United Kingdom

Spy Kids: Government faces battle over plan to allow police and others to use children undercover

Ministers are facing a battle to pass a controversial new law allowing the use of child spies after peers voted to block their use in all but 'exceptional circumstances.

Police and the security services are among those who would be allowed to use under-18s as covert human intelligence sources (CHIS), with ministers highlighting operations against 'county lines' drug gangs as one area they could be used. 

But the plan is facing mounting opposition, including from inside the Conservative Party, over fears that they will be placed in danger or drawn into greater criminality.

Peers last night passed an amendment by 104 votes which would only permit the undercover involvement of children and vulnerable people in crime in 'exceptional circumstances' and with additional protections.

One of those behind the move was Tory former cabinet minister Lord Young of Cookham, who said police 'should be pulling children away from criminality at every turn instead of pushing them further into the arms of serious criminals'.

The use of children has also been opposed by the Children's Commissioner, Anne Longfield and religious leaders including The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev Paul Butler.

Leading Labour backbencher Stella Creasy, who helped draft the amendment, told MailOnline: 'The lords have given a clear message to the government they will not accept their plans to recruit children as spies without question.

'With cross party support and several of their own voting for our proposals it's a substantial majority for the principle no child should ever be put at risk to benefit any investigation no matter how important.'

Members of the upper house also backed explicit limits on what agents could be authorised to do, including a ban on the most serious crimes, such as murder, torture and rape.

It sets the stage for a legislative tussle, known as parliamentary 'ping pong', with the elected Commons where the Government has a majority.                

One of those behind the move was Tory former cabinet minister Lord Young of Cookham (standing, left), who said police 'should be pulling children away from criminality at every turn instead of pushing them further into the arms of serious criminals'

Labour backbencher Stella Creasy, who helped draft the amendment, told MailOnline: 'The lords have given a clear message to the government they will not accept their plans to recruit children as spies without question'

 Proposing the amendment to the Bill, corossbench peer, film director and children's rights campaigner Baroness Kidron said: 'In every other interaction with the criminal justice system we try to remove children from criminal activity, to take them away from harm and towards safety. But before us is legislation which formalises our ability to do the opposite'

Proposing the amendment to the Bill, corossbench peer, film director and children's rights campaigner Baroness Kidron said: 'In every other interaction with the criminal justice system we try to remove children from criminal activity, to take them away from harm and towards safety. But before us is legislation which formalises our ability to do the opposite.'

She added: 'If, and that must be a big if, we make this extraordinary demand of a child then we must set a very high bar for the circumstances in which that happens.'

However, a number of peers argued this still did not go far enough, with Labour former shadow attorney general Baroness Chakrabarti branding the use of young informers as 'state-sponsored child abuse'.

Guidance issued alongside the Bill for the Covert Intelligence Bill outlines that other public bodies who will be allowed to employ them as undercover agents.

As well as police, MI5, MI6 and the National Crime Agency, they include the Gambling Commission, county and district councils, the Environment Agency and the Food Standards Agency.

The document, which has been published online, prohibits those under 16 from being used to inform on their parents or guardians.

But it permits the use of older teenagers to be used against their own family under special circumstances. 

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev Paul Butler, said: 'Knowingly placing a child in harm's way may be in our interests but it is not in the child's best interests.'

Responding, Home Office minister Baroness Williams of Trafford, said: 'The decision to authorise a juvenile to participate in criminal conduct is not one which is taken lightly nor without consideration of the wellbeing of that juvenile.'

As well as police, MI5, MI6 (London headquarters pictured) and the National Crime Agency, the list of agencies includes the Gambling Commission, county and district councils, the Environment Agency and the Food Standards Agency.

She said there were 'robust safeguards' in place and proposed Government changes would 'further enhance these'. 

The bill has already drawn heavy criticism as it passes through Parliament. In October Security Minister James Brokenshire was forced to confirm adult undercover agents will not be given a 'licence to kill'.

Several MPs raised concerns over the scope of the Bill and the Government's unwillingness to specify a list of the limits in the legislation, which aims to protect undercover operatives from prosecution if they are forced to break the law on operations.  

The senior minister assured the House that the bill's powers are contained in the Human Rights Act and include the right to life, prohibition of torture, and prohibition of subjecting someone to inhuman or degrading treatment. 

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