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Safer Schools Officers 'need' proven ability to engage with children

The recommendation has been issued by the City and Hackney Safeguarding Partnership.

Safer Schools Officers should be seen as specialists and children from a range of schools should be involved in their recruitment process where possible, an independent safeguarding commissioner has said.

Jim Gamble, former head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command as well as the former Deputy Director General of the National Crime Squad, has issued a progress report following on from the Child Q strip search case in his capacity in his current role with City and Hackney Safeguarding Partnership.

A review published by the partnership in March 2022 made eight findings and 14 recommendations across a range of local agencies. The Met had accepted the recommendations which were relevant to them. Today’s report centred around details on progress that has been made since.

Mr Gamble said “the voluntary and community sector has continued to drive an unswerving focus on the review’s findings”. However, from the policing side the appointment of a new Commander of the Central East Basic Command Unit has held things up. He pointed nonetheless to “tentative optimism” and acknowledged that impact would take time. 

The report includes some additional recommendations for moving forward - including around Safer Schools Officers.

Mr Gamble has written that the officers “should operate to a set of objectives that includes mentoring, and supporting children, wherever possible diverting them from criminal justice pathways.”

A training analysis should also be carried out, with only officers who have a proven ability to both engage and work with children going into the role he said.

A further area the safeguarding and children commissioner discussed within the report was the size of the force. Whilst Mr Gamble acknowledges that the debate on the size and shape of the Met does not come into the scope of the report, he does think there is a need for greater local accountability.

The current BCU model, which does not match individual boroughs, “does not always facilitate frequent and meaningful community and local political engagement,” he said.

He suggested that having local people engaged within the appointment process of the most senior Commander in their borough would be one way of strengthening local accountability.

“When looking at other local organisations, this is routine. For example, the most senior appointments in Councils are made only after robust and thorough engagement with a range of different stakeholders, many of whom are community representatives," he wrote. 

“The MPS could still operate a process whereby it shortlists suitably qualified candidates (Chief Superintendents) who have applied for the role of BCU Commander and in a final stage, seek to engage local representatives to allow them to help decide who is the best fit.”

Another option is the community scrutiny mechanisms which to date have been “largely ineffective”. He recommended that the recently announced London Policing Board should “routinely scrutinise the actions taken by the MPS”.

Mr Gamble told BBC Radio Four’s The World At One programme that since the  chilld Q strip search came to light in March 2022, there was “limited” evidence of significant positive impact on the ground – something he said was not surprising given it is a “problem that’s grown over so many years” and therefore was not going to be resolved in a year.

But he said that no children in Hackney had been subjected to a strip search in Hackney in 14 months “so there’s an immediate positive, but the work to do goes far, far deeper than that”.

Other simpler changes include routine messaging on steps taken (with dedicated engagement with children). 

The Met has welcomed the update report. 

Detective Chief Superintendent James Conway BCU Commander for Hackney and Tower Hamlets has said: “The report correctly identifies the need for a child centred approach and the crucial need for police to be careful and proportionate in the use of all of our powers. This is even more important for the most intrusive searches, such as these type of strip searches, and especially when involving children. We should not have needed an incident such as Child Q to check our approach.

“While we have made notable practical improvements, such as requiring more senior levels of authorisation, what happened to Child Q illustrates why public scrutiny is so crucial in checking how we use our powers. We should never tire of testing that we are policing with the consent of the public.”

He added that time will be needed to consider the additional recommendations made. We are still awaiting the outcome of the IOPC investigation. 

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