A Home Office minister said he would “assume” police have “very good reasons” to conduct child strip-searches after a report warned of safeguarding failures.
Conservative frontbencher Lord Sharpe of Epsom faced groans from peers for his comments made in the House of Lords as he responded to concerns about the use of such powers.
Of the almost 3,000 strip-searches of children by police in recent years, more than half have taken place without an appropriate adult present, research by the Children’s Commissioner’s office showed.
Dame Rachel de Souza said the findings demonstrate “evidence of deeply concerning practice” with “widespread non-compliance” with statutory safeguards, and added that children are “being failed by those whose job it is to protect them”.
Lord Sharpe said the report raises a “number of concerns which we take extremely seriously” and noted the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) is investigating “several incidents” of children being strip-searched.
He told peers: “They will review whether existing legislation, guidance and policies remain appropriate. It is right we await their findings.”
Liberal Democrat Lord Paddick, a former deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said: “Would the minister not agree for the police to strip-search a child will rarely be proportionate, let alone 2,847 times since 2018.”
He pointed to Baroness Casey’s recent scathing report into the Met when he asked: “Is Baroness Casey not right when she says that the whole regime of police stop and search needs a hard reset?”
Minister Lord Sharpe replied: “I’d say he’s inviting me to comment on operational policing matters, I don’t know whether it’s appropriate or not.
“I would assume that they have very good reasons in order to be able to do this otherwise they wouldn’t conduct these searches.”
Non-affiliated peer Baroness Uddin later told the chamber: “I’m absolutely gutted to hear (Lord Sharpe’s) response to say ‘there must have been some reason’.
“I’m a child protection officer and have been a long-standing social worker and I’m all too aware about the issues around safeguarding, so should he as a minister from the Home Office.”
Lady Uddin also referenced the Casey review and suggested racial discrimination is “endemic” in the Metropolitan Police.
Lord Sharpe countered: “I think I have to correct the record. I didn’t say there must be a reason, I said I assumed that there was a good reason and that is very different, to be absolutely clear.”
He added he agreed with “many of the conclusions” of the Children’s Commissioner, adding: “I’d prefer to wait for the context of the various reviews that are being undertaken at the moment before giving a further opinion on this.”
The research, showing data for forces across England and Wales, revealed that a total of 2,847 strip-searches took place between 2018 and mid-2022 of children aged between eight and 17.
The vast majority of youngsters strip-searched were boys (95%).
About 38% of children strip-searched were black, and the report found that black youngsters were up to six times more likely to be strip-searched when compared with national population figures, while white children were around half as likely to be searched.
The report described this as a “pronounced and deeply concerning ethnic disproportionality” and Dame Rachel branded it “utterly unacceptable”.
The commissioner ordered the report after the Child Q scandal, which came to light last March.
The 15-year-old black schoolgirl was strip-searched by police while on her period after being wrongly suspected of carrying cannabis at school.
Scotland Yard apologised and said the strip-search at the girl’s school in 2020 without another adult present “should never have happened”.
Baroness Benjamin, the former children’s TV presenter and vice-president of Barnardo’s, said it was “sickening, shocking and truly disturbing” to read the details contained in the Children’s Commissioner’s report.
The Lib Dem peer said: “Most of us thought being strip-searched was a rare occurrence during the Child Q scandal. This has proven not to be so.
“And worryingly those from black and ethnic minority backgrounds appear to be disproportionately targeted. Childhood lasts a lifetime and the mental trauma, mistrust, abuse and humiliation suffered by these children will stay with them at a huge cost to society.”
Labour’s Baroness Chakrabarti raised concerns that the Public Order Bill contains measures to allow police to conduct stop and search without suspicion.
She said: “At the very least shouldn’t those provisions in the Public Order Bill be paused by the Government until the Government can assess what police regulation we need as opposed to endless extra police power?”
Lord Sharpe said stop and search makes a “very serious difference” to crime prevention.
Former senior judge and independent crossbencher Baroness Butler-Sloss said waiting for the IOPC is a long process, adding: “It seems to me the Government should be intervening to see that the rules are complied with.”
Policing minister Chris Philp, speaking on LBC radio, said following safeguarding practices around child strip-searches is “vital” and noted they are necessary on occasion because drug dealers get young people to hide drugs in intimate body cavities.
Dame Rachel said that, while she accepts that strip-searching children can be necessary in limited situations, it is an “intrusive and potentially traumatic power” which must be subject to “robust safeguards”.
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