious offences, in lieu of prison. How it works in the US is that a judge orders offenders to check in twice a day to be tested, and if they are sober they get to stay out of prison, hold down a job and live at home. The results are impressive. Since 2005 nearly 16,000 people have been placed on the programme in one state alone (South Dakota) and have been tested 3.1 million times. The pass rate is 99.3 per cent. Offenders pay for their own testing (approximately a dollar a time), so the cost to the public purse is reduced. When given a sense of control over their own destiny, most offenders choose the responsible path and stop drinking in order to stay free. Re-offending rates fall through the floor.
The amendments to the Sentencing Bill laid down by crossbencher Baroness Finlay, and signed by supporters of all parties (including me), give judges the powers to order offenders in England and Wales to submit to alcohol testing and pay for their own tests (a few pounds a day, less than they would have spent on alcohol). Under the Scottish judicial system no such legislation is required so they are pressing ahead with their own Compulsory Sobriety scheme under the powers of the bailiffs.
The Ministry of Justice recognises the problem of alcohol-fuelled crime in London but are proposing to try tackle it with existing powers and a different pilot, involving more expensive tags, where the state picks up the tab for testing offenders. We believe that if the Mayor of a city of 8 million people wants to pilot an offender-pays scheme to tackle drunken violence, then a localist-minded Parliament should help him achieve that. Even if you are not convinced of the merits of Compulsory Sobriety, we hope you will recognise at least the problem that exists and that it needs innovative solutions. London wants to pilot this scheme and is prepared to pay for it. If it is successful, it could be rolled out across our country as a powerful new tool for magistrates. We keep saying that we want the judiciary to be tougher on criminals, and that we want local solutions to local problems, I hope the government will accept the amendments on Wednesday giving the Mayor and the judges the powers to do precisely that.