Children are being held for too long in police custody once they are charged with an offence, the prison watchdog has warned.
A report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary found that too many children in north and north-east London were being kept in cells overnight and even at weekends, despite a statutory duty for authorities to provide them with alternative accommodation.
Data shows that in the year to 31 May 2017, 449 children under the age of 18 were charged and had bail refused. Of these, 310 requests for appropriate accommodation were made to local authorities, but only three youngsters were moved.
Children refused bail spent an average of 11 hours 32 minutes in police custody after being charged. In some cases, young people were held over the weekend, which meant much longer stays in custody.
The report stated that “little progress had been made regarding the provision of alternative accommodation for children, and there was no secure accommodation available across London”.
It found that although frontline officers were aware of the importance of avoiding taking children into custody, the lack of diversion schemes limited the opportunities to keep children out of the criminal justice system.
The report also raised concerns over the fact that girls were not routinely allocated a female officer and most custody staff were not aware of this requirement, prompting the Inspectorate to say the provision of appropriate adults for children and vulnerable adults was “inadequate”.
Peter Clarke, Chief Inspector of Prisons, and Dru Sharpling, Inspector of Constabulary, said: “Too many children who were charged and refused bail remained in custody overnight, and sometimes the weekend, when they should have been moved to alternative accommodation provided through the local authority."
They recommended the force should agree arrangements with local authority partners to avoid the overnight detention of children in custody by their transfer to suitable alternative accommodation.
The report also urged the Met to work with local authority partners to deliver consistent outcomes for detainees, and provide them with early support, with access to 24-hour services when needed.
Despite the shortfalls reported, inspectors found some positive aspects, noting that “custody staff deal with children and vulnerable adults in a positive and reassuring way" and that children could speak with family members by telephone and that mental health nurses tried to see children when possible.
Services for detainees with mental ill health had also significantly improved, with no individual having been detained in any of the suites inspected as a place of safety under the Mental Health Act in 2017, which was part of an impressive London-wide strategy.
In response to the report, a spokesperson for the Met Police said: “We recognise the issues raised by the prisons inspectors and are already taking steps to address the findings and recommendations through the implementation of an improvement plan.
“We recognise police custody can be a daunting and intimidating experience for children, custody suites are designed to provide a safe and secure environment for detainees and our suites are regularly inspected.
“Additional safeguards for children in custody include notifying their parent or guardian, providing appropriate adults to give extra support and more frequent welfare checks. Custody staff have received training in identifying and acting on vulnerabilities.”
They added that it is not unlawful to detain a child overnight, saying: “It may be necessary to detain a child if there is an ongoing investigation that necessitates their detention, for example to take forensic samples, or to prevent evidence being lost or destroyed.”