Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir Thomas Windsor has said that; “protecting the vulnerable, particularly children is perhaps the most important job that police officers and staff undertake.” Yet, the Metropolitan Police Service, the largest police service in England and Wales, has severely failed vulnerable children, it has come to light in a recent, damning, report. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) recently published their report detailing their inspection of child protection work of every police force in England and Wales. The findings are intended to provide information for the police and crime commissioner and the public on how well children are protected and whether their needs are met.
The 113-page National Child Protection Inspections report detailing the results of HMIC investigations in to the Metropolitan Police should shock the nation. Their investigations unearthed an alarming number of significant issues, some of which include basic errors.
The report, published on 25 November 2016, strongly criticised the Metropolitan Police Service for failing to adequately protect children at risk of abuse and sexual exploitation. Indeed, Inspectors found that children in London are being put at risk because of the “serious failings” in the way the Metropolitan Police deals with child sexual abuse.
Although the Inspectors say they did find examples of officers and staff who worked with genuine commitment, dedication and empathy to protect children and young people, it went on to say that ‘these individuals and teams are not achieving consistently good results for children in London.’
A staggering 278 out of 374 (more than 75%) of cases reviewed by HMIC were judged to have been dealt with inadequately, and/or needed improvement. In actual fact a total of 38 cases had to be referred back to the Metropolitan police because inspectors saw evidence that there was still a continuing risk to a child or to children.
The investigation highlights that the issue was not specific to any particular boroughs or localities but rather a wide reaching, systematic failing within the entire Metropolitan Police force. Inspectors noted that the police response to children who regularly went missing from home was poor: ‘in the 38 cases of missing and absent children [they] inspected, [HMIC] judged only two of them to be ‘good’. The other 36 cases reviewed were deemed to have been dealt with either inadequately or required improvement.
Poignantly highlighted in HMIC report, was the fact that individuals and teams have a lack of understanding of the well-known link between the risk of sexual exploitation and children going missing. This was just one example of the Metropolitan Police Service’s lack of training and understanding of domestic abuse and sexual exploitation and how they intertwine and affect children, either directly or indirectly. Some staff did not have the training necessary to do their job effectively. an example, detailed in the report was officers in roles focused on tackling child sexual exploitation (CSE) who had not been trained in the subject, and some staff within the force’s command and control centres could not recall having had any safeguarding for CSE training as part of their initial training course. This is most disconcerting, as control centre and command staff are typically the first point of contact and have the first opportunity to recognise any risk to a child and should know how to deal with such issues so that they can then deploy the appropriate protections to them. once example of the lack of leadership, training and judgement was that the police failed to interview a 10 year old girl who had witnessed her mother being raped and stabbed with a screwdriver, and may have, herself, been abused.
HMIC observed that at borough level, the force prioritised and focused on reducing crimes such as burglary, criminal damage, robbery, theft from a motor vehicle, theft from a person, theft of a motor vehicle and violence with injury. These are known as The Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) 7 crime types. In short, crimes which involved monetary loss was prioritised over looking after vulnerable and at risk people, particularly children. This is most likely due to the comparatively high solveability rates of property crimes when set against the complexity of crimes involving sexual exploitation and where the victims are vulnerable people and children. This should give serious pause for thought given the message it sends out about the value we as a society place on protecting the most vulnerable. .
Dealing with vulnerable children does need the engagement of multiple agencies, including social services and health services, but at times police officers failed to request strategy discussions with all relevant agencies, which meant opportunities to share information and develop action plans to safeguard children were missed.
HMIC also found that children would frequently be detained in custody after they had been charged rather than moving them to appropriate accommodation, which should be provided by the local authority. HMIC audited 40 custody cases and found 39 resulted in the child being charged, refused bail and kept in police custody to appear in court. This practice is wrong. The police have a duty under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), to ensure that children and young people are not detained in police custody for longer than necessary, both pre and post charge.
Even more concerning was the fact that certain borough police officers were often unaware of registered sex offenders in their area and so missed opportunities to routinely gather intelligence about those who pose the greatest risk to children.
Although the largest police force and in control of one of the most densely populated cities in the United Kingdom, the Metropolitan Police was one of the first services that HMIC inspected that did not have a single chief officer with responsibly and accountability for all children protection matters across the force, an unacceptable absence of strategy. There were “serious errors of judgement, inconsistency, unacceptable delays and a lack of leadership” in the police force.
Police Minister, Brenden Lewis called the findings the “most damning report the HMIC have ever written about any inspection it has done on any police force in the country.” The Metropolitan Police Service issued a statement to say that they will use the findings as a ‘launch pad’ and they have an action plan.
A few days after the release of the report, Home Secretary Amber Rudd said she wanted to see officers who would investigate complex cases involving the most vulnerable people, such as child sex abuse to be specialists in that field and be accredited in some way. She announced that an initial £1.9million would be made available to the College of Policing to develop training for frontline police officers so they may provide better protection to victims. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan has said he will work with the government and Met to protect vulnerable people, tweeting “I will be working with the Home Secretary, Met Police & other experts to ensure we do everything possible to safeguard vulnerable Londoners.”
It is encouraging that these shocking findings have led to some commitment to improvements and funding for training and addressing the issues. However the scale of the failures at all levels across the MPS suggests that there are no quick fixes and that there will be only meaningful improvement in child protection if there is a wholescale reform in this area. HMIC has made a large number of recommendations but if we are to see the change that is so desperately needed, it will require strong leadership, extensive further funding, rigorous follow up and that these issues remain firmly within the public eye.