Children 'still being held illegally in police cells'

A youngster held in a prison cell More than 40,000 children were detained overnight in police custody in 2011

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Hundreds of children are still being held in police cells overnight because of "chronic breaches" of the law, a leading police officer has said.

Manchester Assistant Chief Constable Dawn Copley told a group of MPs that police and councils needed to be reminded of their statutory duties.

She said the lack of suitable accommodation was a "growing concern" because of "shrinking resources".

The Home Office said under-18s should not be held in cells overnight.

Last October the Howard League for Penal Reform, a charity that has campaigned against the practice, revealed that more than 40,000 children had been detained in custody in 2011 in contravention of the law. This was, however, a drop on the previous year.

Children can be detained in custody to further a criminal investigation, uncover the identity of suspects, or because the disappearance of that person would hinder a prosecution. They may also be held until a social worker or probation officer arrives at a police station.

'Should be transferred'

But in evidence to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, Ms Copley suggested that the practice was widespread.

She said: "A large concern for the police service is the number of children and young people being detained in custody prior to appearance at court.

"The Police and Criminal Evidence Act is clear on this matter, and states that if they are being kept in custody they should be transferred to the care of the local authority.

"But in practice we know that local authorities do not always have the accommodation available, and with shrinking resources I think this becomes a growing concern. Too often, children and young people remain in custody overnight.

"The continued chronic breach of this legislative requirement is not only bad practice per se. Subliminally it indicates to all involved in the process that children's rights are not seen as important, and I've raised my concerns on this to the Home Office.

"A key role for the police and local authority children's services is to ensure better suitable provision is available and make it the exception rather than the rule for children to be detained in custody overnight."

'Very traumatic'

Ms Copley added that police forces needed to be reminded about exactly what the legislation says.

Start Quote

Finding appropriate emergency placements, often in the middle of the night is not always possible”

End Quote Andrew Webb Association of Directors of Children's Services

Councils also needed reminding of their "statutory duty", she said, "to provide accommodation for a child who otherwise would be remaining in custody overnight, awaiting appearance at a court.

"The norm has become an expectation that it won't be provided," she said. This was not "a good place for any of the agencies to be in and it's definitely not a good place for young people to be in".

Enver Solomon, director of policy and impact at the National Children's Bureau, said the experience of being in a police cell could be very traumatic.

"Police detention should always be used as an absolute last resort for any child. The vast majority of forces do not have separate child-friendly facilities and so they have to be held in the same place as adults.

"Children will be confused, bewildered and often feel frightened by what is an intimidating environment. The whole experience can be deeply traumatic and do great harm, particularly for those who are already very vulnerable, such as children in the care system or those with learning disabilities.

'Law is clear'

Andrew Webb, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said police must work with children's services and families to ensure that under-18s are returned home in the "vast majority of cases".

He added: "However, on some occasions children will need to be placed somewhere away from home for their own safety and for the safety of others.

"Whilst detention in a police cell must be used as a last resort, there are sometimes practical and pragmatic reasons why the detention occurs.

"Finding appropriate emergency placements, often in the middle of the night, is not always possible and decreasing human and financial resources have made this harder for local authorities - although emergency duty teams will have to hand a list of alternatives that they can try to obtain safe and suitable accommodation before a police cell is used."

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "The law is clear that any child who is charged with an offence should not be held overnight in police cells unless absolutely necessary.

"There may be times when it is not possible for local authorities to provide appropriate accommodation and children may need to be kept in police custody for either their own protection or that of the public. It is a matter for chief constables to ensure the law is complied with.

"The welfare and protection of all those held in police custody, especially young people, is extremely important, which is why we have changed the law so that 17-year-olds detained in custody will now be provided with an appropriate adult and their parent or guardian will be told of their arrest, as is already the case for 10 to 16-year-olds."

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