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Metropolitan Police: Strip-search of Schoolgirl

Volume 711: debated on Monday 21 March 2022

(Urgent Question) To ask the Secretary of State to make a statement on the recent report concerning the Metropolitan police’s handling of the strip-search of Child Q.

The City and Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership report into the strip-search of a 15-year-old schoolgirl while at school by police officers in 2020 is both troubling and deeply concerning. This experience will have been traumatic for the child involved; the impact on her welfare should not be underestimated.

The Government and the public rightly expect the highest standards from our police officers. The ability of the police to perform their core functions is dependent on their capacity to secure and maintain public confidence and support for their actions. While the Metropolitan police have apologised for their actions and recognised that this incident should never have happened, the force’s culture has again come under scrutiny.

Members of the public must be treated fairly and without prejudice, no matter their race, age or background. Strip-search is one of the most intrusive powers available to the police. The law is very clear that the use of police powers to search must be fair, respectful and without unlawful discrimination. Any use of strip-search should be carried out in accordance with the law and with full regard to the welfare and dignity of the individual being searched, particularly if that individual is a child. If police judge it operationally necessary to strip-search a child, they must do so in the presence of the child’s appropriate adult.

It is the role of the independent police watchdog, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, to investigate serious matters involving the police, and the IOPC says it has been investigating the actions of the Metropolitan police in this case. We must let the IOPC conclude its work. We will of course expect any findings to be acted on swiftly, but it is vital that we do not prejudge the IOPC’s investigations or prejudice due process, so it would be wrong of me to make any further comment on the case in question at this time.

They walked into her place of safety at the request of people who were meant to keep her safe, stripped her naked while she was on her period and forced her to remove her sanitary towel, spread her legs, part her buttock cheeks and cough, to look for drugs they never found. We should remember that this comes on top of a string of incidents, from the abuse and strip-search of Dr Duff, the rapist and murderer Wayne Couzens, the vile racism and misogyny uncovered in Charing Cross police station, the brutal handling of the vigil in Clapham Common, and the record low confidence in policing, particularly by minority communities, who are evidenced as being over-policed as citizens and under-policed as victims.

Does the Minister understand that there is no apology that could atone for the perverse racist degradation of this child? Does the Minister accept that this is not an isolated incident—that between 2016 and 2021 the Met carried out over 9,000 strip-searches on children, some younger than 12, and that over 33% of all strip-searches were carried out on black people, despite only 13% of Londoners being black? Given that this happened in a school, what discussions has his Department had with the Department for Education on this serious breach of safeguarding and the questionable presence of police officers in our schools? Will he finally accept that the Met police have an issue with institutional racism and misogyny and take steps to ensure that any new commissioner is committed to rooting it out?

The Minister may be aware that during the statement on the commission on race and ethnic disparities last week, the Minister for Equalities said:

“We have systems in place to ensure that when things go wrong we can right them. What we cannot do is stop any bad thing happening to anyone in the country at any time.”—[Official Report, 17 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 1075.]

I have to ask: what on earth are this Government here for? I simply do not accept that. Finally, in the words of Child Q herself:

“I need to know that the people who have done this to me can’t do it to anyone else ever again”.

Can the Minister assure Child Q and our constituents of that?

As I said earlier, we await the outcome of the investigation, and we will learn whatever lessons need to be learnt from it. While my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities said that we cannot prevent all bad things from happening, we can try. What is clear from this case is that the complaint mechanism and the safeguarding practices involved did surface the issue and bring it to light, and have allowed us to examine this appalling—[Interruption.] Hold on. They have allowed us to examine this appalling incident in more detail and to try to learn the lessons, so that as—I assume from what she said—Child Q hopes, we are able to prevent such incidents from occurring in the future.

I have huge admiration for my right hon. Friend, and I know that he takes these things very seriously, but can he understand the revulsion felt by women to hear that a girl has been strip-searched at her school—and had to remove her sanitary towel—by the very people whom we trust to look after us? What action will he take to make it clear that there needs to be cultural change in the Metropolitan police so that no serving constable could ever think that that was an appropriate course of action?

The revulsion is not confined to women. There are many men, including me, who obviously find it a distressing incident to contemplate. I very often find it helpful in these circumstances to put one of my own relatives in a similar situation to bring home the impact. I am not at all denying the fact that it was distressing and appalling and that it should not have happened, as the Metropolitan police have said themselves.

The hon. Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) referred to a number of incidents that have prompted concerns about the culture in the Met, and she, I hope, will be pleased to know that I had a meeting last week with Dame Louise Casey who has obviously been detailed by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to look at the culture across the whole of the Metropolitan police. Her work will dovetail neatly with the work of the Angiolini review, which is looking, in its first stage, at the circumstances surrounding the employment of Wayne Couzens. Following that, stage 2 will look more widely at culture and policing. There is no doubt that there is work to be done here, and we are determined to do that work.

The Local Child Safeguarding Practice Review published last week, compiled by the extremely highly regarded Jim Gamble, into the case of Child Q was deeply disturbing. The details of the strip-search of a black schoolgirl by the Metropolitan police at a Hackney secondary school in 2020 have horrified us all in a society where we police by consent.

The review concluded that the search was unjustified and that racism was likely to have been a factor. We have heard the details from my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy), and I think that everyone will agree that this strip-search should not have happened, that everyone will want to say sorry to Child Q, and that something went terribly wrong. What is so shocking is that the existing guidance and training was so insufficient—so broad, perhaps—and so vague that it did not prevent the strip-search of a child who supposedly smelled of cannabis from happening in this way. I have read the College of Policing guidance and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 on strip-searches, and they are not clear enough. Is the Minister already working on new guidance?

Given that the Met and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services say that the smell of cannabis is not good grounds for a normal stop and search of an adult, will the Minister confirm that the circumstances described in this review should never have happened and that the new guidance will be clear on this point?

Given the serious harm that has occurred in this case, does the Minister agree that we must understand the scale of this issue? Will he therefore commit to publishing the full data on the use of strip-searches of children in our police forces across England and Wales by the end of the week?

The little data that we do have makes very difficult reading. A freedom of information request on strip-searches in the Met over the past five years shows that 33% of all strip-searches were of black people, while black people make up only 11% of the population of Londoners. There are other issues that we will come to when the Independent Office for Police Conduct has passed its report to the Met, the Met has taken any action and the report is finally published. Those issues include: how this case was first referred to social services; why Child Q and her family had to wait so long for answers; and what the role of education policy, guidance and safeguarding is in this. We know that this could be months or years away, so the key point is that there are significant faults that this case has brought to light, in terms of data, guidance and training, which this Government can choose to tackle now if they have the political will to do so.

We obviously take this matter extremely seriously. The hon. Lady is right that the report made recommendations to the Government, not least on strengthening and revising code C of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. We will have to consider our response to that in the light of this report, taking into account the outcomes of the IOPC review. We need to understand whether we have a specific problem or a systemic one. The report indicates that we may have systemic problems, and if we do then obviously we will seek to address them. We also need to work out from the IOPC report whether the same is true; if so, of course we will act.

Does the Minister appreciate how angry people up and down the country are about this incident, particularly people in Hackney? We had a very big demonstration outside Hackney town hall—it was a completely peaceful one, but people were just consumed with unhappiness and anger and fear. It is not just parents of colour; all parents are thinking, “This could have been my daughter.” Is the Minister aware of how traumatised that young woman still is by the incident, and is he aware that it took the police two full years to apologise? What is he going to do? He is telling us about inquiries, but what is he going to do so that at the very least, the instructions and guidelines to the police are much clearer than they currently appear to be?

Of course I understand the anger and concern across the country, and I share it. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), it could have been any one of our relatives. As the right hon. Lady knows, I spent a long time in London government and I understand the impact that these events can have on trust between the police and London’s various communities. It is extremely important that people feel confident that, when such appalling incidents happen, action is taken to try to prevent them in the future. I am trying to stress to the House that, while we have the report of the safeguarding board, we want to ensure that we also have the IOPC report so that we can see the full picture in the round and act accordingly to reassure her constituents and many other Londoners.

It is worth saying, however, that it would be helpful to me if London Members such as the right hon. Lady recognised that the Mayor of London has a role to play in this, as the primary accountability body for the Metropolitan Police, and that the Government and the Mayor must work together to solve these problems with the police.

I am sorry, but I feel as if we have woken the Minister from an afternoon nap to come in and make this statement. There is a distinct lack of urgency in his approach. It is quite clear that there are areas where the Government can act now. Why is he not coming to this House to explain to us exactly what he is going to do, rather than taking this “wait and see” attitude?

As I have already said, there is a process under way through the IOPC. That process will, I hope, conclude shortly and the IOPC will bring us the evidence of the report. It is an independent organisation—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) is barracking me from a seated position, but I do not think she is participating in the urgent question. The point is that the IOPC is an independent organisation, and she will know that it would be completely incorrect for me to put any kind of pressure on its investigation. That process must complete. When it does, we will have the full picture and, if we are required to act, have no doubt that we will act swiftly.

Last week I raised the issue of Child Q with the Minister for Equalities, the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch). I told her of my disgust that a child experienced being stripped of her clothes and searched at school by police officers while she was menstruating. It is beyond belief that she was pulled out of an exam and then expected to be fit and well enough to return to that exam. I am outraged by that, as are other hon. Members of this House. I am pleased that the Minister has said he is disgusted and appalled, but does he agree that the officers and teachers involved should be sacked and charged for their misconduct and that, as a matter of safeguarding, they should never be allowed to work with children again?

Those are conclusions, I am afraid, for the IOPC. Much as I know the House would love me to do so, I cannot circumvent that quasi-judicial process. The IOPC is independent for a reason; the office of constable is dealt with in a different way from other matters of employment. Once it concludes, we will be able to draw conclusions ourselves.

Like many people across London and this country, I am utterly appalled and disgusted by this case, not least as the mother of a young daughter. I cannot begin to conceive of what that young woman went through and how furious her family must be. I am not sure I could be held responsible for my actions if I were her mother, to be honest. The Minister has talked about the IOPC review and there have been calls for guidance to be reviewed. In the meantime, has he spoken to every single police chief in the country and asked for a guarantee that no other child will be subjected to such mistreatment in future?

Obviously I have not spoken to every other police chief in the country, since the report came out just a few days ago. As I say, we will eagerly await the IOPC report to establish whether we have a specific problem or a systemic problem. The initial reports of the local child safeguarding practice review are telling us that we may have a systemic problem. If we do, then we will act on it accordingly. Please believe me when I say that the impact of this on any family would be profound. Some of us have children too. Those children may, in time, be subject to something like this, and I hope we are able to prevent that from happening.

I think we all recognise that the Minister is waiting for the IOPC report. However, he says that this could have happened to any child and that he thinks of his own relatives. The brutal, difficult truth that many of my constituents have raised with me over the weekend is that it is not likely to have happened to any of his relatives or our relatives—it is young black girls who have read this story and are horrified by it, and who need us to recognise explicitly the disproportionality in how the police work with them.

I hope the Minister can help to answer the question that my constituents have been asking, because they have looked at the data, especially on families of colour in my community, and they can see that strip-searching of children is not a one-off. So will he, ahead of the IOPC report, publish the data about the numbers of strip-searches that have taken place, by borough command unit and by ethnicity, and confirm that if it ever comes to this exceptional circumstance—I think we would all agree that it should be exceptional that a child should be strip-searched, not a matter of course—a parent or carer will always be present? He could do that today. He could start recovering the trust that has been so lost. He could start by being honest that communities of colour in London are looking at and questioning the police. The data is the first point in getting this right. Will he publish—yes or no?

If a strip-search is deemed necessary to be undertaken on a child, then an appropriate adult, whether a parent or otherwise, has to be present. [Interruption.] Indeed, they were not in this case, and the question we have to ask ourselves is why—what went wrong? Why did the officers do what they did? Why did they decide to have two present? What were they doing? We will know that from the IOPC report. Once we have that, as I say, we will have the full picture and we will be able to look at it accordingly.

In 2019, Cressida Dick said that police officers should be

“embedded in the DNA of schools”,

and we have seen how that massively failed Child Q in this disgusting case. How far has the search for Cressida Dick’s replacement gone? We have heard that she is clinging on, haggling over her settlement. The Minister blamed Sadiq Khan. Could there be additional safeguards for Parliament in this process? The Met’s workload is of national significance; it is not just a normal police force. Could we have an urgent review of the boundaries of cops in schools?

I did not blame the Mayor of London—I just pointed out that he has as much influence, if not more, over the Metropolitan police than we do. I was the deputy Mayor for policing. If this had happened under me, I would have taken responsibility for it and tried to sort it out myself. I am just saying that the Government and City Hall will have a duty to work together on this issue.

As for police officers’ involvement in schools, it is, I am afraid, a source of great sadness that it is necessary for police officers to be involved in and around schools, but we have found over the years that such is the problem with youth violence and youth crime, particularly in the capital, that creating a good relationship with young people through the police’s involvement in schools is critical to success, and where it works, it can be of enormous benefit to their safety.

I start by saying that it is incredibly disappointing that the Home Secretary could not be here to respond to this urgent question on an urgent matter.

The police tell us that if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear, but everybody should fear the degrading and traumatising treatment that Child Q suffered when she was strip-searched by the Metropolitan police. More than four children a day are subject to that treatment by the Met, and black people are strip-searched at six times the rate of white people. How does the Minister expect to build trust and confidence in a force that is rife with institutional racism and misogyny when it victimises black children on a daily basis? If his Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities does not admit the existence of institutional and structural racism, how on earth can we put any trust in the Government?

I refute the hon. Lady’s claim that the Metropolitan police victimises young black people on a daily basis. I have spent many hours with it over the years watching men and women of all types and races in uniform doing their best to save young people’s lives. Although I am often challenged about the disproportionality of things such as stop and search, in two and a bit years of doing this job, I have never been challenged in this Chamber on the disproportionality of victimhood and the sadly far too great number of young black people who die on the streets of London. As I said, we need to understand from each of these instances whether we have a systemic or a specific problem. I understand the House’s impatience, but we will know once the IOPC concludes.

We have all been horrified by this case. We need assurances that it cannot happen again and we need urgent action from the Minister to address the issue. He says that he is waiting for the IOPC. As he knows, the national safeguarding panel is a ministerially appointed body. Will he stop ducking his responsibilities and urgently publish the data on how many children have been strip-searched over the years, breaking it down by gender, race, age and location of the search, including whether it happened at school? The safeguarding review also demonstrated that there were elements of racism involved, so can he urgently look into that issue, because it needs to be taken seriously?

As I said, we do take the issue extremely seriously. The matter of strip-search in particular, and the disparity in strip-search, has been of concern for some time. That is why we have an initiative on in Norfolk and Suffolk police where we have a strip-search scrutiny panel to look at the disparity there. Similarly, in Thames Valley police, we have put agencies together to examine police custody and strip-search disparities there. There is work under way—the hon. Lady should be reassured by that—but we will know more once the reports have concluded.

It is more than two decades since the Macpherson inquiry found institutional racism in the Metropolitan police. We now look at the figures on stop and search and we hear the awful story of this young girl and the way she was treated. Does the Minister accept that something has to happen now to give any confidence to the black community in London that its sons and daughters will not be treated in that way on the streets, and that the police will not behave with a racist attitude towards them and will not point to a young black person and see a potential criminal rather than a young person walking around the streets of our city? The confidence is not there, and that is made worse by the report, by the delay in an apology for this poor young woman and by the abominable way that she was treated.

In my view, the vast majority of interactions between the Metropolitan police and members of the black community go well and are of benefit. There are, however, many—too many—that do not, and that is an area of work that requires constant attention. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the Metropolitan police is subject to the Casey review of its culture at the moment. It is working hard, again, as part of the police uplift to change the look and feel of the workforce, with ambitious targets to recruit people of different genders and different ethnicities into the force so that it better reflects the people of London and can better serve them as a result.

On a national level, the National Police Chiefs’ Council is similarly in the process of developing a race action plan to do the same and to deal with some of these issues. This area has been a challenge for policing in London—certainly throughout the right hon. Gentleman’s political career, as it has throughout mine—and it is one that requires constant attention from all of us, driven both by the thematic problems we see, but also by some of these specific incidents. Where we do have these specific incidents, it is incumbent on us to make sure we have the knowledge and the detail, so that we can make the right decisions to make a big difference for London’s communities.

Mr Speaker:

“I can’t go a single day without wanting to scream, shout…or just give up.”

That is child Q, and I say to child Q and every other little black girl, “You matter.” In eight years’ time, when my daughter is 15 years old, I hope this issue is not still happening, but I am worried that it will be. The local safeguarding practice review found that child Q’s mother was not contacted, and she only found out when her child took a taxi home. Once at home, child Q’s mother had to take her to the GP who made a referral for psychological help due to her child’s level of distress. The Minister has outlined that he is waiting for the IOPC report, but does he agree with me that there are clear safeguarding issues in the treatment of child Q and the lack of parental engagement, and that he can take steps today to help address this and give confidence to little girls not just across London, but up and down the country?

I completely agree with the hon. Lady that there are implications for safeguarding, and I know but will reassure myself that my ministerial colleagues at the Department for Education are taking it as seriously as we are. As I say, from a policing point of view we have to wait for the IOPC to come to a conclusion, but on the overall safeguarding, the panel obviously did its work, the review has produced a report and I will make sure that Ministers at the appropriate Department are taking action as well.

The bad apple defence or the isolated incident excuse will no longer wash. Our constituents are no longer able to trust the police, including constituents such as Teresa Akpeki, whose brother was the victim of a hit-and-run accident. The police, when they attended the body—this was an NHS worker collecting samples—did not reach into his pocket to find his ID card, but phoned the Home Office to find out whether he was an illegal immigrant, because he was black. The Minister now needs to launch an inquiry into the way in which the Metropolitan police is dealing with ethnic communities, and if he fails to do that, the confidence of our communities in the police up and down this country is going to be rock bottom.

As I outlined earlier, there are already two inquiries into the culture of the Metropolitan police in all its aspects—by Dame Louise Casey, who I know will do a thorough job, and following that, part 2 of the Angiolini review—but I would ask the hon. Gentleman to take care. There are 30,000-odd police officers in the Metropolitan police, the vast majority of whom are doing an extraordinary job and doing amazing things on a daily basis to keep us all safe from harm, and they deserve our thanks for doing that. They will be as outraged as we are at this event, and we need to learn the lessons on their behalf as well as on behalf of the Londoners we serve.

The disgraceful, abhorrent, sickening strip-search of child Q took place two years ago, yet the Minister stands at the Dispatch Box today and speaks about the processes around the investigation as if this is a system working as it should. It is not. The constant delay in the outcomes of such investigations is a part of the structural denial of justice to complainants against the Metropolitan police. Can the Minister tell the House when he first became aware of the case of child Q and what action he took immediately to safeguard children in London, and does he have no concern at all about the time it takes complaints such as this to conclude and be resolved?

Of course we are concerned about the time it takes for complaints to be dealt with, which is why we changed the IOPC regulations at the end of 2019 to compel speedy investigations. It is the case now that if any investigation is going to take longer than 12 months, the IOPC must write to the appropriate authority—me or, for example, the Mayor of London—to explain why. The director general of the IOPC has done an outstanding job in driving the workload down and bringing more investigations in under 12 months, but there is obviously still a lot more work to do.

This is a deeply disturbing case both in terms of what happened and the fact that racism was clearly a factor, but may I ask the Minister how it came to light? According to the independent safeguarding report, Hackney Council only became aware of the incident when the family approached a GP; given that this happened two years ago, why is it not automatically the case that when a child is strip-searched social services are notified and a safeguarding review is triggered?

That is one of the questions the investigations will answer. It is my understanding that this issue was referred to the IOPC by the Metropolitan police from a policing point of view, but I agree that it would be of interest to know why it took so long to appear through the local safeguarding structure and I undertake to find out for the hon. Gentleman.

This appalling act of institutionalised degradation was committed against a black child and the report highlights the racism inherent in the adultification of black children. Does the Minister understand that seeing black children as adults is, just like seeing black men as more likely to be criminal or seeing black women as more likely to be troublesome, part of institutionalised, systemic anti-black racism and his inability to say what he is going to do about it says that he is prepared to continue to tolerate it. Does he also understand that we can never have trust in our policing services with a Minister who is unable to say anything?

I think that is grossly unfair when the hon. Lady knows that I am bound by due process not to comment on an ongoing investigation by the IOPC. When that investigation is concluded we will have plenty to say, fear not. I have spent lots of time dealing with crime and social policy issues in the capital so I am sensitised to the issues the hon. Lady raises; I do recognise them and have done, I like to think, quite a lot of work on them in the past.

The shocking, scandalous strip-search of child Q is so demeaning; how could those Met police officers and the school have thought that such a horrible action could be even remotely acceptable? This could have happened to any one of our children—or could it? I ask that because the statistics tell a very different story, and indeed the safeguarding review revealed that racism could well have been an influencing factor in the decisions taken. Given that, what is the Minister doing to urgently take action on this?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answers I gave earlier, and we will know these things when the IOPC concludes, which I hope it will shortly.

In the past three years Metropolitan police officers have been jailed for posing for selfies next to the bodies of black murdered sisters, a serving officer has been found guilty of Sarah Everard’s horrific murder, racist, sexist and homophobic messages between officers have been dismissed as “banter” internally only to have been described as “shocking” by the independent watchdog, and now we learn that Met officers strip-searched a 15-year-old black child at her school, inflicting trauma that will last for years to come. This is obviously not about blaming every single officer, but will the Minister accept that this is not just a few bad apples but reveals a deeper problem of institutional racism and misogyny at the Me? Will the Minister finally answer, rather than just leave, a question that has been asked three times: when did he find out about the case of child Q?

We obviously accept that there is an issue to be addressed, which is why we commissioned the Angiolini review and why we are supporting Dame Louise Casey.

The Minister started by saying this incident was very troubling and concerning, but I would have to say it goes well beyond troubling and concerning: it was dehumanising a young black girl, who was strip-searched by Met police officers. What is the Minister going to do about the state sanctioning abuse of black children, who are treated like adults in our schools?

I understand the hon. Lady’s anger at this incident; I really do. It is a dreadful incident, and I would much rather not be standing here having to answer these kinds of questions, because I would rather these incidents did not occur in the first place. I will say to her what I have said to everybody else: we will know more when the IOPC concludes. While I understand the House’s impatience and anger, the police officers concerned have a right to due process and we have a duty to wait for the report so that we can see properly the evidence of what happened and then take action accordingly.

I thank the hon. Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) for bringing the urgent question forward. This serious incident has undoubtedly sent shockwaves to every parent and grandparent in this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Does the Minister not agree that there must be safeguarding in place to protect the child as well as the police officers? If we do not robustly enforce protections to the very highest standards, the hardest questions must be answered by those in the highest positions within the police as, ultimately, the buck stops with them.

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is quite right that we should expect and work for the highest possible standards. This young person, Child Q, has been through a dreadful, traumatic episode, which I am sure will live with her, sadly, for many years. We need to do our best to make sure that these kinds of incidents do not reoccur, and that is the best we can do. The hon. Gentleman has my undertaking that as soon as we have the full picture, that is exactly what we will do.