Politics: Voyeurs' strip search law halted by Straw

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The Independent Online
A NEW law allowing men to watch girl offenders as young as 12 being strip searched has been frozen on the personal direction of Jack Straw.

The Home Office blunder was first spotted in March by a parliamentary committee of MPs and peers.

The Joint Commons and Lords Committee on Statutory Instruments - which vets rules and regulations pumped out by the Whitehall machine - pointed out the problem in a memo to the Home Office.

Questioning new rules for escorts accompanying young offenders from court to secure training centres, it said: "No provision is included prohibiting an offender from being stripped and searched in the sight or presence of an officer who is not of the same sex as the offender."

Even then, Home Office insensitivity was so great that alarm bells did not ring. Officials defended the rules as they stood - and the possibility of girls aged 12 to 16 being stripped and searched by a woman escort with male escorts witnessing the process.

A Prison Service spokesman said yesterday that officers of the opposite sex were not allowed to watch adult prisoners being strip searched.

Replying to the committee on 31 March, the Home Office said: "It is considered essential to provide that a search may only take place when at least two officers are present. This is for the protection of both the offender and the officers concerned.

"Wherever possible, only officers of the same sex as the offender will be present." But it then added: "The contract for the provision of escorts requires only one person of the same sex as the offender to be available for escort duties ... as there will not necessarily be more than one female custody officer available at any one time."

The committee was not satisfied, so it took the unusual step of asking Home Office officials to attend for oral questioning.

According to a report published by the committee yesterday, Hilary Jackson, head of the Home Office Juvenile Offenders Unit, told the committee on 28 April: "We have now looked at this again in the light of the concern and the Home Secretary ... and he has agreed and decided that we ought to change the rules to make certain that there will always be two custody officers ... of the same sex.

"The Home Secretary has agreed and does think that it is important that is made clear in the rules."

Andrew Bennett, Labour MP for Denton and Reddish, then pointed out that the regulations had come into force on 15 April, but he was told by Teresa Burnhams, the Home Office official in charge of the secure training centre project, that the escort contractors "have no intention of using other than the same sex to do the searching. They have given us an absolute guarantee that will be the case until the rules are changed."

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