The Government Must Not Use Children As Spies

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MPs and Peers are demanding that the Government amend the current Covert Human Intelligence Bill which is being debated in the House of Lords today. They hope to ensure that children, particularly vulnerable children, are not used as Government spies. This would put them, their families, and friends in great danger from violent gang members and others.

At present, the law allows the police, and lots of other agencies (e.g. Local authorities and other government agencies such as the Gambling Commission) to recruit and use people as spies, including children and vulnerable people. A spy is someone who maintains a covert relationship with another person in order to provide information about them. They are known as Covert Human Intelligence Sources or CHIS.

There is no prohibition on using children, vulnerable people, or trafficking victims in this way. There is also no minimum age for a CHIS. Children can be used for four months at a time before they have to renew the authorisation.

The Home Office has confirmed that the police do recruit children as spies, although the published detail on this shows the numbers are small. However, Ministers have publicly stated they expect more children to be used in this way as part of tackling county lines operations.

The Home Office confirmed that the police do recruit children as spies.

This is of great concern within Black communities because it's a well-known fact that gang members’ actively target the most vulnerable young people in society with cash incentives, co-opting them into criminal activities, including transportation of drugs and violence.

The National Crime Agency estimates there are currently around 2,000 individual deal line numbers linked to approximately 1,000 county lines. Research shows that children as young as 11 are regularly used in such networks, which are predominantly young men. Evidence also shows the gang constituency involved may appear to over-represent members from BME communities in terms of race and ethnicity. Equally, there are increasing examples of girls being used by these networks, either to deal drugs or to be sexually exploited.

The bill before parliament is about more than asking children to inform on criminal activity. It allows them to be authorised to commit criminal offences in that gang–safe from prosecution. Children under the age of 16 are not allowed to spy on their own parents and must have an appropriate adult in meetings with their police handlers. However, 16 and 17-year-olds are allowed to spy on their own parents.

This leaves 16 to 17-year-olds vulnerable to being recruited without the knowledge of their parents or social workers, with only the police aware of their activities. They can be asked to inform on their own parents, or potentially asked to remain in dangerous situations at great personal risk. This would leave them without the legal or independent advice on whether to do this. The situation is also true for victims of trafficking.

Opposition to the child spies guidance is being driven by the Labour MP Stella Creasy. She is backed by the charity Just For Kids Law, who have helped draft the amendment which would block any operation where a child is asked to continue to commit criminal offences undercover if there was a risk of foreseeable harm to the child.

Creasy said:

“When people think of spies, they think of James Bond – but the truth is children are increasingly being drawn into being asked to spy on people close to them."

“This bill allows for when such covert sources can commit crimes – this amendment protects children being asked to do this except in very exceptional circumstances. If the government won’t accept it, then they need to explain why they want the right to put children in positions of harm for the sake of an investigation?”

The bishop of Durham, Paul Butler, who sits in the Lords, said: “Children of all ages deserve to be protected. Ideally, no one under 18 should ever be used for covert intelligence but if they must be, then it must be extremely rare and with thorough legal protections in place.”

We must not let any child, in particular vulnerable children, be put in another level of harm’s way. First, they get exploited by ruthless gang bosses, then by the intelligent services and our Government.

No, this must not happen.

Simon Woolley

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A call to action...

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