The Children’s Commissioner has released new analysis on the systemic problems regarding strip-searching of children in England and Wales. The full report can be viewed here.
The police power to strip search is granted by PACE 1984 Codes of Practice, as a part of their stop and search powers. Strip searches generally involve the removal of clothing on suspicion of prohibited or dangerous items. Strip searches of children must generally be done in the presence of an “Appropriate Adult” unless the child has been documented expressly requesting otherwise (Code C, Annex A, para 11.(1)). Code C, Annex A Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act 1984 contains important protections which apply to all circumstances where children are stripped by police officers, including when clothing is removed for their own protection under section 54(4) Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984. The only time an appropriate adult is not required to be present is “in cases of urgency, where there is a risk of harm to the detainee or to others”, as in the appellant’s case. See our previous legal updates here and here for further details.
The issues within strip-searching children were brought to light in December 2022 after four Metropolitan police officers strip-searched a 15-year-old black schoolgirl (“Child Q”) without an appropriate adult present. Consequent safeguarding reviews on the incident condemned the behaviour, finding that racial bias contributed to the disproportionate search, which lacked a ‘safeguarding first approach’.
An initial report by the Children’s Commissioner in August 2022 reinforced the view that there are systemic failures in the Metropolitan Police in relation to strip-searching children. However, further analysis published this March has revealed the extent to which there are issues with transparency, scrutiny and non-compliance. In particular, the report found that an “Appropriate Adult” was not present in more than half the strip searches conducted in locations such as schools, police vehicles and general within public view. The report confirmed that black children are up to six times more likely to be strip searched when compared to national population figures. Further, the poor quality of record keeping upholds a lack of consequences, amplifying issues of transparency and scrutiny. Whilst the report noted the necessity of these searches in limited situations, the failings of the Metropolitan police to both correctly assess these situations, and then act appropriately within them, is evident.
Strip-searching children is an inherently sensitive procedure which is likely to be traumatic for child suspects. The numerous reports and reviews on child strip-searching make it clear that more value needs to be placed on the care of the child. The procedural failings of these strip searches reflect the larger systemic failings of the police, in particular the Met, including biases which exacerbate the abuse of powers.
As a result, it is clear that further safeguards are required in order to ensure these searches are only conducted when necessary, and within the acceptable codes of practice. The report amplifies that there is currently too much reliance on non-specialist frontline police acting honourably. There is no system of oversight to ensure that safeguards are being properly observed, and there is little thought given to how a potentially traumatic procedure can affect vulnerable children. This is where cultural change is necessary. The report amplifies the need for reform with respect to the children being protected and treated like children first and foremost. Ultimately, the duty of the police should be to safeguard children from harm. Where these searchers are deemed necessary, which should be in a minimal number of cases, the safety and experience of the child should always be prioritised.
Paralegal, Youth Justice Legal Centre