Met police heavily criticised over child protection failings

Britain’s biggest police force has suffered a humiliating rebuke from an official watchdog for failing to protect children and for delays in investigating fears about adults who attack and exploit the young.

The Metropolitan police, which prides itself on being a leader in law enforcement, was found to be so inadequate in so many areas it will now face emergency measures.

The report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary examined a sample of child protection cases, numbering about 384, and found that three-quarters were substandard. Matt Parr, lead inspector for HMIC, said the failings were systemic and involved errors in leadership, training, organisation and judgment. “They have really dropped the ball on child protection,” he said.

HMIC announced fresh follow-up inspections for the force and the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, promised crisis measures, saying: “This deeply troubling report has found that, too often, children in our city have been let down when they are most in need. This is simply unacceptable and things must change.”

Inspectors from HMIC were aghast at some of the failings they uncovered. In one case, the Met was warned by a child protection agency about a man uploading indecent child images to the internet. Police took 96 days to get a search warrant to seize the suspect’s computer. The Met then had to be told by HMIC to take action after it spotted the failing. Even then it took three months for the force to act.

The inspectorate said the Met had failed in the case of a 10-year-old girl – who had witnessed her father attacking her mother with a screwdriver and raping her – amid further concern that the child could herself have been attacked and abused by the man.

Met commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe inspecting police recruits.

Met commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe inspecting police recruits. Photograph: Rob Stothard/Getty

From cases of sexual exploitation to holding too many children in police cells to “serious concerns about the force’s response to missing and absent children”, the watchdog castigated the Met.

One detective protecting children was not trained to do so, nor had trained as a detective. Some parts of the force knew too little about convicted sex offenders living in their areas.

The report is one of the last covering the commissionership of the Met by Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe. He is due to retire in February next year.

Parr said: “We found serious errors of judgment, inconsistency, unacceptable delays and a lack of leadership which meant that children are not being protected properly. Far too many of the cases we looked at fell well short of expected standards and meant that victims weren’t protected, evidence was lost and offenders continued to pose a risk to children.”

Themes in the report echo longstanding concerns about the Met which have said that while it can be world beating in tackling high-end crimes such as murder, kidnaps and terrorism, it can be worse than other forces in dealing with more everyday crime and slow to recognise failings.

The child protection report said: “HMIC referred 38 cases back to the force, because we considered they contained evidence of a serious issue of concern – for example, failure to follow child protection procedures and/or a child at immediate risk of significant harm. The force responded to the concerns raised by inspectors in these cases, either by taking action or providing an updated assessment. However, there was still a failure by some staff to recognise wider investigative or safeguarding opportunities.”

HMIC found the Met was kidding itself about how well it was doing; in 76 cases studies where the force believed it was doing a good job, the real figure was 22. The Met had seen that it was failing in 24 cases that were studied but HMIC said the real figure was four times higher – about 101 cases.

In one instance, the Met rated itself as “good” in a case where a 30-year-old man had groomed a teenage schoolgirl with alcohol and cigarettes, who suffered sexual assaults. HMIC discovered police took 17 days before passing the case to an officer to investigate and rated the Met as “inadequate”.

Crime targets from the era when Boris Johnson was London’s mayor were highlighted by HMIC: “We were told in interviews that the focus was on these crimes as opposed to child protection. This requires urgent correction.”

The Met accepted the report in its headline messages, but in parts appeared defiant. The force said: “Since the HMIC inspection, we have revisited all the cases they examined. We have identified no further harm to children and no further offenders have been charged or cautioned as a result.”

The Met said defended itself against the criticism aboutholding children in police cells: “All custody cases reviewed by HMIC were cases where the child had been charged. In many circumstances, there is simply no suitable accommodation where these children can be placed, a fact acknowledged by HMIC within the main body of their report.”

London’s mayor said he would parachute in national experts as part of a special panel to oversee changes in the Met and discuss the failings with the home secretary. Both will soon interview and then choose by February 2017 the next commissioner of the Met.

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, said: “It is deeply worrying that the Met has not yet got to grips with the way it tackles child abuse and sexual exploitation. Its delay in doing so will have blighted the lives of many thousands of London’s children whose abuse has gone undetected by the authorities tasked with protecting them.”

Parr, who before joining HMIC had been in the Royal Navy and commanded the Trident nuclear submarine fleet, said there were no comparisons to be drawn with Operation Midland, the discredited Met inquiry into claims of historic sexual abuse by members of the establishment.