Greater protections for child strip search

Consultation launched to strengthen safeguards for child strip search including the requirement to notify parents and guardians when a child is strip searched

Parents and guardians will need to be informed when their child is strip searched by the police, under new government plans set out today.

The government is proposing a number of measures to strengthen protections in place for children and vulnerable people subject to a strip search that involves the exposure of intimate parts prior to arrest, as well as following detention.  

The changes to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) Codes of Practice A and C, which the government is seeking views on, include proposals that would require a senior officer, of the rank of inspector or above, to authorise any search of a child or vulnerable person is strip searched. This will apply to stop and search and searches in custody.

Greater clarity will also be given to existing safeguards, such as introducing requiring that an appropriate adult of the opposite sex may only be present if known to the detainee and the detainee agrees.

The plans, which will ensure officers have the confidence to use these powers if necessary while being able to hold them to account effectively, come after several high-profile cases in recent years where children were intrusively searched in ways that have caused trauma and raised safeguarding concerns.

Whilst there are strict rules already in place to govern how this power is used, more needs to be done to ensure the welfare and dignity of the individual being searched is protected and to provide clarity to the police on their use.

Crime and Policing Minister Chris Philp said: 

"Strip search is one of the most intrusive powers available to the police, and whilst necessary to keep the public and children safe, it should be used only where necessary and proportionate.  

"Following the concerning case of Child Q and subsequent findings by the Children’s Commissioner, we must ensure that the dignity of children and vulnerable people is protected.

"With these reforms, we will ensure police are clear on what is expected of them so when it is absolutely necessary, they are able to use these powers with confidence and accountability."

Under the plans, police officers will also have to make a safeguarding referral to children’s services whenever a child is subject to a search involving the exposure of intimate parts, to ensure appropriate follow up action is taken. Whilst many forces have this measure in place, the new requirement will ensure this partnership working is taking place consistently across England and Wales.

Following the Child Q case, reviews conducted by the Independent Office for Police Conduct, the Children’s Commissioner for England and the City and Hackney Safeguarding Partnership found that too often when strip searches involving the exposure of intimate parts are conducted, safeguarding and child protection have not been sufficiently prioritised.

Chief Executive of the Children’s Society Mark Russell said:

"The launch of this review into the strip-searching of children is a welcome and crucial step forward, acknowledging the traumatic effects of this practice and its wider impact on the dignity of young people. National guidelines advise that strip searching should only happen in exceptional circumstances, but we already know this is not always the case. 

"We very much welcome the push in the new guidelines to impose tougher safeguards. We have long been concerned about the number of children experiencing strip searches and look forward to taking part in the consultation process and, most importantly, to how the new guidelines will lead to a step change in the way that children are treated."

Further changes being proposed to ensure there is consistency in the use of this police power include: 

  • a requirement that if there is any reason to suspect the individual being searched is under 18, they are treated as a child
  • an explicit reference to the safeguarding needs of children subject to an intimate search, and the potentially traumatic impact that the search may have
  • a new requirement to notify an officer of the rank of at least superintendent following an intimate search of a child or vulnerable person where because of urgency, an appropriate adult was not present
  • a clarification that appropriate adults of the opposite sex can only be present during strip search if known to the detainee

The targeted consultation will run for six weeks with law enforcement, children’s services and practitioners invited to share their views on the proposals. The government will publish its response later this year.

From: Home Office and The Rt Hon Chris Philp MP