The Metropolitan Police’s use of “intrusive and traumatising” strip-searches of children are rising every year and most result in no further action, the Children’s Commissioner has found.
Dame Rachel de Souza said data show 650 children were strip-searched between 2018 and 2020, of which nearly a quarter (23 per cent) were done without an adult present despite such tactics being permitted by law only in cases of “utmost urgency”.
More than half (53 per cent) resulted in no further action, suggesting they were not justified or necessary in many cases, said Dame Rachel. The number had also tripled in three years, with 18 per cent carried out in 2018, 36 per cent in 2019 and 46 per cent in 2020.
The Children’s Commissioner said she was “deeply shocked and concerned” by the data, which showed 58 per cent of the children strip-searched were black, and more than 95 per cent were boys.
‘Systemic problems around child protection’
She said the figures suggested “systemic problems around child protection” in the Met following the scandal of child Q, who was strip-searched at her school without an adult present by four female Met Police officers while on her period after being wrongly suspected of carrying cannabis.
A review by the local Safeguarding Children Partnership (CHSCP) said the strip-search in which the 15-year old was made to take off her sanitary towel should never have happened, was unjustified and racism “was likely to have been an influencing factor”.
The four officers are being investigated for gross misconduct by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) in connection with the incident. Scotland Yard has apologised and said it “should never have happened”.
Since then, the IOPC has confirmed it is investigating four further strip-searches of children between early 2020 and 2022, and is considering whether to look into three more.
Dame Rachel said: “I am deeply concerned by the information that I have received. I am not reassured that what happened to Child Q was an isolated issue, though it was certainly rare and the context unique.
“Instead, I believe it indicates more systemic problems around child protection. I remain unconvinced that the Metropolitan Police is consistently considering children’s welfare and wellbeing.
“A police power that is as intrusive and traumatic for children as a strip-search must be treated with the utmost care and responsibility. It must also be accompanied by a robust and transparent system of scrutiny to protect and safeguard vulnerable children.
“Practice in this area is not currently consistent across England. I do not believe that any child should be strip-searched without an appropriate adult present, apart from in the most exceptional cases, and only where there is immediate risk of harm to the child or to someone else.”
Data to be submitted to review into Met standards
Dame Rachel said she has submitted the data to Baroness Louise Casey who is carrying out a review into standards at the Met. The Children’s Commissioner’s team will request comparable data from all police forces across England.
A Metropolitan Police spokesman said it was working “at pace” to ensure children subject to intrusive searches were dealt with “appropriately and respectfully”.
“We have already made changes and continue to work hard to balance the policing need for this type of search with the considerable impact it can have on young people.
“We have ensured our officers and staff have a refreshed understanding of the policy for conducting a ‘further search’, particularly around the requirement for an appropriate adult to be present. We have also given officers advice around dealing with schools, ensuring that children are treated as children and considering safeguarding for those under 18.”
It had reviewed the policy to ensure it was appropriate and took account of the fact that some children in gangs may be victims of exploitation.