We all accept that in certain extreme circumstances it will be necessary to search children, and this discussion does not question that. The findings of the Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, on the strip search of children are shocking, and I pay tribute to her. One child who was strip searched aged 13 is quoted as saying:
“They told me to get naked. They told me to bend over… I think there were about three officers present. So, I’ve got three fully grown blokes staring at my bollocks”.
I repeat that that child was 13.
Let us be clear about what the law allows a strip search to entail. The report states that
“searching officers may make physical contact with…orifices. Searching officers can physically manipulate intimate body parts, including the penis or buttocks”.
That is very intrusive. However, Dame Rachel found that 53% of searches of children did not include an appropriate adult, in 45% of cases the venue was not even recorded, 2% of searches took place in a public or commercial setting, and 1% took place in public view. The report also identified very high levels of disproportionality, with black children up to six times more likely to be strip searched. This is not just a problem with the Met; other forces conducted proportionally more strip searches of children.
Child Q was strip searched in December 2020, and a report on the search was published in March 2022. That was a year ago. I stood in the House and told the then Minister that the guidance in the authorised professional practice of the College of Policing on strip searching children and Police and Criminal Evidence Act codes A and C were not clear enough, but nothing has been done. Dame Rachel has said exactly the same in her report one year on. Why did the Government not act a year ago? Why have we allowed hundreds more children to be strip searched without proper protection? Yet again, the Conservatives’ hands-off approach is under-mining confidence in policing and the safeguarding of our young people.
I appreciate that this report is new and that the Minister is new and she will take some time to consider the recommendations, but the fundamental review of PACE called for by the Children’s Commissioner is in the Minister’s gift and we have been calling for it for a year. Will the Minister commit to it today? If not, will she at least give us a timescale on when she will come back with how she plans to act?
I hope the Minister will condemn the response of the Government Minister in the other place yesterday in a debate on the same subject, who simply said:
“I assume that they have very good reasons to do this; otherwise, they would not conduct these searches.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
That complacency and that optimism bias fly in the face of Dame Rachel’s findings. Does the Minister accept that there is any problem at all? We need to see change, and the Minister can make it now.