Driving factors of alcohol related crime and social disorder
Crime and disorder in the night time economy
In 2015/16, police-recorded crime from 28 forces in England and Wales showed that Friday and Saturday nights (9pm–3am) accounted for the highest proportion of all weekend violent crime – 39% and 41% respectively. It has been suggested this is largely influenced by the increased consumption of alcohol between these times.
In recent years, two important parallel trends in the night time economy have been evident:
- The growth of the night time economy and the associated problems of alcohol-related crime and disorder in town and city centres
- An overall relative decline in the proportion of alcohol consumed in on-licensed premises and a growth in the proportion of alcohol purchased from off-licensed premises and consumed at home.
In both cases, the effects of alcohol misuse can impact negatively on the wider society, leading to increased instances of crime and disorder. Key features of both trends have been identified as potential contributors to the issue:
A density of drinking establishments
Research into crime and disorder in urban areas has tended to identify a correlation between the density of licensed premises in a locality and the numbers of people present. Studies of violence in Cardiff found that serious violence in the city’s entertainment thoroughfare was directly proportional to the capacity of licensed premises in that street. This was partly explained by the simple fact that being in a crowd provides more opportunities for conflict with others, for example in situations where there is competition for scarce resources such as transport to get home.
Encouraging higher consumption?
Targeted street-based studies suggest that participants in the night time economy drink more than the national average and more significantly, drink at levels which are above average for their age group. The findings appear to suggest that heavy drinkers are disproportionately attracted to the night time economy, and/or that the night time economy encourages heavier alcohol consumption. It is likely that there is an interaction between the two.
Extended drinking hours
Could changes to the hours of sale for alcohol – in the night time economy in particular –positively encourage heavier consumption? This issue has been at the heart of debates around reform of licensing laws and regulations governing the management of licensed premises in recent years.
A core premise of the Labour Government's licensing reforms was that binge drinking was largely the result of artificially early closing times, which encouraged rapid consumption of alcohol in order to “beat the clock”. The proposed solution was to extend drinking hours so as to encourage more leisurely consumption. The expectation was that, provided with longer drinking hours, customers would not drink any more alcohol but that they would drink the same amount more slowly, thus reducing levels of drunkenness. However, survey data suggest that, contrary to the assumption underlying the new Licensing Act, prolonged stays in premises with extended drinking hours actually result in higher levels of reported consumption (please consult the Licensing factsheet for more information).
Vertical drinking establishments and high-risk premises
Other features of the night time economy have also been identified as causes of excessive or otherwise problematic consumption – in particular, the presence of youth orientated “vertical drinking” establishments where drinking is an end in itself rather than an accompaniment to other activities such as having a meal while seated at a table. Specific factors have been linked to a higher likelihood of aggression in public drinking settings including:
- poor bar layout and traffic flow
- inadequate seating or inconvenient bar access
- dim lighting, noise, poor ventilation or unclean conditions
- discount drinks and promotions that encourage heavy drinking (e.g. ‘happy hours’)
- lack of availability of food
- a 'permissive' environment that turns a blind eye to anti-social behaviour
- punters with a history of aggression and who binge drink
- bar workers who don’t practice responsible serving
- aggression/intimidation by security staff.
Pre-loading and cheap alcohol as a driver for crime and disorder
In addition to the problem of public disorder in and around city centre bars and nightclubs, there is considerable concern over heavily discounted sales of alcohol at off-licensed premises - this is the source of a recent phenomenon known as “pre-loading”. The act of pre-loading involves groups of drinkers consuming alcohol – purchased from off-licenses – in private settings prior to attending nightlife venues.
The effects of pre-loading are obvious to researchers studying the social environment of the night time economy. One survey of 18 – 35 year-olds in the North West region of England found that those who reported pre-loading reported significantly higher total alcohol consumption over a night out than those who waited to drink until reaching the bars and nightclubs. Pre-loaders were also more than twice as likely to have been involved in a fight. The researchers concluded that measures to reduce drunkenness and alcohol-related violence in the night time economy should not be restricted to premises within the nightlife environment but should also tackle disparities in pricing and policing between on and off-licensed premises.
Role of the drinks industry
It is argued that the problems of sustained alcohol consumption in social settings go beyond the failings of a minority of high-risk premises in town centres, but that drinks industry organisations play a role.
An expose by one newspaper prior to the relaxation of the licensing laws in 2005 uncovered a concerted attempt by organisations in the drinks industry to “exploit Britain's binge drinking culture”, including offering manager bonuses of up to £20,000 for exceeding sales volume targets, races between bar staff to sell as many 'shots' of spirits as possible within a set time, and constant pressure to 'upsell' singles to doubles.
The Royal College of Practitioners (RCP) 2005 paper 'Alcohol and violence' coined the extent of the problem of alcohol-fuelled violence in public settings:
Half of all incidents of alcohol-related violence in England and Wales take place in or around pubs and clubs. Amongst 18-24 year-olds, twice as many women and nearly three times as many men classified as ‘binge-drinkers’ have participated in a violent crime or group fight in a public place than those classified as ‘regular’ drinkers. Such bingeing is encouraged by irresponsible drinks promotions (e.g. happy hours). Insufficient transport services, poor street lighting and overwhelmed or inappropriately targeted police resources also increase the likelihood of violence.
After encouraging the alcohol industry voluntarily to abandon socially undesirable marketing practices, the New Labour Government of the day then introduced a mandatory code on the retailing of alcohol in 2010.
However, the café culture much promised by the previous administration’s legislative efforts “failed to materialise”. The Coalition Government made provision for further regulatory reform in its Alcohol Strategy, accusing the previous administration of failing in its duty to tackle the problem of alcohol-fuelled crime and social disorder.
The Alcohol Strategy promised to:
- end the availability of cheap alcohol and irresponsible promotions
- (provide an) extensive range of tools and powers... to local agencies to challenge those people that continue to behave in an unacceptable way
- give stronger powers to control the density of licensed premises and make health a licensing objective for this purpose... give areas the powers to restrict alcohol sales if late opening is causing problems through extended powers to make Early Morning Restriction Orders; introduce a new late night levy so that those businesses that trade into the late night contribute towards the cost of policing; and end the notion that drinking is an unqualified right by piloting sobriety schemes for those people whose offending is linked to excessive alcohol consumption
- build on the Responsibility Deal to drive greater industry responsibility and action to prevent alcohol misuse, including giving consumers a wider choice of lower strength products in both the on-trade and off-trade, taking one billion units out of the market by 2015
Despite these promises, the Government of the day did not take forward their commitment to address cheap alcohol, and have u-turned on MUP after industry pressure (please consult the Price factsheet for more information). Many of the licensing powers have not been effective in practice, with no Early Morning Restriction Orders being put in place, and only a handful of areas introducing Late Night Levies (please consult the Licensing factsheet for more information). The Responsibility Deal, a primary arm of the strategy, has also been broadly criticised by health groups as obstructing more effective action, while evidence of its effectiveness is limited and unreliable.
Today’s Conservative Government has further emphasised the importance of the night time economy in tackling alcohol-related crime identifying three arms to its approach in its Modern Crime Prevention Strategy:
- Improving local intelligence so that decisions taken about the sale of alcohol and the management of the evening and night time economy are based on reliable data and the latest evidence.
- Establishing effective local partnerships where all those involved in the operation and management of the evening and night time economy work together, so that people can enjoy a safe night out without fear of becoming a victim of alcohol-related crime or disorder, whilst also enabling local economies to grow.
- Equipping the police and local authorities with the right powers so they can prevent problems and take swift and decisive action after they have occurred.
This strategy has been seen as a somewhat missed opportunity, likely only to have minimal impact on crime prevention as it fails to address key, well-evidenced issues such as alcohol pricing, while focusing on more poorly evidenced initiatives such as industry voluntary schemes. There are however some welcome changes to licensing such as the reformed Late Night Levies and Group Review Intervention Powers.
There is ongoing work towards including public health as an objective relating to licensing decisions in the upcoming Police and Crime Bill, showing promising results.
In February 2007, the Scottish Government – then a Liberal Democrat/New Labour Coalition – entered into a Partnership Agreement with the alcohol industry. Both sides recognised, among other things, the need for enforcement of licensing legislation to 'ensure a zero tolerance approach to the illegal purchase of alcohol and the resultant alcohol-related disorder'.
However, the proportion of violent crimes committed under the influence of alcohol is still significantly higher in Scotland (54%) than in England and Wales (47%). The current executive – led by the Scottish National Party – has since acquired devolved powers to combat alcohol-fuelled criminal behaviour, such as the ability to lower the drink-driving limit.
A Member’s Bill Consultation was lodged by 2 Labour Members of Scottish Parliament (MSP) (Dr Richard Simpson & Mr Graeme Pearson) ahead of the introduction of the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012. It offered 14 proposals which aimed in part to reduce alcohol-related offending through directing offenders towards treatment or restricting their access to alcohol. One such measure involved expanding on tentative steps taken by the Scottish Government to include General Practitioners in the process of alcohol-related interventions when a patient is convicted of an offence involving alcohol. A final proposal was put forward in May 2014, for:
… a bill to promote public health and reduce alcohol-related offending through (a) restrictions on the retailing and advertising of alcoholic drinks; (b) changes to licensing laws; (c) obligations on Scottish Ministers to issue guidance and report on its alcohol education policy; (d) directing offenders towards treatment or restricting their alcohol consumption.
Cross-party support was gained, and a Bill was introduced on 1 April 2015. The Bill was not taken to Stage 2 after its general principles were not agreed in Stage 1 debate.
Previous: Public perceptions of crime | Next: Domestic abuse, sexual assault, child abuse and violence
 Office for National Statistics (ONS) (February 2016), Overview of violent crime and sexual offences, in ‘Focus on Violent Crime and Sexual Offences : Year ending March 2015’, p. 21 <http://tinyurl.com/zv5cm2t>
 Warburton A L., and Shepherd J P (2004)., 'An evaluation of the effectiveness of new policies designed to prevent and manage violence through an interagency approach', Welsh Assembly Government, Wales Office of Research and Development
 Hadfield P., Newton A (September 2010)., 'Alcohol, crime and disorder in the night time economy', Alcohol Concern Factsheet, p. 4
 Green C., Bruce Hollingsworth B., and Navarro M (March 2016)., ‘Longer opening hours lead to heavier drinking and severe health damage’ <http://tinyurl.com/hk8rcq9>
 The Portman Group (1998), 'Keeping the Peace: A Guide to the Prevention of Alcohol-Related Disorder', revised edition, Belmont Press Limited
 Hughes K., et al (January 2008), 'Alcohol, nightlife and violence: the relative contributions of drinking before and during nights out to negative health and criminal justice outcomes'. Addiction, 103 (1): 60–5
 Hinsliff G., and Asthana A (October 2005)., 'Drink giants' plans to fuel binge Britain', The Guardian <http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2005/oct/23/drugsandalcohol.politics1>
 Faculty of Public Health of the Royal Colleges of Physicians of the United Kingdom, 'Alcohol and Violence: Briefing Statement', p. 2
 Department of Health, Home Office, Department for Education and Skills, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (June 2007), 'Safe. Sensible. Social. The next steps in the National Alcohol Strategy', HM Government; www.parliament.uk, 'Statement: New code of practice for alcohol retailers' <http://tinyurl.com/jjb67h8>
 Secretary of State for the Home Department (March 2012), 'The Government’s Alcohol Strategy', HM Government, pp. 3–4
 The Institute of Alcohol Studies (November 2015) ‘Dead on Arrival? Evaluating the Public Health Responsibility Deal for Alcohol’ <http://bit.ly/phrdDOA>
 Secretary of State for the Home Department (March 2016), ‘Modern Crime Prevention Strategy’, HM Government, p. 33 <http://tinyurl.com/gunffzo>
 Institute of Alcohol Studies (March 2016), ‘Budget 2016: Fourth successive real terms cut for beer, spirits and cider duty’, Alcohol Alert <http://bit.ly/al2016mar>
 Local Government Association (December 2016), ‘LGA briefing: Policing and Crime Bill’
 Scottish Government (February 2007), 'Scottish Executive and the alcohol industry', p. 1 <http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2007/02/partnershipagreement/partnership>
 Simpson R., and Pearson G (March 2012)., 'Shifting the Culture', Scottish Parliament Members Bill consultation document, pp. 29–30
 The Scottish Parliament (January 2016), ‘Stage 1 Report on Alcohol (Licensing, Public Health and Criminal Justice) (Scotland) Bill’, p. 2
 The Scottish Parliament, accessed October 2016