CHILDREN as young as 13 have been strip searched by Police Scotland over fears they were possessing illegal drugs.

According to new figures, over 50 children and young people had clothing removed by officers over a nine-month period from May last year.

However, around half of all the searches were “negative”, meaning that nothing was found during the police contact.

Bruce Adamson, who is the Children and Young People's Commissioner Scotland, said: “Strip searching children is a highly intrusive practice which interferes with rights to privacy and bodily integrity and causes feelings of fear and intimidation. Children in custody are particularly vulnerable and need special care to protect their interests and wellbeing.

“While it is important that data is now being collected on strip searches of children, I am concerned about the frequency and the proportion of negative searches. Strip searches of children should only be undertaken in exceptional circumstances, when it is a necessary and proportionate response to a real risk.”

Police Scotland Chief Superintendent John McKenzie said: "Police Scotland is committed to ensuring that all stop and search activity is carried out in a lawful, proportionate, justifiable and accountable manner, in line with the Code of Practice for Stop and Search which was introduced in May 2017."

Officers have statutory powers to stop and search an individual if they have a reasonable suspicion that items such as drugs, knives or guns are being carried.

Strip searches, which are rarer, must be authorised by a constable of at least the rank of inspector and the officer who conducts the search has to be of the same sex as the detainee.

Details are recorded on the National Custody System and are also available as part of a searchable spreadsheet on the force website.

Between May 2017 and January this year, 51 strip searches were conducted on individuals aged 17 and under, of whom six were younger than 16.

A policing source said strip searches are occasionally carried out if officers believe children are possessing illegal drugs, or if their parents use their children to conceal these items.

Of the 51 cases, all but a handful were drugs related. Twenty-six were “positive”, but 25 failed to find anything.

Four 15 year olds, one 14 year old, and a 13 year old had clothing removed as part of police operations. The latter case involved a strip search on a boy in the Torry/Ferryhill area of Aberdeen in December, but nothing was found.

Most of the 51 searches took place inside a police station, but at least 13 were conducted outside this environment. The overwhelming majority of the searches were on males.

Statutes in Scots law have different definitions of a child, but the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as everyone under 18.

The new code of practice on stop and search states: “For the purposes of this code, children and young people are defined as those being under the age of 18.”

The code also notes: “Whenever a strip search involves exposure of intimate body parts, constables must ensure that the number of persons who witness the search must be kept to the absolute minimum necessary, although there must always be at least two persons other than the person who is being searched present during the search.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur described the greater transparency around the use of strip searches as “positive”, but said: "These searches are invasive and can cause distress. There must be robust safeguards in place to ensure that they are only conducted when absolutely necessary, particularly in the case of young people."

Labour MSP Daniel Johnson said: “It is important to recognise the strides made by Police Scotland addressing the issues around use of stop and search. Indeed, the only reason we are able to get the detail of these incidents is the improved monitoring of the practice. 

“However, strip searching children is both intrusive and potentially harmful. It is important that we manage the challenging balance between public safety and the rights of children and young people.

“I know from my meetings with the police that each search is thoroughly examined and only conducted if both strictly necessary and within the parameters of the code of practice. These figures are a cause for concern and therefore I would urge the police to re-examine these instances – both internally and through external experts – to ensure that their actions are proportionate.”

McKenzie said: "We recognise the impact stop and search and specifically strip search can have on individuals and particularly on children and young people. Officers understand the need to safeguard and promote the wellbeing of children and young people whilst also protecting communities from harm. Under the code of practice, strip searches must be authorised by an officer of the rank of inspector or above, only after considering an officer's use of legislation, reasonable grounds and justification for a strip search. These searches are conducted in a manner to minimise embarrassment and maintain an individual's dignity.”