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Metropolitan Police: Strip-search of Schoolgirl

Volume 820: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2022

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 21 March.

“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.”

My Lords, we are all, frankly, utterly appalled by the sickening details of the strip-search of Child Q, a 15-year-old black schoolgirl, a child, at a Hackney secondary school in 2020—an absolute disgrace.

How was it that existing guidance failed to prevent police officers undertaking this shocking strip-search? The Government have said there is to be a review of the incident and the guidance, but when will this be finished? How many such strip-searches have there been across the country? What is in place to protect children now?

Jim Gamble’s review concluded that the search was unjustified and that racism was likely to have been a factor. What is the ethnic breakdown of strip-searches conducted in the Metropolitan Police area and across the country? How on earth are we going to change this culture of racism, and soon? Child Q said:

“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, this Chamber and the country at large, of that?

First, I join the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, in expressing my disgust at what has happened to a child—and at school, no less. He is absolutely right to ask the questions he has asked.

I understand that the review by the IOPC, which I assume he is referring to, will be done at pace. His question on the collection of data is also absolutely the right question to ask. What are we doing now? I understand that from December this year, we will be including more detailed custody data in the annual police powers and procedure statistical bulletin. It will include the number of persons, including children, detained in police custody, broken down by age, gender, ethnicity and offence type. It will include the number of children detained in custody overnight, whether pre-charge or post-charge, broken down by age, gender, ethnicity and offence type. In fact, the noble Lord will recall that some time ago we banned the detention of children in custody, so I hope that figure comes out as nought.

Crucially, on the question of whether an appropriate adult was called out for a detained child, the review has yet to report but on the face of it, that does not appear to have been the case here. In the case of a detained adult who was declared vulnerable, and regarding the question whether an appropriate was adult called out, there is the time taken for an appropriate adult to arrive and the number of strip-searches carried out, broken down by age, gender, ethnicity and offence type. I am sure that all noble Lords and the other place will be very interested to hear those statistics, and I hope that is helpful at this stage to the noble Lord.

My Lords, the police strip search of a young black woman, legally a child, in her own school in the absence of an appropriate adult on the basis of her allegedly smelling of cannabis is clearly disproportionate and unacceptable, even if a teacher called the police. Have the officers been suspended, or at least removed from duties involving contact with the public? Have the Government found anyone in the Metropolitan Police who has said that a strip-search in these circumstances must never happen again? As a former Metropolitan Police officer, I am disgusted, appalled and ashamed.

My Lords, on the latter question, the outcome of that will be forthcoming in the review undertaken by the IOPC. In terms of police and the interface with vulnerable people and children, it is essential that front-line police recognise vulnerability in children and young people regardless of the circumstances around any interaction. We have funded various training programmes for social workers, health professionals, police and safeguarding leads in schools, and the Home Office-funded National Policing Vulnerability Knowledge and Practice Programme shares the very best practice across forces. As I say, on the noble Lord’s latter question, that is for the IOPC to conclude in its investigation, which I understand has almost finished.

My Lords, I note that your Lordships are rightly concerned about data and evidence gathering, which we need to do in any problem-solving exercise. But as my noble friend Lady Lawrence of Clarendon said just yesterday, what evidence do we need after all these years—I would add, after recent years in particular—that we have a problem with police culture? It is not just an issue of data; it is an issue of culture, leadership and, I would say, law. We have just passed sometimes controversial police legislation, and the broader the power, the greater the discretion. If there are, as there always are, because humans are human—

Thank you for that. If there are questions of discretion, there will be questions of abuse of power. What were the teachers doing when this happened? What instructions will be given to the new appointee to the Metropolitan Police? What will we do about future broad powers before we hand blank cheques to the police?

I will try to answer those questions rapidly because I know that other noble Lords are keen to get in. Teachers have a very clear duty of care to the children in their schools; that is writ large in every safeguarding policy in every school. In terms of culture, I know that Dame Angiolini and the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, in both their pieces of work for the Home Office, are involved in looking at the culture within the police. I do not think that anyone is trying to whitewash, for want of a better word, the fact that there are issues of culture within the police. We have seen so many incidents—Sarah Everard, to name but one. It is clear that over the last couple of years, BAME representation in the police has been much more representative of the population at large, and that can only be a good thing.

My Lords, there is an underlying question here that came up in the Sarah Everard case: how do you say no to the police? What do the Government plan to do to encourage and support schools and public authorities in addressing that question?

The right reverend Prelate may have heard me say, when we discussed Sarah Everard’s murder, that I would not feel confident in saying no to the police if I were requested to do something. In a way, that is at the heart of this issue. It will all come out in the IOPC review, but did the school have confidence in saying, “Excuse me?” to the police or, “This is the way that we do safeguarding at this school”? That will all come out in the review. However, whatever the organisation, whether it is schools, teachers or the health service, we need to have confidence in challenging—not refusing but challenging—the police if we think they have got it wrong.

My Lords, childhood lasts a lifetime. The indignity that child Q had to go through is going to scar her for life. My daughter is a teacher and she too was appalled to learn about this blatant act of abuse of human and legal rights in a school—a place where children should be protected from physical and emotional harm. After the death of George Floyd, and Black Lives Matter, we all should know better. The police should know the importance of following the stringent guidelines and procedure when dealing with cases involving young people, especially those of colour, so both teachers and the police have questions to answer. What is being done to reinforce the safeguarding measures already in place to ensure that this kind of abusive and traumatic incident never, ever, happens again?

The noble Baroness will have heard me talk about some of the measures that are already in schools and public institutions to safeguard children. Safeguarding children should be at the centre of what we do as public servants. There are clear guidelines around safeguarding and the type of thing we were talking about this week in relation to child Q. Strip-searching is probably one of the most intrusive things that one could ever do to a child.

I am going to beg the indulgence of the House and ask whether the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, might be allowed to come in.

I am sorry, but the time is up. I will allow a short interval for Peers who do not wish to take part in the next business to leave the Chamber.