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Jenny Jones: Ministers must provide clarity on the use of child spies

3 min read

There are significant questions about whether the use of children as Covert Human Intelligence Sources contravenes the UN convention on the rights of the child, writes Jenny Jones 

At last, after much nagging, the government is starting to count the number of juveniles used as police spies, or as they call them, Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS). In a Lords’ debate last year, peers criticised the government for extending to four months the time that children can be used by the police before the operation is reviewed and can be extended. I have organised another airing of this issue with an oral question to the minister on 18th March.

Thanks to the work of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, a relatively minor piece of secondary legislation has been given the full scrutiny that it deserves. There are significant questions about whether the use of children as CHIS contravenes the UN convention on the rights of the child, with the organisation Just for Kids trying to crowdfund for a legal challenge.

The work these child spies undertake can potentially involve terrorist groups and drugs gangs. One ministerial defence is that these young people are already involved in that world, so it’s just a continuation of their existing activities. This is less than reassuring. The state has a responsibility to deal with crime and to steer young people away from crime. When caught committing a crime, these children should be given help, not recruited as spies and sent back into potential danger.

There is a system of monitoring and appropriate adults are involved, but one only has to look at how badly things have gone wrong with professional undercover police officers, and wonder what might happen to a young person who is deployed on behalf of the police.

The minister previously described the use of child spies as rare and we have now found out what that means, with Lord Justice Fulford, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, stating that: “Since January 2015, 17 CHIS authorisations relating to juveniles have been approved across 11 public authorities in total. Of the juveniles involved, one individual was 15 years old and all others were either 16 or 17.”

He concludes that: “The low numbers show that this tactic is only utilised in extreme circumstances and when other potential sources of information have been exhausted.”

As much as I welcome the increased monitoring carried out by inspectors working for the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, I still have concerns and further questions for the government.

The focus has been on the welfare of the individual child, but will the monitoring also include the policies that provide the police framework for using CHIS? How the policy is set regarding (1) payments, (2) inducements, and (3) frequency of use of each juvenile, will impact on the numbers of CHIS used. The whole point of extending the operational period to four months was to make it easier for the police to utilise child spies. Do the police now plan to increase the numbers?  I realise that this is an ‘operational issue’, but if it does happen, it will be as a direct result of the secondary legislation pushed through by a minister.

For me, this raises the question about how much secondary legislation is going through without adequate scrutiny and how big the impacts on people will be. Given the additional powers that ministers have acquired in recent months, I think that Parliament needs to respond by radically changing its processes.   

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb is a Green peer



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