The United Nations will condemn and publicly shame the Government in May for allowing police to use 50,000-volt stun guns on children, as well as stopping and searching toddlers.
The Government faces a six-hour grilling in Switzerland over the extent of its compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the UK signed in 1990 and ratified the following year.
The last time the UK was measured up against the convention, in 2008, the UN said that it wanted England and Wales to treat “Taser guns and AEPs [attenuating energy projectiles] as weapons subject to the applicable rules and restrictions and put an end to the use of all harmful devices on children”. British police started using Tasers in 2003.
Police use of stun guns has increased since that hearing, with 38 per cent more incidents in which they were aimed at children in England and Wales in 2013 than the previous year. Tasers fire two darts, and temporarily disable their targets with a five-second discharge of 50,000 volts that contracts the muscles and bewilders the nervous system.
A UN source said the UK has been asked to provide data on police Taser use, as well as the number of rubber or plastic bullets that have been fired at children. The source added: “Members do intend to raise the issue, along with stop and search and the appropriate use of force, especially regarding adolescents.”
Carla Garnelas, the co-director of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (Crae), said: “The use of Taser on children is a breach of their human rights. UN bodies have repeatedly called for the UK government to ban their use on children, highlighting the serious risk of physical and psychological harm they pose, yet the use of Taser on children continues. We want to see a ban on Taser use on children.”
Police stopped and searched nearly 300 children aged under five in the five years to 2014, meaning officers might have believed toddlers were carrying a knife or involved in terrorism. Typically, though, the searches are undertaken because officers suspect the children have been used by adults to hide weapons, stolen goods, or drugs.
In separate written evidence to the committee, the UK Children’s Commissioners, established in statute during Tony Blair’s premiership, said: “The Children’s Commissioners are concerned that the UK State Party’s response to the global economic downturn, including the imposition of austerity measures and changes to the welfare system, has resulted in a failure to protect the most disadvantaged children and those in especially vulnerable groups from child poverty … The best interests of children were not central to the development of these policies and children’s views were not sought.
“Reductions to household income for poorer children as a result of tax, transfer and social security benefit changes have led to food and fuel poverty, and the sharply increased use of crisis food bank provision by families. In some parts of the UK there is insufficient affordable decent housing which has led to poorer children living in inadequate housing and temporary accommodation.”
The Howard League for Penal Reform has also told the committee that England and Wales has one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility, at 10 years old, and highest level of child incarceration in western Europe. Its written evidence states: “There are grave concerns about the number of children who have taken their own lives in prison, as well as concerns about the increasing use of punitive measures such as solitary confinement and the use of force.”
The criticism comes as the Home Secretary, Theresa May, evaluates a report by Chief Constable David Shaw of West Mercia Police into the quality of data related to Taser use. There are concerns that police forces do not record Taser threats and other uses of force accurately enough, a problem some believe will not be resolved because, they argue, Mr Shaw has not consulted widely enough beyond the police.
Crae’s Ms Garnelas said: “We urgently need to see fully disaggregated national data on Taser use on children. We are very disappointed that we were not invited to feed into Chief Constable David Shaw’s review on Taser data.”
Sophie Khan, a solicitor who is legal and policy director at the Police Action Centre, said the Shaw review is “beyond a whitewash”. She had previously asked officials for the terms of reference for the review, which she never received.
A Home Office source said it is a “niche” issue, and a spokesman added: “Taser provides the police with an important tactical option when facing potentially physically violent situations and this government is committed to giving officers the necessary tools to do their job. All officers trained in the use of Taser must consider the vulnerability of the individual, and factors such as age and stature form part of this assessment.
“But just as with sensitive powers like stop and search and mental health detention, the police use of force warrants proper accountability and transparency. That is why the Home Secretary commissioned Chief Constable David Shaw to lead an in-depth review of the publication of Taser data and other use of force by police officers, to ensure these powers are being used appropriately. The review will present options for publishing data on how force is being used by the police, who it is being used on, and what the outcomes are.”
A 15-year-old boy with learning difficulties was Tasered by police at his school in Plymouth after reports of an alleged assault on a teacher. Devon and Cornwall Police said at the time of the December 2013 incident that officers arrived to find three boys holding knives.
Earlier that year a 12-year-old girl holding two knives was Tasered in St Helens, Merseyside. Last year, the Independent Police Complaints Commission found that officers had acted in a “proportionate” way when they Tasered a 17-year-old who was behaving in a threatening manner at her Blackpool home.
It is thought the youngest person to have a Taser aimed at them was a boy of 10, who had a knife and threatened self-harm, when West Yorkshire police cornered him. The incident is known to have taken place within the past two years.