Drink safety test strips, bystander intervention: How UK unis are tackling drink spiking

drink spiking
The new working group to tackle drink spiking on campuses follows a campaign to end the use of NDAs by universities to silence victims of sexual harassment, abuse and bullying. Source: Pau Barrena/AFP

The UK government is setting up a new working group to tackle the issue of drink spiking in universities. This comes after a surge in spiking related incidents in recent years. 

The working group will be headed by the Department for Education and Home Office, bringing together vice chancellors, police, campaigners, and victims. Universities Minister Michelle Donelan says the group will report back before the start of the autumn term with plans to help keep students safe. 

“This is an issue that is very close to my heart, having had someone close to me spiked when I was younger, which had devastating consequences,” she said in a government statement. “So I know first-hand what a horrific crime this is and I am determined to stamp it out.”

A Home Affairs Select Committee report that was released last month found that the true prevalence of needle and drink spiking remains unknown, but police data shows 81% of recorded victims in this arena were students. A recent survey by The Tab found that 11% of students believed they had their drink spiked. The Alcohol Education Trust reports that more than one in 10 young adults had been victims of spiking. 

Donelan’s plans include asking every university to introduce a policy on spiking by the end of the year to ensure all victims are recognised and supported. The government is already working on reclassifying common drink spiking drugs, such as GHB and other related substances. Further action may be taken to address such crimes, such as considering the case for a criminal offence for spiking. 

drink spiking

A survey by The Tab found that 11% of students believed they had been spiked. Source: Kevin Dietsch/AFP

“Spiking is a heinous crime which puts lives at risk,” said Minister for Safeguarding Rachel Maclean. “We have already reclassified drugs which have been used for drink spiking and provided funding through the Safety of Women at Night and Safer Streets funds to support initiatives which prevent people from becoming victims of spiking. 

“I know more must be done, which is why I will continue working with experts across the sector to discuss how we can go even further to tackle this crime and bring offenders to justice.”

This follows a recent campaign to end universities’ use of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) to silence victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and bullying. Over 50 universities have signed a pledge unveiled by Donelan and campaign group Can’t Buy My Silence in January this year to end their use. 

The newly established working group is also part of a wider government mission to tackle violent and sexual crimes in the UK and strengthen victims’ rights. 

The drink spiking epidemic in the UK

In January, campaigners highlighted that drink spiking — or being injected with drugs — was reaching “epidemic” levels in the UK. A survey of 747 people conducted by Alcohol Education Trust (AET) found that 12.6% reported being spiked, 15% of these being females and seven percent males. 

“Shockingly, only eight percent of those who’d been spiked reported it to the police or to a medic,” chief executive Helena Conibear said. 

A separate survey of 23,000 students from 19 universities found that 11% had been spiked; 35% of these incidents occurred at private parties. 

“What is very frightening about that is that spiking is taking place, or being permitted by, a wider friendship group,” said Conibear, adding that “it can be any drink, in pretty much any location and it can happen to any person”.

“We need more research into what is driving what is truly an epidemic. If one in 10 people are experiencing spiking, we really have to do something about it.”

Aside from drink spiking, attacks with needles remain prevalent, too. Nottingham University student Zara Owen told the committee of her experience being injected with drugs at a nightclub last year. “I woke up with a really sharp, agonising pain in my leg, which left me limping,” the 20-year-old said. “The fact that someone has injected a narcotic into my body without me being aware is terrifying.”

“Everybody has the right to be safe and enjoy their night out with friends without the fear of spiking or violence.” Source: Lisa Lake/AFP

UK universities work to create safer environments for students

Universities are already putting in efforts to create safer nightclub environments for students. Donelan reports that these include the University of Exeter and Nottingham Trent University, both institutions introducing “innovative schemes” that are “already underway”. 

The University of Exeter is currently offering drink safety test strips, while Nottingham Trent is funding and delivering bystander intervention training to staff in night-time city venues. These strategies will be monitored for effectiveness and considered by the new working group, along with other solutions being tested on campuses around the country. 

“Everybody has the right to be safe and enjoy their night out with friends without the fear of spiking or violence,” said Professor Lisa Roberts, vice chancellor of the University of Exeter. “As chair of the new working group I will work with partners to look at the evidence, best practice and incidents across the UK so that we can make practical recommendations to improve the night-time economy for students.”

This move is being welcomed by long-time campaigners, including Stamp Out Spiking. Founder Dawn Dines said: 

“We know that this crime has been hugely underreported for years and I have personally spoken to hundreds of victims and their family members. With this learning we can help to safeguard future victims to ensure that we gain more convictions and educate the general public on what drink spiking actually is. With a multi-agency approach, we can really get to the heart of the problem and make such a huge difference to stamp out this crime.”