Children are being used as spies in secret operations against terrorists, drug dealers and gangs.
Some child spies are under 16 and the government has plans to give law enforcement agencies more freedom in using children.
A House of Lords committee revealed the practice as it considered extending the use of children, the Guardian reported.
The committee said it was worried about proposals to extend the period of time between child spies going through a re-registration process from one month to four months.
Police drug seizure: The Home Office said child spies can be crucial in fighting and getting access to drug gangs
Lord Trefgarne, a former Tory government minister who chairs the committee, said: ‘We are concerned that enabling a young person to participate in covert activity associated with serious crime for an extended period of time may increase the risks to their mental and physical welfare.’
‘It can be difficult to gather evidence on gangs without penetrating their membership through the use of juvenile CHIS
Ben Wallace, Home Office minister
According to a House of Lords report, children are only used to furnish the police with information, and also assigned to collect information on behalf of agencies.
The Home Office said: ‘This pressure to obtain results could be unhelpful to the juvenile CHIS [covert human intelligence sources] and also to the law enforcement agency … In some circumstances this requirement can also act as a deterrent with law enforcement avoiding the use of juvenile CHIS[.]’guard
The Home Office suggests that authorisation be reviewed monthly by a senior official to ensure the welfare and safety of the child, and to ensure the deployment remains ‘necessary and proportionate’.
Lord Trefgarne said he was concerned at the risks children were being asked to take, and a rights group condemned using children as foot soldiers
Ben Wallace, the Home Office minister who corresponded with the committee, suggested that juvenile sources may have ‘unique access to information’, especially when tackling gangs.
He wrote: ‘It can be difficult to gather evidence on gangs without penetrating their membership through the use of juvenile CHIS. As well as provide intelligence dividend in relation to a specific gang, juvenile CHIS can give investigators a broader insight into, for example, how young people in gangs are communicating with each other.’
Neil Woods, a former undercover police officer told the Guardian that using child spies was rare, and that it seems to be aimed to county level dug fighting
‘It sounds like infiltration to me, direction and infiltration,’ he said. ‘It’s basically a kid that has been caught first time, and instead of rescuing them they are sending them back in.’
Rosalind Comyn, legal and policy officer at Rights Watch (UK), 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.
‘It is also an affront to the government’s own safeguarding guidance, which requires our public authorities to help children escape crime, not become more deeply embedded in it.’