Children can be used as undercover spies by more than 20 state agencies, guidance for the Government’s covert intelligence bill reveals.
Covert child agents can also break the law if it means they will be able to glean information that could prevent or detect crime, protect public health, safety, or national security or help collect taxes, says the guidance quietly laid by the Government this month.
Older children aged 16 and 17 could even be recruited to spy on their parents if they were suspected of being involved in crime or terrorism.
However, the guidance says child spies should only be recruited or deployed in “exceptional circumstances,” with their handlers required to give “primary consideration” to the need to “safeguard and promote the best interests of the juvenile”.
Critics said the Government’s safeguards did not go far enough and on Wednesday night tabled an amendment to the bill for debate next week that would severely restrict the use of child spies by preventing their deployment if there was a risk of “any foreseeable harm”.
Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield said their use should be banned: “I remain to be convinced that there is ever an appropriate situation in which a child should be used as a CHIS [Covert Human Intelligence Source]. This practice is not in the best interests of the child.”
The bill allows 22 state agencies – from the intelligence services, police and military to councils, HMRC, Home Office and Ministry of Justice – to use undercover agents including children but they must appoint an “authorising” senior executive to validate and oversee any operations.
No child under 16 can be used to spy on their parents but the guidance allows children aged 16 or 17 to act as spies to gather evidence on their parents provided “careful consideration has been given to whether the authorisation is justified in light of that fact”.
The Home Office said child spies are only used when necessary but can have “unique access to information that is important in preventing and prosecuting gang violence and terrorism”.
The High Court ruled last year that police recruitment and use of child spies to penetrate “county lines” drug gangs and other criminal or terrorist organisations was lawful and not a breach of their human rights.
The case was brought by the charity Just For Kids Law which argued that there were not “adequate safeguards” governing recruiting and deploying children as spies.
Jennifer Twite, of Just For Kids Law, said: “We are deeply concerned that the Government is taking an ‘end justifies the means’ approach by suggesting that it might sometimes be justified to put children in harm’s way.
“This is entirely contrary to our international obligations to treat the best interests of a child as a primary consideration and an extremely worrying way for law enforcement to behave.”
Any handler of a child spy will be required under the bill to carry out a “risk assessment” before they are deployed – and any operation would be limited to four months.
However, the amendment, due to be considered on January 13, would block any operation where there was a risk of foreseeable harm.
The Government faces a major Lords revolt with former Conservative Defence Secretary George Younger, children’s rights campaigner and filmmaker Baroness Kidron, Labour and the Lib Dems behind the amendment.
Stella Creasy, the leading Labour MP who helped draft the amendment, said: “If the Government don’t accept this amendment, they have to tell us why they want the power to put children in the path of foreseeable harm.
“Equally, how can a child consent to spy on their parents? It is one thing catching someone serving alcohol to under-aged, but a very different proposition if your dad is a kingpin in a county lines gang. Most of these are very vulnerable children.”