Police need “draconian” powers to carry out strip-searches of children, a Home Office minister said as she rejected calls to outlaw the “abhorrent” practice.
Sarah Dines was accused by Labour MPs of seeking to “downplay or excuse” the breaching of existing guidance by forces in connection with the searches, labelled “child abuse” by Alex Cunningham (Stockton North).
Ms Dines accused the Opposition of seeking to “inflame local policing” by highlighting that children as young as eight have been strip-searched, and instead argued that 75% were aged 16 or 17.
The research, showing data for police forces across England and Wales, revealed that 2,847 strip-searches took place between 2018 and mid-2022 of children aged between eight and 17.
More than half were carried out without an appropriate adult present and about 38% of children strip-searched were black, with the report finding that black youngsters were up to six times more likely to be strip-searched when compared with national population figures.
DUP MP Ian Paisley (North Antrim) told the Commons: “If the police are to have these powers the minister has made it clear they must be used proportionately and within the guidelines.
“It’s as obvious as a galloping horse that they’re not been used proportionately and not being used within the guidelines.”
Ms Dines, in her reply, said: “These are draconian powers. The police need them in circumstances, and in some circumstances they shouldn’t be used – there needs to be a proper balance.”
Ms Dines, in response to concerns raised by Labour MP Janet Daby (Lewisham East), said: “Strip-searches are very serious; they have to be lawful and they have to be in the most appropriate way that has the least effect of trauma.
“There’s a lot of research in this and the Children’s Commissioner has looked at it very carefully, as will the Government. I can give a commitment that this is a very important issue that the Government will be looking at.
“We have a balance between safeguarding children from the gangs, who will abuse them. If there’s a strict outlawing of strip-searches, which some Opposition members would like, there would be an open field day for the criminal gangs to abuse our children.”
Dame Rachel 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.
Ms Dines, in her reply, said: “I am concerned when members of the Opposition seek to inflame local policing by emphasising, for example, strip and searches of an eight-year-old.
“In relation to the in excess of 2,500 strip-searches, most of those were over the age of 16, so it is not right that the Labour Party inflames local policing by misquoting or misrepresenting what’s going on.”
Ms Dines said 75% of those searched were aged 16 and 17, adding: “About half of them are found with illegal substances or weapons on them.”
Helen Hayes, Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, earlier said: “It is not acceptable for the minister today to downplay or excuse the routine breaching of existing guidance as she has done today – 16- and 17-year-olds are still children.”
Ms Dines replied: “I don’t accept that I have downplayed the seriousness of this. This is a very serious issue.”
She said there is “no need for knee-jerk reaction” following the publication of Dame Rachel’s report on Monday.
Labour MP Mr Cunningham said the minister was trying to “defend the indefensible” and asked: “How will she ensure that children are protected from what could be termed child abuse?”
Ms Dines said the Government is engaging with the College of Policing to “better improve” training and education of officers.
Conservative MP Holly Mumby-Croft (Scunthorpe) praised Humberside Police and recognised there are “small, limited circumstances” where strip-searches may be necessary, adding: “We have to find a balance between allowing police to do their job and protecting children.”
Dame Rachel’s report recommended that the Home Office should make specific changes to the Police and Criminal Evidence (Pace) codes in order to strengthen the statutory safeguards for children strip-searched by police.
Ms Dines said: “There needs to be proper protection for our children and Pace must be adhered to and it will be reviewed.”