MPS must take ‘immediate steps’ following complaints over strip searches of children, says IOPC

The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) said safeguarding every child is “an absolute priority” after the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) made a number of recommendations over issues around the strip searching of children.

Aug 2, 2022
By Paul Jacques

The IOPC said eight new referrals concerning strip searches of this nature were received from the MPS in June and a further three were made last month.

It has now decided to independently investigate two of them.

The IOPC has recommended that the MPS take “immediate steps” to ensure that any strip searches of children are being carried out in line with relevant legislation, national guidance and local policy.

These are designed to ensure:

  • The best interests and safeguarding needs of the child are a primary consideration when deciding whether to conduct a strip search;
  • The strip search of a child is conducted in the presence of an appropriate adult. Such searches should only be conducted without an appropriate adult in limited circumstances where a valid exception exists; and
  • The strip search of a child is conducted in such a way which, as far as possible, maintains their dignity and takes into account their health, hygiene and welfare needs.

The IOPC is now independently investigating two further complaints after receiving 11 voluntary referrals from the MPS relating to separate incidents between December 2019 and May 2022. They all involved children aged 14 to 17 who were strip-searched by officers in custody, or more intimate searches were carried out outside custody.

“We decided that the six of the referrals were suitable for local investigation by the force and the remaining three are still being assessed to determine what further action may be required from us,” said the IOPC.

“The two new investigations both involve 16-year-old boys, who we understand were strip-searched in custody with no appropriate adult present after being detained. The strip searches took place at Ilford police station in January 2020, and at the Bethnal Green police station in October 2020.”

It brings the total number of such investigations the IOPC is carrying out to five; the other three involve strip searches by MPS officers of a 15-year-old girl, known as Child Q, at a school in December 2020; another 15-year-old girl in a cell that same month; and another child in a separate incident earlier this year (2022).

The IOPC said as part of these ongoing investigations it will also review whether existing legislation, guidance and policies remain appropriate, which may lead to it issuing learning designed to bring about improvements.

IOPC Director General, Michael Lockwood said: “We have been concerned about what we have seen in the cases referred to us involving complaints about strip searches of children, and we are acting now by making recommendations stressing that existing best practice and policies should be followed by the MPS at all times.

“Given the apparent delay in some of these cases being referred to us, we will now work with the MPS to review a sample of complaints that have not been referred to us, to establish whether the process is working as it should.

“I have also written to the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) to highlight these concerns and our recommendation, so these can be shared with other forces.

“I have proposed a meeting between ourselves and relevant policing leads to discuss how we can work together to ensure this important learning is shared and seek assurance that relevant policies are being applied in other forces.

“By coming together in this way, I hope we can address increasing concerns about the use of strip search powers in England and Wales, in order to provide assurance that they are only being used when absolutely essential.”

The MPS said it welcomed the recommendations from the IOPC and has already made changes in relation to strip searches of children.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Laurence Taylor, leading on this work in the MPS, said: “Ensuring the safeguarding of every child who is subject to a search is an absolute priority.

“What happened to Child Q was a truly regrettable incident and we have apologised publicly to her, her family and the wider community. We understand how much concern this incident has caused, and how distressed Child Q has been.

“We have been listening to the views of our communities and partners, and have already made changes as we balance the policing need for this type of search with the considerable impact it can have on young people.

“We will continue to liaise with the IOPC to discuss what more we need to do, particularly around reminding officers again of the very important requirement for an appropriate adult to be present during searches – a common theme in cases we have voluntarily referred to the IOPC, and one we must address.”

He sad the changes introduced in April include ensuring officers and staff have a refreshed understanding of the policy for conducting a ‘more thorough search’ – the type of search that takes place outside custody and requires the removal of clothing and underwear.

Officers have also been given advice around dealing with schools, ensuring that children are treated as children and the importance of safeguarding. To reduce the risk of ‘adultification bias’, the MPS said it has begun to roll out training, starting with frontline officers in the Central East Command Unit, which covers Hackney and Tower Hamlets.

“More widely, we have made changes to the policy for more thorough searches of children to ensure it takes account of the safeguarding review for Child Q,” said the MPS. “It was also important the policy recognises a child subject to this type of search may well be a vulnerable victim of exploitation by others involved in gangs, County Lines and drug dealing.

“There is no suggestion Child Q was involved in these matters.”

To ensure the force has “very clear control over this type of search”, an inspector from the local command unit must now give authority before the search takes place to ensure appropriate oversight. A Merlin report must also be submitted, to ensure safeguarding the child is the priority. The Merlin system contains information about a child coming to police attention.

The MPS said every search is also reviewed to ensure it has been carried out properly.

It added: “We recognised these measures also needed to apply to strip searches carried out in custody following arrest, and these were implemented at the beginning of this month.

“Again, we are considering what more we can do, with that key focus on safeguarding the child.

The MPS said it has made a total of 14 voluntary referrals to the IOPC relating to strip searches of children.

In a statement it said: “Three of these relate to ‘Child Q’, ‘Child A’ and ‘Child X’ (also known as ‘Olivia’), which are all subject to independent IOPC investigations.

“The remaining 11 referrals relate to separate incidents, between December 2019 and May 2022, where children aged 14 to 17 were strip-searched by officers in custody or were subject to more intimate searches outside custody.

“Two of those 11 referrals are now subject to independent IOPC investigations and we will offer every support. They both concern 16-year-old boys who were strip-searched in custody without an appropriate adult being present. The searches took place at Ilford police station in January 2020 and at Bethnal Green police station in October 2020.

“Six of the 11 referrals have been returned for the Met’s Directorate of Professional Standards (DPS) to investigate and we await a further decision by the IOPC on the other three referrals.”

It added: “The IOPC has also raised concerns about the identification of strip search complaints and timeliness of referrals made to them – we recognised this as an issue and have taken measures to ensure any complaints received by local professional standards teams in our command units across London are escalated immediately to the DPS. We also welcome the IOPC’s proposed review of any further strip search complaints we have not referred to ensure we are meeting referral criteria and dealing appropriately.

“We have been liaising with the NPCC and are advocating a wider conversation on this issue to ensure safeguarding of children is a priority for policing nationally.”

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