Call to ban police strip searches on children after scale of practice revealed

New report shows 2,847 children were strip-searched in four years across England and Wales, reports Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

Caroline Russell, London Assembly member for the Green Party
Caroline Russell, London Assembly member for the Green Party

New data on the strip-searching of children by police proves that officers “cannot be trusted with the devastating power to strip-search anyone”, a London politician has said.

Caroline Russell, a Green member of the London Assembly, said the statistics about strip-searching contained in a report from Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, showed that the power should be taken away from the police.

London mayor Sadiq Khan said there was still a place for strip-searching children in “very exceptional circumstances”, while stressing the need for safeguards.

Rachel de Souza’s report showed that a total of 2,847 children have been stopped and strip-searched in the past four years in England and Wales.

The children’s commissioner said she had ordered the review after being “shocked and appalled” by the case of Child Q in Hackney in 2020 – where a 15-year-old black schoolgirl was strip-searched while at school, after she was wrongly suspected of carrying cannabis. The strip-search took place without the statutory safeguard of having a separate appropriate adult present, and in the knowledge that Child Q was menstruating.

In her report, de Souza found that in the past four years, some 52% of child strip-searches conducted by English and Welsh police forces were conducted without an appropriate adult present. The report also revealed that black children are up to six times more likely to be strip-searched.

Responding to its findings, Caroline Russell said: “This new data showing strip-searching of children outside of custody suites, along with shocking revelations of Met failings uncovered by the Casey Review, shows that the police cannot be trusted with the devastating power to strip and intimate search anyone, let alone children.”

But London mayor Sadiq Khan said there was still a place for the strip-searching of children in “very exceptional circumstances”. He said: “I think the children’s commissioner’s report, which covered the entire country, has got to be a wake-up call for those who are in denial about the seriousness of this issue.

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“Children being strip-searched should be done in very exceptional circumstances. The Child Q case led me to contact the police watchdog, asking them to look into this as gross misconduct, rather than misconduct, but also the Met Police reviewing their processes around the strip-searching of children.

“As a consequence of those changes, no strip-search of a child can take place without an inspector authorising it, there’s got to be an appropriate adult present, and it’s led to a reduction of more than 50% in children being strip-searched.”

The mayor said it was also important to eliminate the “disproportionality” of black children being searched more than those from other ethnic backgrounds.

Met Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley said: “Clearly we’ve had a couple of contentious cases in London, and I’ve said publicly [that] we’ve over-used the power, we’ve misused it, and I’ve apologised for it.

“Over the last six-to-twelve months, we’ve reduced the use of it by 50%, so we’ve been much more careful – we’ve been much more careful about only using it when it’s necessary and we’ve been much more careful about getting appropriate adults there.”

A Met Police spokesman said that on average in London, in the five years to March, some 524 children, aged 17 and under, were injured in a knife crime incident. During that same five-year period, 55 children were fatally stabbed. An annual average of 584 children were arrested for possession with intent to supply drugs, while 1,394 were arrested for possession of an offensive weapon.

“Sadly, children are involved in crime in London […] so there will be occasions where more than a cursory search is required,” Sir Mark continued.

“But we need to be absolutely clear we’re going to be as thoughtful and careful about doing it [as possible], because these may be children involved in crime, but they are still young people and they need special support around them.”

Caroline Russell lodged a written question with the mayor in July last year, requesting location data about a set of 99 strip-searches of 13-17 year-olds in London, carried out in 2021, but no answer has been provided so far. She said: “Without this data, how can we scrutinise whether vital safeguards are being met?

“The Met and mayor need to share this data urgently, so we have a clear picture of how the Met is using this intrusive power and we can start to protect young people from disproportionate, racist and damaging policing.”

A spokesman for the mayor confirmed that City Hall officers were still in the process of preparing a response to Caroline’s request.

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