Child spies ‘put at risk by Home Office during police investigations’

Concerns raised last year over case of 17-year-old girl recruited to spy on man who had been exploiting her sexually

Tom Batchelor
Tuesday 11 June 2019 19:34 BST
The practice is rare but potentially puts children at risk of further abuse, say experts
The practice is rare but potentially puts children at risk of further abuse, say experts (Getty)

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The use of child spies to investigate sexual abuse, drug gangs and other serious crimes is putting vulnerable youngsters at risk of “severe physical and emotional harm”, the High Court has heard.

Sajid Javid, the home secretary, is facing a judicial challenge over the use of children as spies by police and other investigative bodies.

Lawyers for charity Just For Kids Law told a senior judge the government considers there is “increasing scope” to use children as covert human intelligence sources (CHIS), because they are increasingly involved in serious crimes, both as “perpetrators and victims”.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, for the charity, told Mr Justice Supperstone the use of children to investigate and prosecute serious offences, including terrorism, county lines drugs offences and child sexual exploitation, raises “serious concerns” about their safety and wellbeing.

Concerns over the use of child spies were raised in the House of Lords last year when peers heard one 17-year-old girl was recruited to spy on a man who had been exploiting her sexually.

Others aged as young as 15 have been used to infiltrate gangs in a practice that experts say is rare but potentially puts children at risk of further abuse.

Enver Solomon, chief executive of Just for Kids Law, said: “The children at the heart of this case are among the most vulnerable in our country and it is vital that they are protected and kept safe from harm.

“When the police identify a child who is being exploited, their first response should be to safeguard that child and help them to get out of that situation rather than put them at great risk of further exploitation and abuse.

“The government must act urgently to introduce the safeguards that would protect children from severe physical and emotional harm.”

The charity, which has raised more than £5,000 through crowdfunding towards the cost of the case, said children used as CHIS are not given access to an appropriate adult and their parents may not know they are being used as informants.

Government lawyers contend the scheme is lawful and contains appropriate safeguards.

Sir James Eadie QC, representing Mr Javid, said the use of “juveniles” as CHIS “may be very important for reasons of national security, public safety, and the prevention of disorder and crime”.

He added: “The scheme’s ... aim is to ensure that that use is properly controlled and accompanied by appropriate decision making.

“To that end, the welfare of the child is placed at the forefront of decision making as to the deployment of CHIS and the scheme provides adequate and appropriate safeguards.”

Lord Justice Fulford, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner who is carrying out a review into the use of children as CHIS, revealed in March that 17 children have been used as informants by 11 public bodies since January 2015.

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

But Rosalind Comyn, legal and policy officer at Rights Watch, said she was “gravely concerned by the human rights and ethical implications of using children as informants”.

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In a tweet at the time revelations about child spies were first reported in The Guardian last summer, she criticised the system used to authorise the use of CHIS as lacking involvement by an independent social worker or safeguarding practitioner and warned the requirement for an “appropriate person” to be present for meetings between a child informant under the age of 16 and their handler was “vague and undefined”.

She concluded: “We urge the government to stop intentionally exposing children to #terrorism, crime or sexual abuse rings, and to put #childrights and welfare at the heart of decisions that affect them.”

Mr Justice Supperstone is expected to give his ruling at a later date.

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