We've been testing the Met's 'Ask For Angela' – and it doesn't often work

‘Can I speak to Angela?’

‘What?’

This was the confused response of a barman at a pub in Liverpool Street, then again later by a cocktail maker at a bar in Kings Cross. Both venues had Ask For Angela posters up advertising they support the safety scheme.

Running across many parts of the UK for the last five years, the Ask For Angela campaign aims to help anyone – although it’s primarily targeted at women – who feel unsafe in nighttime venues, including pubs, bars and clubs. 

The idea is that a person feeling vulnerable can approach bar or security staff using the special code word ‘Angela’, then be met with support and measures to ensure their safety. 

This summer, the Metropolitan Police decided to relaunch the scheme in the capital, announcing that they had 150-plus venues taking part. 

However, by the seventh drinking venue I visited across London in one evening to see how well the campaign was doing, Metro.co.uk’s suspicions were confirmed: Ask For Angela is not working as it should.

Designed to keep the city safe at night, the premise is clearly commendable – especially as a recent survey of 800 workers in the nighttime economy found that 56% had encountered situations involving vulnerable people (meaning anything from being intoxicated to alone to socially restricted) at work on a weekly basis.

And the scheme has helped people over the years. The trouble is, its flaws are undoubtable and are already known by those promoting the initiative.

Most alarmingly, training upon agreement to be a part of the scheme is not compulsory and although encouraged, venue owners can skip it.

This means that while some bars and clubs are adequately skilled in supporting those that cry ‘Angela’, far too many are meeting their vulnerable customers insufficiently.

What is Ask For Angela?

Ask For Angela is a partnership involving Safer Sounds (part of the Safer Business Network), the Greater London Authority, Met Police, City of London Police and licensed venues across the capital, that’s been rebooted and launched this August and October respectively.

Simply saying ‘Angela’ to a member of staff is meant to make it easier to ask for help without needing to say that word directly.

Outside of London, you’ll probably be familiar with the term as it’s been used as a code for ‘I need help’ in pubs, bars and clubs across England since 2016.

It started in Lincolnshire and after someone spread the word of this idea via Twitter, fueling immense praise and popularity, other venues then adopted the initiative.

Posters soon got plastered onto the backs of toilet doors (particularly in the women’s), reading: ‘Do you feel like you’re not in a safe situation?’

‘Wasn’t sure if the place I was at was aware of it since it’s not done everywhere,’ someone else admitted.

‘Felt like it wasn’t meant to be used by someone like me (trans masc nonbinary)’ another commented, highlighting an inclusivity issue with the scheme that one security worker called a ‘girls club’, owing to the fact that posters are often only positioned in women’s toilets when they are used.

Testing the code phrase out ourselves over a period of several weeks in a mix of London venues proved that many of their reservations were sadly founded.

One barman at a pub-come-eatery, seemingly never having heard of the scheme, left me alone (which is a no-no) and disappeared to ask his manager if they run Ask For Angela – he responded that they do, in fact.

When asked about the confusion, Matt*, the restaurant manager, told us: ‘Lots of new staff and training of new people can sometimes be overwhelming, but more training on the matter is to follow.’ It’s a promise that we can only hope his venue delivers on, as it’s an entirely optional style of protocol.

High staff turnover makes it hard to keep track of who has been trained and unappealing to both fund and take the time to continually be signing up to training sessions.

At another central location, three members of bar staff knew what the code meant, but weren’t able to confirm if their venue supported it. ‘I think we do, but I’m not sure,’ was the concluding response.

Despite one other place having visible signs up for the scheme, a member of their staff – who was also unable to help – even asked me to explain to them what ‘Ask for Angela’ means. 

Someone else at a pub in Covent Garden said they’d get help – but only once they spoken to their manager. The first port of call when using the code should be to get the vulnerable person into a safe space, rather than leaving them alone for a further few minutes.

Once disclosing that I didn’t need help and was a journalist, one line kept recurring: rarely, if ever, is the codeword actually being uttered by customers.

In a pub in Seven Dials, a bar woman admitted that in all the years she’d worked there, ‘no one has used it’.

That was unsurprising though, as the venue didn’t have posters up to show they know what ‘Angela’ means.

The last place visited, a pub in Finsbury Park, had the latest Ask For Angela posters up, which have only become available in recent months. I had hoped that this would mean awareness of the scheme was fresh in the minds of staff.

Sadly, ‘Who’s Angela?,’ was the response yet again.

After speaking to the barman’s manager, he said since signing up he ‘hadn’t heard much’ from organisers of the initiative.

Rushing back to make the last Tube, I felt deflated and bitterly disappointed. How many people had gone up to the bar like I had, this time genuinely in need of help, only to be let down and left to handle the situation alone?

Asking for help isn’t easy or always possible – that’s why the codeword was invented. To pluck up the courage to use it and still be stuck… That’s an issue the Met and Safer Sounds need to approach with greater rigour, I began to feel.

There are multiple reasons Ask For Angela shouldn’t exist – many campaigners feel the Met would be better placed channelling their efforts into cleaning up the force, while the idea of a scheme that relies on the victim being proactive in seeking assistance is also considered a huge problem.

However, until deep-rooted systemic issues are resolved, it’s paramount that Ask For Angela is able to help those that call on it.

With unwanted sexual touching up by 27% since venues reopened this year (according to the Met’s Chief Licensing Officer Ian Graham) and the horrific and needless deaths of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, rocking our sense of safety when out and about in the capital – it’s very clear that initiatives like Ask For Angela sadly matter all the more.

However, it desperately needs to work better.

For example, it’s not known exactly how many venues across London run the scheme today – when we asked the Met, they said they don’t record this information and that venues aren’t obligated to disclose when someone uses the code and it’s always been optional for venues to participate.

While there is data on who has signed up since the August relaunch, that neglects the venues involved since 2016.

In fact, when the scheme first began, anyone could download an Ask For Angela poster without their details being recorded – the result of which, as the campaign stands today, is that no one truly knows which venues are providing this service.

While the Safer Business Network, who partner with the Met and facilitate WAVE training, applied for funding from the Home Office to address some of the scheme’s flaws, their request was unsuccessful as of earlier this month. Now they plan to look ‘externally’ for the money.

What’s meant to happen when you ask for Angela?

The official advice from Safer Sounds and the Met is:

  • You should be taken to a safe place first and foremost
  • You should be asked what you need – be it to leave the venue safely or be reunited with a friend
  • If appropriate, security can ask the person causing the problem to leave
  • If appropriate, police can be called

Once ‘Angela’ is uttered, you shouldn’t then be left alone until you’ve been helped – this includes the member of staff leaving you to get their manager (that should only be done once you’re somewhere safe).

Farah Benis of FFA Security Group, delivers Ask For Angela training and says the situation should be handled ‘discreetly’.

‘It would be entirely dependent on the situation, but the individual asking for help should be met with empathy and offered options to extricate themselves from the situation with their safety at the forefront of any decision making,’ she explains.

The Met first announced its support of the new Ask for Angela roll out in August 2021, saying that 350 members of staff across 150 different locations had been trained. Two months later, in October, there was a second launch of the scheme by the City of London police to make the campaign more holistic in covering the capital.

At the event, guests were told that the Ask for Angela initiative was ‘the right thing to do’. They were also informed that the amount of trained venues and staff had risen to 400 and 750 respectively.

However, although the increase in numbers is impressive, there are further gaps in the initiative.

‘I have had multiple discussions where women have said that they would be worried that staff wouldn’t know what they meant or weren’t sure how their request would be taken,’ admits FFA Security’s Farah Benis, who carries out the training. ‘I think this is combated by ensuring venues have clear signposting showing that they are a part of the scheme.’

Posters aside, other issues still arise, such as inclusivity.

At the October Ask for Angela event, DCS Becky Riggs assured Metro.co.uk that ‘for [venues] who have been trained before, that is working’, however there are fears that the old training wasn’t inclusive of queer and non-binary groups, meaning that it needs to be updated.  

In response to these concerns, a Met spokesperson told us: ‘WAVE training is and always has been appropriate and inclusive for all groups including queer, trans and non-binary people. The assets have been redesigned so as to be relevant to anyone who may feel vulnerable, distressed, upset or in need of assistance.’

Meanwhile, speaking about the slight improvements that have come with the relaunch, Phillipe Chiarella, programme and training manager at Safer Business Network explains: ‘Before venues didn’t have to sign up, they could just download posters, but now we’re able to keep a record of venues that have been signing up.

‘So when someone gets the assets, they also get offered the training. They can take the assets if they want [and decline the training] but what we recommend is venues do take the training because that’s going to make the biggest impact.’

So why is it not compulsory? 

‘We want venues to recognise vulnerability is an issue they need to tackle… By making it compulsory we might disengage venues,’ he says, adding that he hopes building awareness will mean more people recognise they need the training. However, he admits success varies from venue to venue.

Phillipe also explains that he feels ‘something is better than nothing’ when it comes to venues advertising Ask For Angela without necessarily having training.

But when a vulnerable person goes to use it and is potentially left unsupported, it surely defeats the purpose?

While some places book in for WAVE training twice a year, others are doing it twice a month, according to Phillipe – but that’s only of the ones actually bothering to do it.

Farah believes this is largely where the problem lies in improving Ask For Angela. Recognising how important its smooth implementation is, she knows from experience some venues are resistant to it.

‘One event organiser I spoke to said: “Our crowd isn’t exactly woke and also if we start talking about being a sexual harassment-free space people are going to think that something happened to make us make a statement about it, which we don’t want.”

‘Others don’t want the cost or hassle of organising staff training.

‘In hospitality, where people are normally paid on hourly rates, even if training is free they still would have to pay their staff for the extra hour – and with high turnovers repeat training can get costly,’ she says.

Farah has been producing materials for places she’s already trained so that venue managers can do quick exercises and meetings to ‘keep people fresh and give new staff the gist of expectations’ – she is realistic in that many won’t book repeat training when it’s not mandatory.

Her programme is separate to WAVE (the official Ask For Angela training partner) as private companies are also allowed to provide sessions on this. Farah’s includes a lecture, multiple choice test, identification of the venue’s safe spaces, and role-playing scenarios ‘to get people comfortable with the actual application [of what they learnt]’.

Phillipe isn’t complacent though. He says that with more funding his hopes are to make training for venues free, create a centralised database for the public to peruse when selecting a location for a date or meet up, and start an online portal with maps, information, advice, and e-learning tools.

However, with his recent application to the Home Office for funds being turned down, for now, his hands are tied.

Meanwhile, people clearly want the scheme to work – a survey of 200 students carried out by Safer Sounds found that 98% would prefer to go to a venue running the initiative.

And when it is done properly, it really can make a difference, as Ask For Angela’s success stories prove it holds a vital place.

Joe Mcdonagh, group general manager at Vauxhall nightclub Fire & Lightbox, tells us that since July, the code has been used three times, all of which were used by women who had been sexually assaulted through touching.

His venue was involved in the old version of the scheme and this summer when it was rebooted, his staff were retrained.

Being on top of organising training via regular sessions and briefings for staff, Joe says when ‘Angela’ was used in July, his staff knew what to do. He told us: ‘The female was taken to a place of safety, then CCTV was reviewed’.

The male in question was ‘detained’ in a separate part of the venue and 999 was dialled – which resulted in the man’s arrest.

‘The police respond very quickly to these calls,’ he says, adding that several days later the venue received ‘an email from the police, congratulating us’ for how the case was handled.

‘I’ve been in the industry a long time and it’s definitely a technique that works.

‘[But] I know there are venues that aren’t doing it as well as we are and there are other that are afraid to do it, and then those that just won’t participate. I think it’s important every venue gets on board,’ Joe adds.

Matt, one of the the restaurant managers I spoke to, shared one instance in which a customer was helped after saying ‘Angela’, though she later chose to go back to the man that had upset her. Regardless, she was supported when it was needed and the venue fulfilled their part of the interaction.

Since August, the Met say they are aware of ‘at least five instances where the Ask for Angela phrase has been used and enabled a vulnerable individual to be helped.’

Fundamentally, the issues with the scheme lie in choice: the choice to be trained, the choice to advertise the scheme, the choice to sign up.

While the Met, City of London, Safer Sounds and London Mayor Sadiq Khan are all ‘encouraging’ venues to fully embracing the Ask For Angela offering, it isn’t enough of an incentive.

That’s why Metro.co.uk is now calling on those behind the scheme to do more and change the current model, by launching our Make Angela Safe campaign.

With the support of well known women’s rights campaigners and organisations, we want them to pledge to make training compulsory and regular, to provide an accessible list of venues that are part of the scheme and to ensure far clearer signposting.

And you can get behind our campaign too, by sharing our points for change along with your thoughts on the issue, using the hashtag: #MakeAngelaSafe.

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