The police and the intelligence agencies in the United Kingdom are reportedly deploying children as spies in operations against terrorists, gangs and drug dealers.
Some of the minors tasked with infiltrating gangs are aged under 16, the report by a House of Lords review committee said.
The committee also raised concerns about the government officials’ proposal to extend the period of time from one month to four for a person of under the age of 18 to be used as a covert human intelligence source (CHIS).
The recently released report suggested children were not only supposed to equip police with crucial information but also assigned to collect information on behalf of such agencies.
The impetus behind the change was to remove the obligation for law enforcement agencies to go through the hassle of renewing the authorization of juveniles who are in middle of completing a task they are assigned with.
However, the particular concern was about the welfare of youngsters hired for such a risky job and if sufficient safeguards were put in place to ensure their well-being.
“We are concerned that enabling a young person to participate in covert activity for an extended period of time may expose them to increased risks to their mental and physical welfare. I cannot hide from you the Committee’s considerable anxiety concerning the principle of employing young people–sometimes very young people–in this way,” said the committee, chaired by Lord Trefgarne, a former Tory government minister.
In response, the Home Office, the ministry responsible for law and order within the U.K., explained how having covert operatives under the age of 18 could be useful in particular cases.
"Given that young people are increasingly involved, both as perpetrators and victims, in serious crimes including terrorism, gang violence, county lines drugs offences and child sexual exploitation, there is increasing scope for juvenile CHIS to assist in both preventing and prosecuting such offences," said Ben Wallace, a Home Office official.
"Much as investigators would wish to avoid the use of young people in such a role, it is possible that a carefully managed deployment of a young person could contribute to detecting crime and preventing offending," he added.
Regardless, not many were convinced by the need to put youngsters into the dark world of crime and terror.
“It sounds like infiltration to me, direction and infiltration. It’s basically a kid that has been caught first time, and instead of rescuing them they are sending them back in,” said Neil Woods, a former undercover police officer who investigated drugs gangs around the country.
Woods also said he was aware of youngsters being used as CHISs in the past, but it was rare. He pointed out how dangerous it could be for children who were already somehow part of the drugs trade to be put back in the same vicious cycle.
“It’s going to rack up the violence because as soon as gangsters think that there are more spies in their ranks then the classic arms race reaction is to increase the amount of terror, to make sure that those people are more scared of the gangsters than they are of the ramifications of the police,” he added, referring to the ringleaders who already see children part of their nasty business as expendables.
Rights Watch U.K., a charity focused on national security measures, also tweeted out its concerns.
There is a clear conflict between the use of children as informants and agencies' safeguarding obligations. The Government's own guidance requires steps to be taken to prevent children from being exposed to criminal activity, not embed them further in it. 3/— Rights Watch (UK) (@rightswatchuk) July 19, 2018
"Under domestic and international law, decisions which affect children must be taken in their best interests. Their welfare must be the primary consideration. It is difficult to imagine any circumstance where it would be in a child's best interest to be used as an informant," the group said.
“Enlisting children as foot soldiers in the darkest corners of policing, and intentionally exposing them to terrorism, crime or sexual abuse rings – potentially without parental consent – runs directly counter to the government’s human rights obligations, which demand the interests of children be placed at the heart of decisions which affect them,” said Rosalind Comyn, legal and policy officer at Rights Watch.
In face of the widespread opposition, the Home Office said the juvenile covert human intelligence sources were used only if there’s no other alternative available to get the information needed to convict criminals or terrorist suspects. It also ensured the employment of child spies was supervised by the investigatory powers commissioner, Lord Justice Fulford.
“Throughout any deployment and beyond, the welfare of the young person is the paramount consideration,” the department said.
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