‘We can’t tackle drink-spiking alone’: Met teams up with London venues amid increasing reports

<span>The surveillance room at the Tiger Tiger London nightclub allows staff to monitor any suspicious activity. </span><span>Photograph: Sonja Horsman/The Observer</span>
The surveillance room at the Tiger Tiger London nightclub allows staff to monitor any suspicious activity. Photograph: Sonja Horsman/The Observer

The bank of video screens looks like something straight out of a spy movie. Inside a secure room, dozens of images show footage of staircases, doors, the bar, booths and the dancefloor. This is Tiger Tiger London, a popular nightclub in the capital’s West End, and the CCTV operators are scanning for suspicious behaviour.

A floorplan on the wall has pins marking hotspots where clubbers have previously been sexually harassed, had something stolen, been injured or – the reason the Metropolitan Police has persuaded the club to open its doors to journalists – had their drink spiked.

“If something happens, a female welfare officer will go to that location straight off,” said Mark McEvoy of Novus Leisure, which owns the Tiger Tiger chain. “They’ll then take the victim away to the welfare room. The suspect, if we’ve identified them immediately, will be taken to another room. Police will be called. We’ll start then burning [copying] the CCTV [footage so] that by the time the officer turns up, we have everything ready to give them. Then it’s their job after that.”

There has been a rise in reports of spiking over the last two years, and both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have pledged to create a new offence in law to help improve ­prosecution rates.

The Met has been working with 850 venues in London to try to stop spiking and improve support for victims when it happens. Tiger Tiger, officers say, is a nightspot that is doing good work to combat the problem.

In 2023, the force received 1,383 allegations of spiking, rising by the end of the year by an average of 13%. Nearly all the victims reported having their drinks spiked, although there were some reports of vapes and food being laced – and 131 of the reports were of being jabbed with a needle.

Met officers made 70 arrests for spiking offences last year, and where being spiked was the only crime reported to police, 6% of allegations resulted in an arrest.

Exactly how many people are spiked each year in the UK is unclear. National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) figures show 6,732 spiking incidents reported to the police in 2022-23, but surveys indicate a much bigger problem.

Karen Tyrell of the alcohol charity Drinkaware said 2% of 10,000 respondents in a recent UK-wide survey said they had an experience of drink spiking over the last year.

If the survey reflected the experiences of every adult in the UK, that would mean 900,000 people had been spiked, she said. The survey responses suggested it was more prevalent in LGBTQ+ populations.

“There was one recently in the West End,” said PC Stephen Muldoon, a Met licensing officer, outside Tiger Tiger. “[Bar staff] have seen it happen. The drink was seized, kept to one side. The person was detained and arrested, and they’ve been prosecuted.” That case is still going through the courts.

In February, Steven Evans had his 24-year prison sentence increased by a further six years in Manchester after he was convicted of 37 offences including rape, sexual assault and administering a noxious substance. He had spiked his victims, then raped and videoed them while they were unconscious.

A victim who is admitted to hospital may not be able to get a test in time, and A&E units do not have a duty to forensically test for spiking

But these are rare examples. The Crown Prosecution Service released figures last year showing that only 44 people had been charged with spiking offences under the Sexual Offences Act, resulting in 17 convictions.

There are several reasons so few allegations result in arrests. Drugs used in spikings such as liquid ecstasy, GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate) or Rohypnol cannot be detected in blood or urine samples after roughly 12 hours.

A victim who is admitted to hospital may not be able to get a test in time, and A&E units do not have a duty to forensically test for spiking. If tests are taken, only police can collect samples. And some spikings are done by simply adding shots of alcohol to someone’s drink.

Victims and their friends are ­usually in no position to retain the bottle or glass that might have been used to spike them, which may help police investigate, or even to know where and when the spiking could have happened.

Another problem is venue staff potentially mistaking a spiking victim for someone who has simply had too much to drink, according to Della Claydon, co-founder of the Egalitarian, a social enterprise organisation that runs an online database, Spike Report, for people to say anonymously what happened to them.

“Victims aren’t feeling supported by staff,” she said. “You might have tried to report it to a member of staff and they’ve just said: ‘Oh, you’re drunk – you shouldn’t have been served.’” One Spike Report post alleges the staff “left me on the pavement”.

Training for venues is important in trying to prevent or deter attacks as well as dealing with them when they have already happened.

At Tiger Tiger, staff are all given behavioural detection officer training, according to Christian Glover, the head of operations at Novus Leisure, which owns the nightclub.

“It’s the same training the police receive, the same training customs and immigration receive in airports,” he said. “It’s how to identify people who are off the baseline. If you take an average person as the base, anyone who shows behaviours you don’t see in a nightclub are a cue. So we might have a conversation with them.”

Nightclubs are only part of the picture. Colin Mackie of Spike Aware – a charity and support network for victims of spiking – whose son died after his soft drink was spiked with the equivalent of five ecstasy pills in his student hall of residence, says spiking can affect anyone and in different locations.

“There was a perception that this only happens to teenage girls in nightclubs,” he said. “But it happens to all ages. We’ve seen an 11-year-old boy who had his Lucozade spiked.” Another victim was an 82-year-old man on holiday in Spain whose drink was spiked, and who woke up to find his bank card gone and £2,500 missing from his account.

Mackie believes a growing number of spikings are random because of the easy and cheap availability of synthetic drugs.

“The ones who are doing it to rape or rob are thinking about what they’re putting in people’s drink,” Mackie said. “But there’s people doing it just as mischief. They just have a tablet in their pocket and think: ‘I’m just going to see what happens.’ They don’t think that people could be allergic to something.”

Dawn Dines of the charity Stamp Out Spiking, who has been campaigning on the issue for more than 20 years, said a national survey had found at least 97% of victims did not report the matter to the police when they believed they had been spiked. She said “time and time again” people would try to report it but that the police were “quite restricted”.

“They can’t go to every spiking incident. Then they [the victims] go to the hospital, and the hospital can’t take the evidence because the police need to be there. This is why we’re not getting the convictions.”

Charities want standalone legislation making spiking a specific criminal offence so there is clearer reporting of offences. Earlier this year, Alex Davies-Jones, shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding, said a standalone offence would “send a message to victims and to perpetrators that this is something the government takes seriously”.

At the moment, police forces need to choose between nine different pieces of legislation to bring a prosecution.

Related: Tweaks to law on spiking ‘won’t help’ unless police attitude changes, say experts

Campaigners also want staff in A&E units to be able to take blood or urine tests that can be used in evidence, so the evidence can be gathered more quickly.

Back in London’s West End, as the night goes on, the Met’s Operation Vigilant deploys plainclothes and uniformed officers to patrol the streets. After leaving Tiger Tiger, officers arrive at a Soho bar four minutes after receiving reports that a man has been orally raped and arrest a 38-year-old male from south London.

On Saturday, the Met urged people who visit clubs and bars in London to look out for the signs of spiking and report cases to police.

Det Ch Supt Angela Craggs said the Met’s teams were “getting better” at identifying predatory behaviour. “We’re getting very good at spotting people lurking or people who may engage in predatory offences.”

She urged victims of spiking to come forward and said they would receive support from specially trained officers.

Craggs said the Met was working closely with charities and venues to improve victim support and prevention. “We cannot tackle spiking alone,” she said.