Police Scotland has been criticised for refusing to release new figures on the number of children detained and held overnight in cells.
It emerged in 2013 that hundreds of children had been arrested and detained including juveniles as young as 12 years old and that some had been locked up for several days.
The revelations came in responses to questions submitted under Freedom of Information laws, prompting outrage and warnings that child detention breaches a United Nations treaty protecting children’s human rights.
Figures in 2013 revealed that in the former Lothian and Borders force area, for example, 187 children aged 15 or under, were detained during 2011/2012, defined as a period which started before and ended after midnight.
They included two 11-year-olds, ten 12-year-olds, and 21 children aged 13-years-old.
Although most children spent only a few hours in custody, a 14-year-old boy arrested was held for more than 36 hours.
In Tayside, police said they had detained 124 children aged 15 or under overnight during 2011 and 2012.
The data from police also revealed significant disparities across Scotland but four forces refused to provide statistics.
Officers in the Grampian area said they did not detain a single child overnight but the practice was routine elsewhere.
No reasons were given as to why the detentions had taken place.
At the time, Tam Baillie, Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, warned that police forces were in breach of the law.
To obtain an update The Ferret submitted new Freedom of Information requests asking for figures in 2015, but Police Scotland has refused to release any data arguing it would be too time consuming and costly to collate the statistics.
The force’s refusal to provide new stats has prompted fresh concern and criticism over the lack of transparency, particularly in light of fears expressed previously that children’s human rights had been breached.
Baillie, Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner, said he would be writing to Police Scotland. He added: “Three years ago I expressed concerns about the apparent, significant variation in practice across the country which might mean the police are unnecessarily or inappropriately continuing to detain children in custody, in breach of the law.”
“My hope was that a single police force would bring consistency. Without new figures, we cannot assess progress. I will write to Police Scotland myself to ask for reassurance.”
Police Scotland said in its response to enquiries that it was unable to collate figures “as it would prove too costly to do so within the context of the fee regulations”.
The reply continued: “As you may be aware the current cost threshold is £600 and I estimate that it would cost well in excess of this amount to process your request. As such, and in terms of Section 16(4) of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 where Section 12(1) of the Act (Excessive Cost of Compliance) has been applied, this represents a refusal notice for the information sought.”
After reviewing their initial response Police Scotland declined to provide even partial information.
The review from Police Scotland said there are no search markers to enable the automatic retrieval of the information.
Police Scotland continued: “A search of this nature, to establish the age of the person in custody, would entail manual interrogation of records (i.e reading through individual custody records).
“The cost limit is £600 which equates to 40 hours of work. I would estimate that it would take approximately 10 minutes to interrogate each record.”
“This would equate to approximately six records per hour. This means that we could interrogate approximately 240 records within the 40 hour limit.”
“Police Scotland process hundreds of custodies each week. Even if it were to only take five minutes per record, this would clearly only encompass a very short period.”
“To try and give you an indication of the volumes in question – please note that for the time period calendar year 2015 – 170,000 custody records were created.”
When it was pointed out that four police forces had previously been able to collate figures, as reported by The Scotsman, Police Scotland said that the data in question was provided by some of the former legacy Scottish Police Forces, for a period dating prior to the inception of Police Scotland on 01/04/2013.
Police Scotland continued: “Further to this, I note that four of the eight former Force areas were unable to retrieve this information due to cost implications. Unfortunately, as stated below, the custody management systems currently utilised by Police Scotland do not have the facility to provide a full and accurate response to the level of detail requested – without the manual checking of individual records.”
It is unclear why police were able to collate some statistics previously but cannot do so now.
John Finnie MSP, Justice spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, said: “Given the public interest in this issue and the fact that details have been released before it’s hard to understand why Police Scotland are withholding this information.”
“Detaining a child should only ever be a last resort with expert approval, so to reassure the public Police Scotland should make clear the reasons for such detentions. If we take human rights seriously in Scotland we should not be holding children in police cells overnight unless there are truly exceptional circumstances.”
Liam McArthur MSP of the Lib-Dems, said: “Reports in 2013 that Scottish police forces were breaking the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child by locking up children as young as 12 for hours at a time were hugely troubling.”
“We need to treat children like children, not criminals. Putting vulnerable kids into the cells overnight is not in the interests of justice or in line with our commitment to protecting human rights.”
“It needs to stop. The fact that Police Scotland are unwilling or unable to provide information on child detention is deeply troubling. Data on child detentions were released three years ago and caused a media storm but this is not a reason for Police Scotland not to publish the latest figures.”
“The priority here must be protecting the rights of children, not managing the press.”
In reply to the above criticism, Superintendent Malcolm MacCormick, of Police Scotland’s Custody Division, said: “Police Scotland stringently monitors and assesses every juvenile detention and arrest throughout Scotland.”
“This is subject to 24/7 real-time review by a cadre of experienced force custody Inspectors who review the circumstances of every case.”
“Juveniles are only ever held in custody as a last resort and once all other avenues, such as Social Work places of safety, have been exhausted. Each juvenile detention/arrest is assessed in terms of the Lord Advocate’s Guidelines on Offences Committed By Children.”
“Due to demand and the often dynamic and unpredictable nature of offending, there may be occasions where Social Work cannot provide secure accommodation for the child. Therefore, a child would only be held for court within a Police Scotland custody suite as an absolute last resort.”
“In those cases the rationale and circumstances are fully documented by a senior police officer on a ‘Child Detention Certificate’ which accompanies the child and is made available to the court on the next lawful day.”
“A strict protocol of audit and scrutiny is in place within Police Scotland to ensure that no child is held in custody as a matter of routine. Furthermore, we continue to work with our partners in Social Work throughout Scotland in order to improve child provisions as we move forward.”
“Police Scotland dealt with more than 162,000 custodies last year and it is impossible for us to check every single record manually in order to respond to this Freedom on Information request within the cost guidelines. The implementation of a new custody system in six months or so will, however, enable this information to be provided in the future. ”
The Scottish Government said children should only be kept in police custody as a last resort.
A government spokesperson added: “Where custody is needed, the majority of child suspects will be released or charged within four hours.”
“If a child has been charged with an offence and the police decide not to release them, they must be kept in a place of safety. Only in extreme circumstances would they be kept in a police station after they have been charged.”
The Ferret intends to appeal Police Scotland’s decision to the Scottish Information Commissioner.