CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) – A dispute is breaking out in Great Britain over the long-overlooked use of children by police and intelligence agencies as informants and spies in efforts to fight terrorism, drug trafficking, sexual exploitation and gang activity.
The row became public on Thursday when The Guardian newspaper reported on the practice.
Concerns were first raised by a House of Lords committee over a recent request by Britain’s Home Office to give authorities longer periods of time to use children as “covert human intelligence sources.”
The use of children in crime-fighting efforts in Britain has gone largely unreported and unnoticed, even though surveillance legislation in 2000 formally approved the tactic, experts said.
“The lack of information is of real concern,” Rosalind Comyn, legal and policy officer for Rights Watch (UK), a civil liberties group, said Friday in a telephone interview.
“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,” she said in a written comment.
She said her group requested in a freedom of information request details about the program, such as the number and ages of children used and what incentives they receive for participating. Those details are lacking, she said.
British authorities say the number of children used is very small and only in the most necessary cases.
The Home Office – the ministry overseeing intelligence agencies and law enforcement – recently asked the House of Lords to approve extending from one month to four months the period authorities can use a child informant before needing to go through a re-registration process.
Lord David Trefgarne, the conservative chairman of a committee reviewing the request, raised a number of concerns in a June letter to the Home Office minister seeking the change, Ben Wallace.
“I cannot hide from you the committee’s considerable anxiety concerning the principle of employing young people – sometimes very young people – in this way,” Lord Trefgarne wrote.
He said the committee was concerned about the “welfare of the young person” acting as an intelligence source. He asked the Home Office to explain whether professionals outside the ranks of policing and intelligence agencies would be consulted on the “mental and physical welfare of juveniles.”
According to the Home Office, children under the age of 16 are used as intelligence sources.
“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,” Lord Trefgarne wrote.
Wallace replied in a letter that there is an increasing need to use children because of the rising number of children involved in serious crimes.
“They may have unique access to information about other young people who are involved in or victims of such offences,” he wrote.
He said “it can be difficult to gather intelligence on gangs without penetrating their membership through the use of juvenile” informants.
He added that while the use of youths is regrettable, they can help prevent crime and save other youths from falling victims to crime.
Wallace said the numbers of children used are “very small.” He said he would provide more details about the practice. He added that the requested changes “will improve the operational effectiveness of the regime while also strengthening the protections for young people.”
Brian Chappell, a former New Scotland Yard senior detective and professor at the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies at the University of Portsmouth, said the practice of using children as intelligence sources is necessary.
In 2015, he released a study based on interviews with police officers, top officials and others involved in the program.
“Primarily, it was an effective tactic,” he said in a telephone interview.
Chappel said the study found that the children typically ranged in age between 16 and 18 and were already involved in serious crime.
He said his study had found that many of the children used as informants were “diverted away from crime” by their handlers.
He found that children under the age of 15 were not considered for use as informants.
“Based on the evidence presented, no young person has been put at risk or injured or killed in the UK as a result of them being used as a CHIS,” he said, using the acronym for a covert human intelligence source.
Chappell said the request to extend the period a child can be used to collect information would help law enforcement. He called one month “a very restrictive period.”
He said investigators were keen to receive outside help in assessing the welfare of the youths.
“There is genuine concern by the practitioners about how they assess the psychological risks because they are not professionals,” Chappell said. “It’s down to the cops to do it.”