May 20, 2020 - 10:20am

New legislation has just come into force authorising the use of sobriety tags. These are ankle-attached monitoring devices that can detect evidence of alcohol consumption in the sweat of any person wearing one.

They will be used in England and Wales to help enforce alcohol abstinence orders on convicted offenders.

Critics will say that this is a cheap sticking-plaster solution — one that fails to address the underlying causes of crime. But for a lot of crime, alcohol is the underlying cause. If removing it from the equation prevents re-offending then that’s half the battle won (or all of it, from the victim’s point of view).

And yet the long-term implications for civil liberties are mind-boggling. The technology, which has been successfully trialed, can only get more sophisticated over time — making it easier to use it beyond the criminal population.

There are many situations, in and out of the workplace , in which people are required to take drugs and/or alcohol tests. Sobriety tags could automate the process.

If it’s possible to detect alcohol in sweat then how long before the technology is incorporated into steering wheels and gear sticks? The smart cars of the future could refuse to start if the driver is drunk. No doubt, many lives would be saved.

A similar argument could be made for requiring all children to wear a sobriety tag. Parents and/or child protection services could be alerted the moment a proscribed substance is detected.

Health monitoring through wearable technology is already something that millions of us choose for ourselves. It’s easy to imagine smart watches acquiring the sweat-monitoring functions of a sobriety tag. Compelling the use of such gadgets could make it impossible for anyone to get away with substance misuse.

But could that happen in a democratic society? Our government can’t force monitoring devices on to the non-criminal population, can it? Er, yes, it can — and regularly does. People who haven’t committed any offence (yet) are required to take breathalyser tests. We are regularly surveilled by CCTV, speed cameras etc. And we’ll soon be ‘encouraged’ to subject our movements to Covid contact-tracing apps — as is happening in other countries.

So, despite the strong arguments for using sobriety tags in their current context, we should be aware of the future consequences of introducing the technology.

Indeed, I can’t help thinking that the politicians who vote for and implement this stuff ought to have some skin in the game. If public safety requires that criminals (and motorists) stay sober, then why not ministers as well? After all, they’re the ones steering the ship of state, so we don’t want them off their faces, do we?

That being the case, it’s only fair that all ministers should wear sobriety tags. The results could be fed into a constantly updated, online league table of intoxication.

Who’d come top, I wonder?

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.