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Rights of Children (Police Custody)

Volume 717: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2022

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the rights of children while in police custody.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. In March, I led an Adjournment debate following the incredibly concerning case of a constituent who was held in a cell for nine hours before an appropriate adult was called. Unbeknown to his family, he had been missing; he had not arrived at school, and they were unaware of his whereabouts. From that case and many others of a similar nature, it is clear that the law is simply not working for children in police custody. There is room for further debates on the general policing of minors and children, but today’s debate is focused on the rights of children while in police custody.

I am sure the Minister knows that various legislative protections are in place to ensure that children are detained as a last resort, and for the shortest possible time. The failing is that this is clearly not happening, because the policies are being ignored. Some 50,000 children are held and locked up in police custody every year. Children are detained in cells in police stations that have primarily been built for adults. On average, children are detained for over 13 hours, with 21,369 detained overnight in 2019. The decision to detain children is approved 99% of the time, and it is time the whole process was reviewed.

According to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the role of the appropriate adult is to safeguard the interests, rights, entitlements and welfare of children and vulnerable people who are suspected of a criminal offence by ensuring that they are treated in a fair and just manner and can participate effectively. The Act derived from public concern over the Maxwell Confait murder case in my constituency in 1972, which led Parliament to pass the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, known as PACE. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Confait case, which involved a tragic murder and the wrongful arrest, charging and sentencing of minors, which was later overturned.

PACE tackled a number of areas of growing public concern, including the treatment of suspects in police stations and cells, the length of detention without being charged, the conduct of interviewers and access to lawyers. In cases where the suspect is a child or vulnerable person, PACE requires the presence of an appropriate adults, also known as AA.

I thank my hon. Friend not only for securing the debate, but for the really important speech she is giving. On the role of the appropriate adult and how it has evolved over the 50-year period, does she agree that there need to be more checks and balances on how appropriate adult schemes are used in our police stations, and that there needs to be greater monitoring and robust scrutiny of those roles to ensure that any child in custody has an appropriate adult within a reasonable timeframe? We do not mean within three hours but within a couple of hours at most.

My hon. Friend has captured the essence of my speech. She is entirely right that assurances need to be put in place to make sure that children have an appropriate adult to help, guide and support them throughout the whole process. I will cover this issue in some detail later in my speech.

The principal intention of the appropriate adult safeguard was to reduce the risk of a miscarriage of justice as a result of evidence being obtained from vulnerable suspects, which by virtue of their vulnerability led to unsafe and unjust convictions. Some 50 years later, children in custody are being failed because of the length of time they are spending in detention without being charged and because appropriate adults are not being contacted quickly enough. Child suspects are almost invisible to policymakers and politicians.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate on a subject that really needs to be discussed. On children in police custody, does she share my concerns about how the use of force is applied? Footage has circulated recently of force being used on a 16-year-old child in my constituency, and there is recent footage of force being used on a 14-year-old boy, in what turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. Both incidents are being investigated by the Metropolitan Police Service Directorate of Professional Standards, but does my hon. Friend agree that there needs to be an urgent review into how force is used, particularly when it is applied to children? If it is used in a case of mistaken identity, there are long-term mental effects, particularly when it happens to children. If it is not appropriate, something needs to be done to review it.

I thank my hon. Friend for that really important intervention. It is very distressing to hear about the abuse of power by professionals in a trusted position. It is even more distressing to hear that certain incidents happen to young people and children. They could be our relatives—our children, our nephews, our nieces. It is upsetting, and we need to get to the bottom of it. My hon. Friend mentioned the investigations that are rightly taking place, but the Government need to do more to hold public servants to account and ensure they are operating in the manner in which they should.

In the recent Adjournment debate I led on harm to adults, the Minister said:

“It is right and proper that children are acknowledged as a protected group with specific needs.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 737.]

In response to a question I asked last week, the Minister for Crime and Policing confirmed the Government’s commitment to driving down the number of minors held in custody and the duration for which they are held. Although the Government recognise the significance of the role of the appropriate adult, they need to do far more, and I hope I will get a more satisfying response this afternoon.

There is consensus that work needs to be done with minors in custody, but tragically I fear there is a danger that the Home Office will continue to miss my point. The law is not functioning as it should. We are not living up to the UN convention that we ratified. The legislative status quo fails to adequately safeguard children, and something needs to change. Children are left waiting an average of six hours before the arrival of an appropriate adult, and are sometimes held overnight. I remind Members of my constituent, who spent nine hours waiting for an appropriate adult.

It is indeed outrageous. Despite the rules requiring the police to secure the attendance of an appropriate adult as soon as possible, I am told that in some cases appropriate adults are asked to attend only when the police are ready to interview. That severely hinders the appropriate adult’s ability to enact their role of providing oversight and welfare throughout the whole process of detainment. A Children’s Commissioner report found that, in cases where the parent is unable to fulfil the appropriate adult role, there was an average of a seven to eight-hour delay before the police requested an appropriate adult from a local scheme. Again, children are being failed. If a child aged between 10 and 17 years old is left alone in a police cell for extended periods of time, one can only imagine what they are thinking and how they are feeling. If it were our own child or a child from our constituency, we would be deeply concerned. The Government should be deeply concerned about all children across our nation.

I have spoken to a constituent who told me that, as a child, they accepted a guilty plea even though they were innocent. They did that because they wanted to avoid having to stay any longer in a police cell. They will not be the first person to do that, and the Government need to re-address that injustice—that wrong—quickly.

A recent trial in the Metropolitan police has demonstrated that such delays are not inevitable. A trial took place, using the acronym CHILD, to focus on the importance of contacting the appropriate adult at the point of booking in, whether that was the parent or an individual in a local scheme. In that trial, average detention times for children reduced by 10 hours—sorry, not 10, although I would like it to be; they reduced by seven hours, which demonstrates that safeguarding the interests, rights and welfare of the child is achievable. I hope that the Minister will join me in praising the Met’s initiative and work, and that the Government will roll out that successful pilot to all Met stations and all regions of our nation. Is there a plan to do that?

Many elements are built into the youth justice system that differentiate it from the broader criminal justice system. In the youth court, the judge and the probation officers are youth specialists—in my previous life, I was trained as a youth probation officer, so I have some knowledge of that. All the language is adjusted to remain appropriate to the age of the child. Broadly speaking, the youth criminal justice system seeks to avoid punitive measures and tries to put the child first. As we have heard, that is not the case in police custody.

According to academics Dr Vicky Kemp and Dr Miranda Bevan, specialists in this area, child suspects who are not convicted and who are uncharged experience disproportionately harsh treatment. The rules say that children are to be detained for the “shortest appropriate period”, but children are often detained as long as adults. Children are not adults, so why are they treated like adults? Data shows that the average stay is increasing.

In 2019, following a freedom of information request, it was uncovered that a 10-year-old child spent a staggering 23 hours in a police cell. That beggars belief—it is actually hard to take in, but it is true. In one particular police force, the average detention period was 18 hours—not for one child, but on the 1,293 occasions on which a child was detained overnight in police custody.

Long detention times deeply traumatise children and scar them for life. They are deprived of liberty, trapped in incredibly intimidating conditions and often deliberately kept in the dark. After an overnight stay, one 12-year-old said:

“I didn’t know they could do that to was awful and I wasn’t sure I was going to be okay”.

My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful point. Does she agree that those moments in which that poor child, or any child, is detained in custody will have a long-term and sustained impact on their mental health and wellbeing, their confidence levels and their ability—because they are children—to understand what has actually happened to them? It is a form of abuse.

I agree with my hon. Friend that, in such instances, it is abuse. It is harmful for children to be in such situations. The very service that is there to protect them is also doing them incredible harm. The Government have to take that on board and to accept their responsibility and the role they need to play. The welfare of the child is “paramount”—it says that in the Children Act 1989. If the welfare of the child is paramount, their welfare needs to be paramount on all occasions and in all situations. The very services that are there to protect and support them need not only to carry out justice—absolutely—but to consider the welfare of the child.

I am sure we want more for our children—I am hearing that already—but we must not keep them in a state of despair. That is simply wrong. As I said, the Government can change that. Even with children who end up being convicted, we cannot bury our heads in the sand and carry on with a system that is devoid of compassion.

Cutting the detention clock for a child in custody would mean that the appropriate adult is likely to be called out quicker and is more able to stay for the duration of the detention. It would also lead to a decrease in the frequency of overnight stays. That would be better for the public purse economically, but also for the physical and mental wellbeing of the child.

For the police, it would improve relations with key communities in the area, reduce reoffending rates and ensure that all their collected evidence was reliable. It would prevent the collection of evidence from being hampered by the lack of sleep or the worry and stress stemming from 13 or so hours in solitary confinement. To be clear, calling for a reduction in the child detention clock would not hinder the police’s ability to fight crime. The police currently have the power to request an extension from the superintendent if the case is complex. That power would be retained even if a lower detention cap was implemented.

During the previous Adjournment debate, the Minister failed to respond to my call to cut the stay limit from 24 hours. Will she hear me now and respond to that call? There is evidence calling for a stay limited to 12 hours instead of 24.

I will mention two other things before I finish. First, there must be far higher reporting and monitoring of the use of strip searches in police custody. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for her recent parliamentary question. The current rate of strip searches is woeful. They are degrading and humiliating and, as we have seen, they completely traumatise children. Will the Minister commit to increasing transparency and accountability on this issue and exploring technological alternatives that are less intrusive, less emotionally harmful and less damaging to the child?

Secondly, a decade of legal aid cuts has meant that firms cannot afford to send down more than minimally trained representatives to police stations, and then only for the shortest possible period. Lawyers therefore often arrive just before the interview, when the child is too exhausted to engage—if the child gets a lawyer at all. Currently, children have to opt in for legal advice, and too many children forgo their right to legal representation; they are burnt out, emotionally exhausted and probably do not fully understand, and they falsely believe it will make the process go faster. The fallout from this kind of misunderstanding can be avoided if we instead implement an opt-out system.

There is also a danger that post-pandemic remote legal advice will begin to spread. Research from Transform Justice shows that remote legal advice increases the stress and anxiety of children and impedes the communication between lawyer and child. To ensure high-quality advice that serves the needs of the child, it is vital that the Minister continues to champion in-person legal advice, moves towards an opt-out system and bolsters legal aid.

As I draw to a close, I ask the Government to maintain public safety and to protect children throughout the youth criminal justice system. I call on the Minister to review the detention clock for children, to roll out the Met’s new approach to appropriate adults across the Met and the police nationwide, which will allow us to begin finally to have a child-first approach to police custody suites, and to implement opt-out legal representation system for children. I ask again whether the Minister will commit to increasing transparency and accountability for strip searches and exploring technological alternatives that are less intrusive and harmful to minors. As a country, we should see the welfare of the child as paramount in all instances and across all services at all times.

The debate can last until 4 o’clock. I am obliged to call the Front Benchers no later than 3.37 pm. The guideline limits are 10 minutes each for Her Majesty’s Opposition and the Minister. Janet Daby will have three minutes at the end to sum up the debate. I believe that three Back Benchers are seeking to catch my eye, so there should be plenty of time for everyone to get in.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) on raising the issue. I can well recall when she secured the debate in the main Chamber, which I attended to support her and ask questions. I had a discussion with her before and after the debate. The issue is very real for her, and although it may not be for us in Northern Ireland, I understand the issues and her concerns. I wanted to come along, as I do to many debates, to support those who bring forward matters that are important for their constituents and for us across the whole United Kingdom.

It is a pleasure to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), in her place, and the Minister. I am convinced that the Minister will be keen to respond to the questions that the hon. Member for Lewisham East has asked and that others will ask. We in this House have a responsibility to ensure that while children are in custody, they are safeguarded and their welfare is promoted. I can well recall the case—I could not believe that it took place—in which a young person was arrested and detained with absolutely no action taken to protect, safeguard or look after them. That is the issue for me, as it is for the hon. Lady, and it is why I am here.

This is a huge issue. There are fluctuations in the number of children being arrested, as well as an increase in the number of children reoffending and being re-arrested. I understand that there has to be law and order—there has to be a system—but protection for young people needs to be paramount in the legal system. That is why many of us were flabbergasted when we read that that incident had taken place. While there is absolutely no excuse for crime, we must ensure that the process is done in the right way, to safeguard and yet discourage.

The hon. Lady has provided some useful and insightful material in relation to child arrests, for which I thank her, and she has made some incredibly important points. It was of particular interest and concern to me that from the age of 10 children who are arrested are expected to choose whether or not to have legal advice. I would have thought it would be normal to give them legal advice there and then. I cannot understand why they would be asked, “Do you want legal advice or don’t you?” They do, and the law of the land should protect them—it should reach out to them and ensure that they know their rights.

I am not aware of any 10-year-old who understands the meaning of the term legal advice. I am a grandfather, and my oldest grandchildren are aged 12 and eight. Neither of them would be aware of their rights, and I presume that they are an example of the rest of society when it comes to knowing what is right and what is wrong, so an appropriate adult must be present at that stage. Children should have appropriate advice at all stages, and they must have an appropriate adult present to give them the advice they need. If the family are not available—sometimes that happens, for whatever reason; someone may be working, or they may not be accessible or available—it is important that the state steps in to provide that assistance.

In addition, children are often detained in adult cells, with no immediate support to help them understand what they have done. The hon. Member for Lewisham East referred to that fact while setting the scene, which she did extremely well. To help those children to realise that wrongdoing has taken place, talking is one of the first things that should happen, and young people must know their rights. Sometimes, they may be shy; they may be introverted and not know how to react; or they may be extremely scared. I suspect that for many, it is the latter, so those are things that we need to sort out.

As the Minister knows, I always give a Northern Ireland perspective in these debates. It is just to add a flavour to the debate, not necessarily to ask her to take any responsibility, because she has no responsibility for Northern Ireland. A report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office has revealed that it costs £324,000 per year to keep a young person in custody in Northern Ireland. We have one youth detention centre, Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre in Bangor, County Down, just north of my constituency. Each year, an average of 100 youths between the ages of 10 and 17 serve convictions there, and the figure for those placed in custody is much higher. Although we must ensure that children in police custody are dealt with through the correct process, they are initially arrested for a reason. That reason has to be proven, of course, and how it is done has to be monitored, but it is an extremely big deal when a youth crime is committed, and lessons have to be learned.

I spoke in a previous Westminster Hall debate on sentencing for repeat offenders, where Department of Justice figures revealed that the reoffending rate across the United Kingdom is 38.5%. It is quite a large figure—reoffending seems to happen to more than one third of those who are detained originally. Maybe the Minister could give us some help and indicate what has been done to reduce those reoffending rates, because the figures are quite alarming and concern us all. There must be a firm reminder that youth custody is not a respite but an essential part of the judicial process for lessons to be learned. Although I agree that children should have additional safeguarding, it is not a soft measure that should be taken for granted.

Young girls should have access to female support—it should be available each time—and not have to wait eight or even 10 hours, as I think the hon. Member for Lewisham East said, for someone to come. Oh my goodness, it is incredible that the wait time should be so long. Let us honestly address the fact that for ladies and girls, this is also about hygiene and personal issues, and they are incredibly important to a vulnerable young person who needs help. All young people should have access to a parent or guardian, and not be subject to intimidation or violent treatment.

However, it is so important that those young people still understand that their choices have led them to a place that they simply never want to be. That goes back to reoffending and the question that I have asked the Minister. What has been done to ensure that young people are treated in the right way, with compassion, understanding and persuasion, so that they are not unduly afraid of the system but they understand it better and, hopefully, never have to reoffend again?

While I respect the fact that Northern Ireland falls under our own Department of Justice, the concept of how we deal with youth offenders should be the same. I want safeguarding for children, as the hon. Member for Lewisham East does, but I also want the correct education, so that crimes are not committed to begin with. We must look deeper at the issues and why these things happen. We also cannot ignore society and where they live. Is it a poor community? Is there poverty in the family? Is there parental control? Are gangs taking advantage of young people? Those are all things in the bigger picture that must be addressed.

I look to the Justice Minister back home, in many cases, but I also ask the Minister here what commitments have been made to ensure that young people have rights and are safe in custody, whether here or back home. Has the Minister had any discussions with the Justice Minister at the Northern Ireland Assembly? It is always good to exchange ideas and see what is working. We should be looking at what is working around the United Kingdom, and at what is perhaps working better in Northern Ireland or, indeed, in Scotland or Wales.

I agree that children should be detained only for serious offences. I get quite concerned that people may see the police as the enemy because of the nature of where they live or the arrest system. However, as I have highlighted, that does not mean by any means that petty crime should be ignored. A lack of deterrent and/or punishment will lead to serious reoffending. This always seems to come back to the reoffending issue, as I have done on three occasions.

To conclude, Mr Hollobone, I commend the hon. Member for Lewisham East for bringing this issue forward, and I commend others who will speak. I agree with many of the points that have been made, but there must be a reminder that it is never okay to commit crime, and we must not allow custody for children to be a respite. They must be represented well, they must never be let down, they must always know their rights and they must be held to account under the correct procedures of the law with a compassionately firm hand, persuasion and understanding. We must show young people that there are alternatives to the route they are on that will take them away from a wrongful path.

To me, it is all about putting people on the right path, with the right focus and the right direction—I think that today’s debate does that in many ways—and protecting young people. That is ultimately what the hon. Member for Lewisham East said in her debate in the Chamber. I fully support her on that, and on the goals and achievements she is aiming for. I very much look forward to the Minister’s responses. I am quite hopeful we will get the responses that we look for, and I hope that the hon. Member for Lewisham East will be satisfied with them.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) on securing this important and timely debate. I thank the many organisations that have worked really hard to raise awareness of the issue, including the Howard League for Penal Reform, Just for Kids Law and many experts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East highlighted that she had an Adjournment debate on the subject recently, and I went back to it for reference. I thank her for sharing her constituents’ experiences, and I thank her constituents for their bravery in sharing those horrific experiences. I recently had a similar case in my own constituency, where a young child in their school uniform was kept in police custody for just under 24 hours—it was 23 hours and some odd minutes. That child was found to have suffered some serious failings in relation to their safeguarding while in custody. Worse still, the child was not charged with anything; they went through that horrific experience and there was no charge.

I recognise that custody is a core element of our policing. It is crucial to ensuring justice and to keeping the public safe. However, it must be balanced with the safeguarding of children, as the safety and welfare of children is paramount. Public bodies have a responsibility to protect minors. The Children Act 2004 places a statutory duty on the police in relation to children. Article 37 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child makes it clear that children should be detained only as a last resort, and for the shortest appropriate period possible, as we have heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East and for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare).

It was therefore deeply worrying to read the Just for Kids Law report, which found through a freedom of information request that 21,369 children were detained overnight in police custody, either pre or post charge, in 2019. That statistic should worry us all. Those children have potentially been scarred for life. That statistic is still a significant underestimate, because it only includes the responses of 34 police forces, which tells us the number could be higher. Black children are disproportionately detained in police custody overnight, according to the responses from 31 of those 34 police forces. As an MP representing a London constituency, I am particularly concerned that more than 44% of children detained overnight in police custody in 2019 were black children.

It is not right that there is such a huge racial disparity, and it points to the institutional and structural racism in the policing of our black children. The Government can no longer deny or dismiss that, because the data and the evidence are quite clear. For a child, spending a night in police custody is an extremely traumatic and frightening experience. Spending a long time in such an environment has serious consequences for a child’s mental health and wellbeing. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East has already spoken about that, and that is why she is right when she says that reform is desperately needed.

It is quite clear that legislation written 50 years ago—be that PACE or other pieces of legislation—is outdated. We need to look at reforming the current system. That is why I agree with the recommendations in the Just for Kids Law report. We need a reduced time limit on how long children can be detained in police custody, because the current 24-hour limit is the same for adults and children. That cannot be right, because we know that children and adults are not the same, so it must be reduced to 12 hours or less.

The issue about appropriate adults is key, because we have already heard that children have to wait for hours in police custody without an appropriate adult. That system has to be overhauled. If it is about safeguarding the child, I am not sure what can be done if we cannot overhaul that aspect of the process.

I cannot stress enough the importance of data. Data and evidence are crucial to this process, because they really help to illustrate and paint a picture of the crisis in our policing of children. We also need a review of the collation of data so that we know what is being collated, and we need consistency across the country over what is collated.

Publication of this data will be important, because it helps with scrutiny and it helps to give robust oversight of what is actually going on. That is why publication should be mandatory. No police force in this country should decide on a voluntary basis to record data. I am not sure how that can be acceptable. Just for Kids Law was unable to access all the data in relation to its freedom of information request; it only got data from 34 police forces, when 43 could have responded.

I recently asked an oral question at Home Office questions—I think it was just over a week ago. I am calling for mandatory recording and publication of the data on children who are strip-searched. Everybody was horrified at the case of child Q, but we know now that that was not an isolated incident and that many children—including young girls, whether they are on their menstruation cycle or not—are being strip-searched. These are people’s children, and we all have a responsibility and a duty to protect them. Will the Minister commit to looking into the mandatory publication of data in relation to police interactions with young people? As I have highlighted, at the moment the police are required to record and publish such data only if an arrest has been made. However, as was the case with child Q, who was not arrested—

Order. I said right at the start of the debate that no reference should be made to any cases where there are ongoing legal proceedings. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady made a glancing reference, which is fine, but she should not repeat the reference to child Q any further in the debate.

I apologise for that, Mr Hollobone, and I will not refer to that case in the rest of my speech.

Finally, I believe we need a review into the policing of black children. They are being over-policed and treated with less care and protection. That perception of maturity —a term that is used is the adultification of our young black children—is another form of racism.

I have seen many examples of that when I have seen young children being detained by multiple officers, and the police say afterwards, “Based on the evidence before us, nothing is wrong here.” If that is the case, something is wrong with the way our young children are being treated. I really hope that when the Minister responds to the debate, she will refer to that. The disparity in the treatment of black children across policing is bound to lead to a breakdown in community relations, and a lack of trust and confidence in the police force. All I try to do, as an elected representative, is to help the police to build trust and confidence in our communities.

I do not believe that the solution can simply be boosting diversity in recruitment; although diversity is important, there are other elements to consider. The solution is not just about providing cultural changes, either. We need an urgent root-and-branch review that investigates the policing of our black children and sets out clear recommendations about how the police can reduce disproportionality and build and restore trust.

I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate, she will agree with me that we need a review, and if she does not agree, that she will explain why, so that I can understand. No one can be against a proposal that will help to reduce the racial disparities facing our children. We all know that our children are our future. It is on us to create that fair, better future for them.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) for securing this important debate.

I am mindful not to speak about cases currently going through the courts. I intended to allude to child Q, unaware that the case is in court. I will modify my speech accordingly. None the less, it is damning in the 21st century to be talking about children being strip-searched by police officers while at school and in their own environment. It is also damning to have seen the public report, which I hope I can speak about. Perhaps I cannot, as I have just received an eye from the Chair. That report is public and gives a damning account of what—

Order. Will the hon. Lady resume her seat? I am acting to try to protect the hon. Lady. She was honest to say that her speech was to be about a particular case, and now she is going to do her best to talk about the same issues without referring to the particular child, but we all know who she is talking about. She will have to be very careful and speak only in general terms. I am saying that to protect her and Parliament.

Thank you for your guidance, Mr Hollobone.

We know there are cases where children are not given an appropriate adult when brought into custody, are not presented with their rights, or are asked whether they want representation. Such practices must end. We must come to a better understanding of how we treat children, not only when protecting them from crime, but when they are brought into custody and falsely accused, or otherwise.

I have dealt with cases in my constituency where children innocently engage in social media and are then caught in a spiral in system where they are brought in for questioning; they are frightened by the type of questioning and the way it is posed. They are immediately so fearful of that questioning and the adults in the room that they are ready to sign anything in order to get out of there as quickly as possible. Children should have an appropriate adult; they should be told their rights in a manner that gives them an informed choice about having proper representation. If necessary, a pause should be given, so that they can make that informed choice. It is important that they have an adult in the room and have proper legal representation because what they say and admit to in that room can rest with them forever and a day and affect every aspect of their life going forward. It is important that children get the right representation from the outset, because many of them are in the midst of important, serious exams that will affect the rest of their lives. They need to be in the right mindset to do those exams.

In one of the schools in my constituency, children had been accused of a form of bullying, which turned out to be a conflict between ethnicities and races. The children and parents were not given the proper support and advice, and the children were told to stay away from the school environment until the investigation was complete, without being given any support to study at home or do anything that enabled to them to have a better understanding of the education that they need to continue with.

I am continuing to be mindful not to talk about child Q, Mr Hollobone, but I will say that it is important that children are allowed to feel safe in their school environments, neighbourhoods and communities, and that they know that the first action by the police will not be to bring them into an invasive situation wherein they have less power, but that the police will treat children as children, with the right and proper support around them. I hope that all the recommendations that come out of many of the serious and important reports on the way that children are treated in custody are implemented, and that somebody is appointed at a senior level to ensure that this is the case. Too often, recommendations remain unadopted and sit at the bottom of the shelf, but they need to be implemented to protect the future. It is even more vital that racist and misogynistic attitudes are left out of the custody suite and interactions with children. Far too often, black and other globalised children are left reeling from racism and, if they are young women, misogyny.

Institutional racism and misogyny in the police force needs to be seriously addressed, especially when it involves children. At the end of the day, we are talking about police services that have already been deemed to have used sexist, derogatory and unacceptable language when it comes to dealing with people in their custody. We know of adults being wrongly strip-searched. We also know that two serving Metropolitan police officers were jailed for sharing photographs of the bodies of Bibaa Henry and Nicola Smallman, two young black sisters from north London who went missing in June 2020. The officers shared the photos with 41 members of a police WhatsApp group. The police were also accused of showing a lack of interest in the fact that the two sisters were missing, which delayed their search.

The Metropolitan Police Service was recently forced to deny that it is plagued by a culture of misogyny, after an official report revealed shocking details of officers sharing messages about hitting and raping women, as well as about the deaths of black babies and the holocaust. The Independent Office for Police Conduct said in its report on behaviour at Charing Cross police station that there was a culture of “toxic masculinity” and that the behaviour was not confined to rogue individuals, but was part of an offensive Metropolitan police culture. The report states:

“We believe these incidents are not isolated or simply the behaviour of a few ‘bad apples’.”

Of course, that inquiry came after the brutal police crackdown of a vigil in the memory of Sarah Everard. I do not believe that that case is—

Order. The debate is about the rights of children while in police custody. I understand that the hon. Lady has made the remarks that she has for reasons of context, but the debate is specifically about the rights of children in police custody, so I would appreciate it if she came back to that subject.

Thank you for that guidance, Mr Hollobone. Indeed, I was highlighting a policing culture that no adult, let alone a child, should be subjected to. We simply cannot expose children to that type of policing culture. It is therefore vital that measures to avoid holding children in police custody, or to reduce the time that they spend in it, are strengthened and enforced.

The Youth Justice Legal Centre found that children are not interviewed under caution outside a custody suite as often as they could be. Too often, children who are refused bail are not transferred to local authority accommodation, as is legally required; instead, they are kept in police cells. That must end. I also support the calls from the Just for Kids Law charity for an end to the overnight detention of children by police. Children are currently subject to the same time limit as adults. We cannot allow that to continue and it must change.

We must redouble our efforts to end the scourge of racism and misogyny that plagues our police forces and all aspects of society, and in doing so, we must ensure that our children are not exposed to unnecessary harm in police custody.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute, as others have done, to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby), who shared individual cases and statistics revealing that children and young people spend lengthy periods in custody. I thank her for securing the debate, for being a true champion and campaigner on this issue, and for the all the different ways she has used the parliamentary tools at her disposal to keep the spotlight on securing best practice.

Children and young people are a protected group with specific age-related vulnerabilities. Their treatment in detention is governed not only by domestic law, but by the UN convention on the rights of the child, which the UK has signed and ratified. Legislative requirements and best practice are outlined in various documents, including, most significantly, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984—commonly referred to as PACE—and its codes of practice, guidance from the College of Policing, and the Home Office’s concordat on children in custody.

It is absolutely right that officers must take into account the age of a child or young person when deciding whether statutory grounds for arrest apply. Police should pay particular regard to the timing of any necessary arrests of children and young people, ensure that they are not detained any longer than necessary, and avoid holding them overnight in police cells unless it is absolutely necessary.

The College of Policing is right to stress in its guidance that

“Everyone who works with children has a responsibility for keeping them safe.”

That means that they have a role to play in identifying concerns about a child’s safety and wellbeing, sharing information and taking prompt action when it is needed to protect a child. A child who has been detained and is in police custody presents an opportunity to understand why, to disrupt their behaviour if it is criminal, and to safeguard them and the public from further harms.

West Yorkshire police’s violence reduction unit has undertaken several pieces of significant research to better understand the relationship between young people and violent crime. Nationally and in West Yorkshire, the number of proven offences committed by 10 to 17-year-olds has fallen dramatically, particularly over the past five years. The number of young first-time entrants into the criminal justice system has also plummeted. However, worryingly, in 2019-20, more than half of the offences committed by 10-17 year olds were violence against the person, compared with 39.7% in 2013-14.

We know that children and young people are capable of committing serious crimes and we cannot shy away from that, given the impact on victims, who are often children themselves. One comprehensive piece of research undertaken by Crest with the West Yorkshire and Harrogate Health and Care Partnership and the violence reduction unit found five key health inequalities that are influential in the lives of young people in West Yorkshire and their journey either towards or away from violence and exploitation: deprivation and socioeconomic disadvantage, trauma and unmet mental health need, education engagement, poor quality or lacking service provision and delivery, and contextual harm. More than 61,000 of 11 to 25-year-olds in West Yorkshire—13% of the population—were at risk of serious violence as a result of income deprivation and high levels of neighbourhood crime. One reality drawn out of the research that I find particularly depressing is how young people are being drawn into gangs and criminality by family members who are already involved. The report found that young people are often recruited by their own family. The reasons young people get involved in crime and find themselves in police custody serve as a reminder that some children’s lives could not be more different from our own and that harm and risk is all around them.

How can we ensure that encounters with the police and any time spent in custody have a positive impact on these children’s trajectory and do not compound the negative experiences surrounding them? The West Yorkshire violence reduction unit research recommended the development of trauma-informed practice across partnerships such as the complex childhood trauma steering group, which should be used to evaluate and standardise the trauma-informed offering across the region, and more and better mental health support for young people, all of which could and should be a feature of a child’s limited time in custody. The aspiration has to be that the more we understand the risks and recognise the value of targeted intervention upstream, the more time in custody can be avoided entirely for children and young people.

One of the key features of the opening speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East was about the provision of appropriate adults. Research conducted by Dr Miranda Bevan of Goldsmiths, University of London, and Dr Vicky Kemp from the University of Nottingham, and shared by my hon. Friend found that it is not unusual for appropriate adults to not arrive until six or more hours have passed. Having got a better understanding of some of the reasons for that from my local police just today, I am sympathetic that trying to make contact initially with parents, who may or may not be available and who, sadly, are sometimes not willing to attend, then approaching the emergency duty team within child social care, and then, if they can still not get someone to attend, approaching the National Appropriate Adult Network, starts to show where the practical barriers to making swift progress are—and that is when attempts are made straightaway, which, as we have already heard, is not always the case.

From speaking to colleagues in West Yorkshire’s liaison and diversion team earlier today, I know that problems are often exacerbated when looked-after children are in custody. Lines of parental responsibility prove harder to establish at a time when some of the most marginalised children are required to make serious decisions, without support, in conditions that are designed to be uncomfortable. Indeed, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who it is always a pleasure to see in Westminster Hall, made the right and powerful point, which has been supported by almost all the speakers made here today, about asking these children to decide for themselves if they want or require legal representation, when it should be the default.

In its research, the National Appropriate Adult Network points out that children in custody are disadvantaged by more than just cognitive development. They are much more likely than other children to have poor mental health, to have a learning disability, at up to 22% for that cohort compared with 4% in the wider population, to have a communication disorder, at up to 90% versus 7%, to be autistic, at 15% compared with 1%, and to have suffered a head injury with loss of consciousness for more than 20 minutes, at 18% versus 5%. If we are looking for confirmation of why appropriate adults are essential for children in those circumstances, the statistics could not make the case any clearer.

We know that there are routine delays in getting someone to attend on behalf of a child. Are we not able to establish a model of best practice that works for both the police and the child, and moves things forward by having someone skilled on hand to provide that service? I hope the Minister will share her thinking on that when she responds, and address the pilot scheme that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East outlined, which appears to be delivering significant results. Once we have that in place, it opens up conversations about how swiftly we can move a child through police custody, and we can look again at 24 hours.

I am very much taking into account your comments, Mr Hollobone, but the Minister will be aware that alarm has been raised about strip searches in recent weeks. In response to a written question tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), the Minister for Crime and Policing confirmed that the Ministry of Justice is supporting a project with the National Police Chiefs’ Council with the aim of addressing the difference in experience of ethnic minority children and adults in police custody. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) shared some particularly powerful experiences of her constituents.

The Minister for Crime and Policing said that a wide range of agencies and independent advisers have contributed to that work, which engages a number of police forces across the country and builds on existing initiatives in the workplace, including a dedicated independent strip search scrutiny panel in Norfolk and Suffolk police. He said:

“From December 2022 we will be including more detailed custody data in the annual Police Powers and Procedures statistical bulletin which will include data on whether an appropriate adult was called out for a detained child and the number of strip searches & Intimate searches carried out, broken down by age, gender, ethnicity, and offence type.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea also spoke about the importance of data. That piece of work is welcome, so will the Minister confirm when it will be concluded and published? It struck me that the response to that written question said that the research will determine if an appropriate adult was called. I very much expect to see that that requirement was upheld entirely.

I have spent a great deal of time trying to improve the modern slavery provisions in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, and looking at when children come into custody. If there are concerns that they are victims of child criminal exploitation, county lines gangs or trafficking, the push to keep children out of custody for all the right reasons cannot mean that we cut corners and miss opportunities in our safeguarding obligations. Where the police arrest children and seize drugs or cash due to unlawful possession, they and other statutory agencies should fully understand the potential dangers for those children of being releasing without them, potentially back into the grasp of those who have been criminally exploiting them. We must work through that by involving all the relevant safeguarding agencies to truly disrupt the criminal activity that has a grip of the young person, and deliver that wraparound support as urgently as possible.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East once again for securing this debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to her powerful calls for best practice, scrutiny and oversight, and for making sure that children in custody are recognised and treated as children.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to respond to the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby). I am especially grateful to her for the way she continues to bring issues relating to the rights and protection of children in police custody to the attention of this House.

All Members have spoken about the vital element of trust and confidence in policing, which I am absolutely sure we all share. I want to put on the record my thanks to our police officers in every force across the country. Although we all understand and recognise some of the incidents of substandard and unsatisfactory practice—alleged, because these are often ongoing cases—that have been highlighted by Members, who are obviously doing a good job in raising the interests of their constituents, as we would expect, it is right to say that the vast majority of police officers in our country do an extremely good job under very difficult circumstances. Ultimately, the work they have to do in those types of situations is very sensitive. They have to navigate and make that judgment while balancing the rights of the child and the rights of the victims of the alleged crime. We all share in the collective endeavour to ensure that the criminal justice system supports that.

We have moved on from March, when I set out the criteria for police custody. Police custody is an important element of our criminal justice system. Being able to question suspects in the controlled environment of the custody suite is instrumental to progressing criminal investigations and to bringing offenders to justice, protecting victims and keeping everybody safe. Forgive me, Mr Hollobone, as I forgot to thank the Members who contributed and made excellent speeches, particularly the hon. Members for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) and for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe). I will pick up their points in the course of my speech.

Children should be detained in custody only when absolutely necessary and when there is no other practical alternative. They are rightly acknowledged—this Government agree and stand behind this—as a protected group with specific needs and vulnerabilities. For that reason, opportunities to divert them away from police custody should always be considered first as a priority.

I very much welcome the comments from the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who spoke about the excellent work done by the violence reduction units in her area. However, they are national schemes and I think House would be interested to know a little bit more about that work. I will not go into a huge amount of detail because time prevents me, but this is a truly groundbreaking, long-term project, and a Conservative Government initiative. My officials will correct me if I am wrong, but I think we have committed £500 million over a very long period to work out, as she said, which initiatives and practices actually work to divert young people away from crime and prevent them from getting involved in the first place.[Official Report, 29 June 2022, Vol. 717, c. 4MC.] I think we can all agree that it is an incredibly compassionate approach.

We want to ensure that perpetrators are dealt with appropriately and that sentencing is tougher and meets the needs of the public, but we also want to look at the vulnerabilities of young people and understand why they are drawn into crime in the first place. That is why this detailed work is taking place across the country—and, as the hon. Lady highlighted, in her own area—working in a granular way with local agencies that know their communities and those children best. I strongly encourage any Member who is interested in youth justice, prevention of crime and a social justice approach to visit their violence reduction unit if they have one in their area, to learn more about that.

Turning back to the issue at hand, custody procedures and police decision making in custody are, quite rightly, subject to scrutiny and oversight. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services regularly inspects police custody suites, monitors the treatment and welfare of detainees in custody, and makes recommendations for police forces and partners. We expect forces to take those recommendations seriously and to take action to address issues in response.

In 2017, as Members have referenced, the Government changed the law so that children aged 17 were entitled to the specific safeguards intended for children under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. These include a legal requirement for an appropriate adult to be present for interviews and strip searches to ensure their rights are protected. Officers must consider a child’s age and welfare when deciding whether to arrest them.

Members raised a number of specific comments, concerns and complaints. Many of them fall under the category of cases that are currently going through legal proceedings, but it is fair to say that this Government and the public rightly expect the highest standards from our police officers. The ability of police to perform their core functions of tackling crime and keeping the public safe is dependent on their capacity to maintain the confidence of the public. That is why we take the reports of these incidents extremely seriously. We have the safeguarding structures and the scrutiny in place.

Several recent incidents have been referred to the IOPC, which is investigating or determining whether an independent investigation is required. That work is ongoing and I cannot say more at this point. It is an independent body and must be allowed to carry out its work free of political influence. The Government’s role, however, is to consider any recommendations for legislation or policy change carefully. I think I can say, without prejudicing anything, that, in the case of child Q, the IOPC has served four officers of the Metropolitan police with notices of gross misconduct. That means that they are being investigated for alleged misconduct that is such a serious breach of professional standards that it could warrant dismissal if proven.

I welcome the comments of Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. He released a statement following the publication of the child Q safeguarding report outlining his concerns about cultural issues within the Met police to which some Members have referred. It is the Mayor’s responsibility in his function as police and crime commissioner for London, supported by the deputy Mayor for policing and crime, to hold the Met police to account for delivering the necessary improvements.

I note that the Met has put a robust plan in place, in the light of the incidents, which includes adultification training for all officers in the central east command unit, which covers Hackney and Tower Hamlets, reviewing the policy on further searches of children to ensure that it recognises that the child in such circumstances might be a vulnerable victim of exploitation—a point made well by the hon. Member for Halifax—and introducing new measures, so that an inspector must now give authority before a search takes place to ensure appropriate oversight. Furthermore, a Merlin report has to be submitted to ensure that safeguarding of the child is a priority.

Often in these debates, the problems and concerns are outlined and the challenge to the Government is to do more. We all understand the delicate balance in this country between the operational independence of the police and the important role played by police and crime commissioners, elected by their communities, with their various important powers. We do not shy away from acting where we need to, but we will also shine a light on all those other important individuals who have a responsibility to deliver on some of these serious failings.

The Minister rightly points out the independent role that the IOPC has to play, but the key point here is about children in custody, safeguarding and prevention. Frankly, we should all be striving for cases not needing to go there, because the incidents should not be happening in the first place. She talked about what the Met is doing, but this is a national issue. Does she agree that there needs to be a review of how the policing of black children is taking place?

I will come on to the point that the hon. Lady made about black children, but I hope she heard my earlier comments about the importance that the Government place on prevention. That is the reason for the hundreds of millions of pounds we are spending over the long term on violence reduction units, to look at what actually works in this space to prevent young children from being drawn into knife crime, gang culture and a life of crime. [Interruption.] Sorry, did someone wish to intervene?

Obviously, the Minister was referring to the policing of black children, not the criminalisation of black children.

I will move on in my speech and address those points.

Turning to the issue of children being detained in police cells, whether they are black or any other ethnicity, looking at the system as a whole, I am pleased to say that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services reports that its custody inspections show a decrease in the number of children held in custody in recent years. I think we can all agree that that is positive, although we must continue to keep that under review.

We take our responsibilities towards children in detention seriously. Those aged under 18 should not be treated in the same way as adults in the criminal justice system. They should not be placed in a cell or be allowed to associate with an adult detainee in any circumstances. We are clear that all new custody suites must be designed with the capability to allow separation of adult males, adult females and children.

Members have made reference to data in their speeches. I can tell the House that the Home Office will publish data on strip searches in custody for the first time this year as part of a wider custody collection, which will greatly increase transparency and accountability. We anticipate that this collection will ultimately become mandatory.

I will just finish my point, as I may well be answering the question. We are exploring with forces the feasibility of collecting more detailed data on thorough searches following stop and search to complement this. A number of datasets are part of this work. One such set could well be the time taken for appropriate adults to be present, as the hon. Member for Battersea referred to in her speech.

On the point about data collection and strip searches, as it stands, a strip search will take place where there has been an arrest, and that data is recorded. A strip search could also take place where there has not been an arrest, and that data is currently not mandatorily recorded. Could the Minister confirm that that is now going to be the case?

I will write to the hon. Member on that point. As I am sure she knows, the Minister who would normally be responding to this debate is the Minister for Crime and Policing, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse). He has the knowledge and policy expertise on all these matters, and I am sure he would be able to answer the hon. Lady were he not in the main Chamber. We will absolutely write to the hon. Lady to update her on those points.

The hon. Member for Battersea referred to levels of trust in police among ethnic minorities and young people in particular. She is right that recent incidents have raised some serious issues within the police, and it is right that the Government ask difficult questions to drive positive change. Our police are more diverse than ever before. Forces have worked hard to improve community engagement, and we have seen major improvements in the way the police deal with racist crime. However, we still know that there is much more to do. That is why attracting more officers from a wide range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds is a core ambition of our drive to recruit an extra 20,000 officers.

As we set out in the “Inclusive Britain” report, the Government and policing partners will create a new national framework for how the use of police powers such as stop and search is scrutinised at a local level. We will also explore sharing body-worn video footage with scrutiny panels and removing unnecessary barriers to its use to increase community oversight. I welcome the Ministry of Justice’s support for a project with the National Police Chiefs’ Council to develop scrutiny panels on the use of strip search with the aim of addressing the difference in experience of ethnic minority children and adults in police custody. I am sure the hon. Lady can agree with and welcome this significant programme of work to tackle some of the concerns she has raised.

I would like to respond to a few more specific points. Before I do, I want to thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his thoughtful contribution. He is right that we have no direct oversight of police forces in his constituency, but his suggestion that I meet with my counterpart in Northern Ireland is an extremely good one. He has form in filling up my diary, because the last time I responded to a debate he spoke in, I was a transport Minister and I had a really productive conversation with my counterpart in Northern Ireland, so I am happy to do that again.

Members have referred to the issue of the detention clock, the timing of it and the work done by Dr Miranda Bevan and Dr Vicky Kemp. The Home Office is fully aligned and engaged with this work. This is a complex issue, as I am sure Members will understand. We meet frequently with police, solicitors and wider stakeholders. Dr Kemp has addressed these meetings with updates on the findings, and we are committed to considering the final outcomes carefully. Of course, we will take Dr Kemp’s recommendations very seriously.

I was asked about legal advice and whether it should be an opt-in or opt-out pilot. We would all have the view that children should be prioritised for in-person legal advice. I know that colleagues in the MOJ are running a pilot scheme, which I understand is being trialled by the Metropolitan police. That is very important because of the significant representation of arrested ethnic minority children. That pilot is ongoing, and it will be important to look at how it progresses, take lessons from that and see what the implications are for national policing.

I think I have addressed all the key points raised by Members, Mr Hollobone, but obviously they are always free to write to me about any specific points of details. To finish, this is a really important and sensitive area. I thank Members for the way in which they have raised the concerns of their constituents and communities. We take the issue very seriously and we recognise that there is a lot of work to do in this space. I hope Members are reassured that we understand and prioritise the issue. We are funding the police to do their job. We look at policy areas where things are failing, but we also recognise that the police have an incredibly difficult to job to do. I again thank the hon. Member for Lewisham East for her consistent advocacy for vulnerable children.

I thank everybody who participated in this afternoon’s debate. All hon. Members, including the Government and Opposition spokespeople, spoke comprehensively. Many issues were touched on, but the thread that ran through everybody’s contribution was the need to safeguard the wellbeing of young people, children and minors.

I was particularly struck by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova). She spoke about a young person who had been held in a custody cell for 23 hours and then discharged without being charged with any offence. Young people who are arrested by the police are sometimes not charged at all because no evidence is found that they have committed a crime.

I have worked closely with the police in previous jobs and have had brilliant professional relationships with police officers. I do not believe that anybody comes to work to do a bad job; I think everybody goes to work to do a good job, including the police, but people do not always have the tools or training they need to do that or the policies in place to enable that. There is room for change, which I will mention briefly in the time I have left.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his contribution and comments, which were very meaningful. He mentioned the rights of children and that a 10-year-old child is still learning about what is right and what is wrong. Those children may not have the ability to say whether they need legal representation or not, but they absolutely need it.

The hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) spoke about young people needing to be protected and about preventing overnight detention, as well as being an advocate for safeguards to be in place for strip searches.

I welcome the Minister’s comments about what is happening in regard to strip searches. I would be interested to see the information she offered to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea to clarify if it relates to all strip searches; it is an issue we need to be open and transparent about. I was interested to hear about the Government’s work to prevent the adultification of young people, as well as about the new design for custody suites.

The main point of the debate was about the detention of children and about appropriate adults. As I mentioned, successful child trials have been rolled out with the Met. I press the Minister and the Government to look at that trial to see whether it could be pushed forward across the Met and other police forces to ensure that children are not detained longer than necessary. I also press them to consider minimising that stay from 24 hours to 12, to look at the whole legal aid system, in order to ensure that all children can access legal aid, and to consider the opt-out system.

Thank you very much for your time, Mr Hollobone.

Thank you for yours.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the rights of children while in police custody.