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Black and Minority-ethnic Children: Police Strip-searches

Volume 829: debated on Monday 27 March 2023

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the Children’s Commissioner showing that 2,847 children, disproportionately from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, have been strip searched by the police since 2018.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice. In doing so, I declare my interest as a vice-president of Barnardo’s.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her Question. The Children’s Commissioner’s report raises a number of concerns that we take extremely seriously. Strip-search is one of the most intrusive powers available to the police. No one should be subject to the use of any police power based on their race or ethnicity. The IOPC is currently investigating several instances of children being strip-searched and it will review whether existing legislation, guidance and policies remain appropriate. It is right that we await its findings.

My Lords, it is sickening, shocking and truly disturbing to read the Children’s Commissioner’s report on the thousands of children who have been strip-searched by the police unsupervised. Most of us thought that being strip-searched was a rare occurrence during the Child Q scandal. This has proven not to be so. Worryingly, those from black and ethnic-minority backgrounds appear to be disproportionately targeted. Childhood lasts a lifetime. The mental trauma, mistrust, abuse and humiliation suffered by these children will stay with them, at a huge cost to society. How are the Government going to address this unacceptable and despicable practice? What recourse and disciplinary action will there be when a safeguarding failure is found to have taken place?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. Any child subject to strip-search under PACE should be accompanied by an appropriate adult unless there is an urgent risk of serious harm or where the child specifically requests otherwise and the appropriate adult agrees. Such searches must be carried out by an officer of the same sex as the child. The Children Act 2004 encourages agencies to share early concerns about the safety and welfare of children and young persons and to take preventive action. The Act requires local policing bodies and chief officers to co-operate with arrangements to improve the well-being of children in the authorities’ area. It is too early for me to comment on what sort of disciplinary processes and so on might be implemented in cases where there are failures of these things. As I said, we are awaiting the report from the IOPC and will make the appropriate response in due course.

My Lords, it seems that every week there are more devastating revelations for trust in policing in our country, and yet the Public Order Bill is still moving between the two Houses—it will come back to us tomorrow. The Bill contains, among other things, stop and search powers, including without suspicion. At the very least, those provisions in the Public Order Bill should be paused by the Government until they can assess what police regulation we need, as opposed to just endless extra police power.

My Lords, as I have said from this Dispatch Box before, stop and search makes a serious difference to crime prevention. In 2021-22, stop and search removed around 14,900 weapons and firearms from our streets and resulted in almost 67,000 arrests. The noble Baroness made good points about trust in the police, and the Home Secretary has been clear that policing needs to address all of the causes of poor, and in some cases toxic, cultures. That will be a key focus of part 2 of the independent Angiolini inquiry, which will consider issues in policing such as vetting, recruitment and culture, as well as the safety of women in public places.

My Lords, could my noble friend the Minister clarify the role of the IOPC here? Is it reviewing just individual cases—so there will be a number of reports—or is this a systemic review of the use of this practice? Only if we look at the system can we know whether there is potentially racial bias within it.

My noble friend is right. At the start of the process, 14 referrals involving strip-searches were received by the IOPC from the Metropolitan Police Service. On 1 August 2022, it confirmed that it is investigating five of these cases. It decided that six of them were suitable for local investigation by the force, and the remaining three are still being assessed to determine whether further action may be required by the IOPC. However, the IOPC has been asked to take a more general look at the framework. We expect its findings soon, and for it to opine a little more widely.

My Lords, nearly 3,000 children have been strip-searched. Waiting for the IOPC is a long process, and it seems to me that the Government should intervene to see that the rules are complied with.

The noble and learned Baroness is absolutely correct that there has been a large number of these cases. Our problem with intervention is that data has only recently started to be collected on this. As I said, there is a great deal of incoming input, and it is appropriate to wait for that to make sure that we are properly informed.

My Lords, I want to follow on from the noble and learned Baroness’s question. Would it not be sensible for the Home Office to require all police forces in England to discontinue any further participation in Safer School Partnerships and to withdraw Safer School officers from schools until the very laudable review is completed?

My Lords, I declare an interest as vice-chair of the Children’s Society. I join other noble Lords in expressing horror at the findings of the Children’s Commissioner’s report. It is vital that children are treated as children at all times. Can the Minister reassure the House that children are treated and recognised as children within every aspect of the criminal justice system?

In areas where the Home Office collects data—for example, on custody—I can reassure the House that that is the case. For example, in 99% of cases where searches involved children in custody, an appropriate adult was present. Obviously, this report has identified failings in other parts of the system. We are awaiting the right inputs in order to make a detailed and thoughtful review, and as soon as that is the case I am sure I will be able to give the right reverend Prelate more broad reassurance.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that it is rarely proportionate for the police to strip-search a child, let alone 2,847 times since 2018? Is the noble Baroness, Lady Casey of Blackstock, not right when she says that the whole regime of police stop and search needs a hard reset?

The noble Lord invites me to comment on operational police matters. I do not know whether it is appropriate, but I assume that they have very good reasons to do this; otherwise, they would not conduct these searches.

Would the Minister care to reanswer his noble friend who asked the question about the role of the IOPC? It sounds as though it is checking a couple of dozen cases, and that is not good enough, given what the commissioner’s report has identified. Surely we need a review of all the cases, because there have been dozens a week over the years. The answer that the Minister gave on the role of the IOPC is not sufficient.

I think I said at the end of my answer to my noble friend that the IOPC has also been asked to look at the more general legislative framework around this particular subject and to give us more comprehensive findings.

My Lords, I am absolutely gutted to hear the Minister respond to a question by saying that there must have been some reason. I am a child protection officer and have been a long-standing social worker, so I am all too aware of the issues around safeguarding—as the noble Lord should be, as a Home Office Minister. Can he say that he is either waiting for the review or that he has already taken the decision that there must have been a reason? It is either one or the other; it cannot possibly be both. I will make another point. Given what the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said, surely everything leads to the conclusion from the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, that racial discrimination is endemic in the Met. Can the Minister answer?

I have to correct the record, because I did not say that there “must” be a reason; I said that I assumed that there was a good reason. To be absolutely clear, that is very different. I agree with many of the conclusions that the Children’s Commissioner has come up with—they seem to make a great deal of sense to me—but I would prefer to wait for the context of the various reviews that are being undertaken at the moment before giving a further opinion on this matter.

My Lords, will the Minister pay tribute to Dame Rachel de Souza, who is a superb commissioner and was also an iconic head and founder of the Inspiration Trust in Norfolk? She is saying that, while this type of strip-search should not be banned, it should be looked at very carefully. One of the things she said was that strip-search should never take place in schools but always in police stations.

I thank my noble friend for that. I am extremely happy to pay tribute to Dame Rachel de Souza for her report, which strikes me as very comprehensive—although I confess to having read only part of it so far. I agree with some of her conclusions, as I have just said, and I think that the one about schools is an entirely appropriate conclusion to have reached. In my opinion, strip-searches should be conducted only in very safe and secure places.

My Lords, one of the report’s conclusions was that there were widely differing practices in stop and search and strip-searches across the country. Does the Minister believe that there are good examples of stop and search and strip-search, and what can the Government use from those examples? Is it not right that particular communities—I am talking about young black men—have very little trust in the police service, and that it does not take much for things to kick off and for the police to use further interventions which are wholly undesirable as a result of the original police intervention?

I certainly agree with the noble Lord’s last point; that is a significant issue for the police and for us all. It relates to so many other issues that we deal with on a daily basis regarding the police, including things that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has brought up in previous debates, such as recruitment and so on. Regarding strip-search, I argue that, where the rules are followed, which are pretty clear and rigorous, it could be appropriate under certain circumstances. However, there needs to be an appropriate adult present, and there are complications around that, including making sure that there are enough of them. The other rules and safeguards that are already in place need to be followed.

My Lords, it is absolutely right and true that the Government should never interfere with operational policing, but the Government can recommend that the guidelines are actually followed. That is the big problem we have here: there were no appropriate adults in 52% of the cases. In 51% of the cases, children were strip-searched in police vans, schools and even fast-food restaurants. I think that the Government have a role here to say that guidelines are there to be followed.

I think that is right. The Government will have a role when the appropriate time arrives—when the reviews have delivered their various conclusions—to also suggest and recommend upgrading and updating that guidance.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister will agree that strip-searching would be humiliating for any of us. It is particularly humiliating for a child. The Minister has indicated that there are rules that govern strip-searching, but the rules have not been followed in many of these cases. Let us not wait for a review. The rules operate now, today, everywhere. It is the responsibility of the Home Office to ensure that these rules are complied with. Will the Minister take this away with a degree of urgency to make sure that these rules are applied now, everywhere?

My Lords, for the benefit of those of us who have not yet been able to read the report, will the Minister tell the House what proportion of those nearly 3,000 children who were strip-searched during that period were charged with any offence?

My Lords, I add my voice to those saying that we understand about the review—there will be lessons to be learned from the reviews and rules to be updated. But can my noble friend the Minister say why the Home Secretary could not write to all chief constables now to ensure that PACE rules are being enforced and adhered to very closely?

I reassure my noble friend that there is no reason why the Home Secretary could not write now, but the report was delivered in its final conclusion only on Friday and we are still assessing its recommendations.

My Lords, less than a third of the cases referred to in the ombudsman’s report—31%—led to an arrest. Does the Minister agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, when she said that strip-searching as done by the Met was an example of

“over-policing and disproportionate use of powers against certain communities”

and may be due to

“‘adultification’, where Black children are treated as adults and as a threat, therefore justifying greater use of force or intrusive interventions.”

Those were her words. Does the Minister agree with them?

I am not going to agree or disagree with those words. The noble Baroness, Lady Casey, delivered them in good faith, and I take her word in good faith. I think a lot more thought needs to go into all the various recommendations that have been made in the various reviews, many of which I happily acknowledge raise a number of very serious issues that demand urgent attention.