South Wales Police has been given six months to improve its handling of missing child cases, after an inspection found an alarming number were being classed as not at risk.

The force has also been ordered to improve its capacity for protecting vulnerable children from exploitation, along with its recording of stop-and-search incidents.

The findings came in a report by the Criminal Justice Inspectorates (HMICFRS), the body responsible for monitoring the effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy of police forces in England and Wales through its PEEL inspections.

Published on Thursday, the latest PEEL report for South Wales Police (SWP) warned that "the public can’t yet be confident that [SWP] has a consistent and risk appropriate response to reports of missing children."

Inspectors found a disproportionately high number of missing child cases in the SWP force area - including Cardiff, Swansea, and Rhondda Cynon Taff - were being classed as "No Apparent Immediate Risk, Absent" (NAIRA).

South Wales Guardian: The scores given to South Wales Police by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate (HMICFRS)The scores given to South Wales Police by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate (HMICFRS)

NAIRA, created by SWP in 2017 and similar to the "No Apparent Risk, Absent" (NAR) used in other forces, applies where a missing child aged 14-17 years old is judged - through a combination of their own personal history and the circumstances surrounding their disappearance - to not be at risk, and therefore their case less urgent, resulting in a slower deployment of resources.

The Justice Inspectorate found that 64 percent of missing children incidents in the South Wales Police force area were categorised as NAIRA between March and September last year - a rate thirteen times higher than across England and Wales in total (five percent).

For cases involving children who had been under local authority care before they went missing, 74 percent were classed as NAIRA.

"We found many examples of staff interpreting some potential child exploitation and abuse risk factors as being mitigating or protective," inspectors wrote, suggesting that factors making some children more vulnerable were instead used as reasons to class their cases as less urgent.

"The force’s missing persons policy wasn’t always followed," the report goes on.

"In some cases, supervisors didn’t make effective or consistent decisions when reviewing risks to children.

"There were several examples of significant delays in allocating staff to make missing persons enquiries and children not being seen after they had returned home.

"This is against force policy.

"In addition, the force wasn’t able to easily provide the risk assessment categorisation for a number of missing children incidents."

Similarly, SWP was given six months to ensure it is capable of investigating and intervening in cases of child exploitation.

Inspectors noted that there was no dedicated team within the force to handle such cases, and that existing staff had not been trained to carry out these duties either.

"Processes exist to describe how risks are assessed and communicated," they wrote.

"But, in many cases, staff don’t know who is responsible for putting plans into action.

"Without a clearly established and understood capability, the force is unlikely to be as effective as it could be at protecting vulnerable children."

HMICFRS also observed a significant drop in the number of stop and search incidents carried out by SWP officers under "reasonable" grounds - from 87 percent in its previous 2019 assessment to just 71 percent for searches carried out in 2021.

In some cases, the body noted, officers did not record any reason for the stop at all.

"To maintain the trust and confidence of the public, every police force should be able to show that its officers use stop and search powers fairly and effectively," inspectors wrote.

The report also highlighted concerns with some aspects of SWP's handling of potential domestic abuse cases, with "many" applications to the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme left unresolved for significant periods of time.

Also known as "Claire's Law", this scheme informs people who may be at risk of violence from their current or ex-partner of any prior convictions for violence and/or abuse that person may have.

"If potential victims of domestic abuse aren’t given information promptly, they can’t make an informed decision about their safety and may unknowingly remain in a dangerous situation," inspectors wrote.

The number of high-risk domestic abuse cases in the SWP force area, HMCIFRS said, was double the recommended limit - 82 cases for every 10,000 women, instead of 40.

SWP came under renewed scrutiny last year, with two deaths following police contact - that of Mohamud Mohammed Hassan, 24, and Leighton Jones, 30 - occurring within months of each other.

The inquest of Mohamud Hassan is ongoing.

Other issues raised in the PEEL report included: 

- Independent scrutiny panels not "given, or asked for their views about, data on use of force or stop and search."

- "Officers and staff are largely unaware of learning which has been identified by the scrutiny panels, meaning that opportunities to improve practice aren’t always taken."

- Inconsistent recording of sex offender registration breaches. Inspectors warn "not all safer neighbourhood teams have up-to-date knowledge about potentially dangerous offenders in their local area."

- Too few trained sexual offence first responders.

- A backlog of 70-80 suspected indecent images cases awaiting action.