An obscure arm of the Home Office which uses children to spy for the government has come to light, after a report by a House of Lords Committee was published this month.

The report, produced by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, examines the Home Office’s request to extend the period of time it can use of a person under 18 years of age as a spy, or covert human intelligence source (CHIS) as they are known.

A desire to gather information about suspected terrorists within specific communities may be at the heart of the proposal. Activity around alleged county lines drug gangs could also be motivating the Home Office’s demand.

The committee was deeply concerned by the request, viewing the demand to be more about accommodating the Home Office – which has to place an application to renew authorisation every month in order to keep the child spy on a particular operation – than the welfare of the children involved.

The Home Office defended its proposal, saying that child spies felt pressure to complete their tasks within the month and so the extension would offer relief.

The Lords though, were not convinced by the reasons offered, and had this to say:

“We were concerned, from the material presented in the original Explanatory Memorandum, that the change is founded on the premise of administrative convenience. The associated Code of Practice is very vague on how the welfare obligations indicated are to be fulfilled. We were unclear whether the risks to the CHIS would be different over the extended period and how the welfare of the young person in this situation would be protected. We asked the Home Office for a more detailed explanation. The correspondence, published in an appendix to our Report, is helpful but does not fully satisfy our concerns about the extent to which juveniles are being used for covert surveillance nor whether their welfare is sufficiently taken into account in practice.”

The Lords also observed something interesting about the original request:

“While the Government state that the rationale for the change is that the one month authorisation for juvenile CHIS increases pressure on the CHIS and their handlers to get results swiftly in order to justify the renewal of the authorisation, the predominant tone in the EM originally presented was about the administrative convenience of the authorities concerned.”

In conclusion, the Lords took the view that the request raised some serious questions about how an extension might affect the children’s mental and physical wellbeing, the lack of clarity over safeguards for these children should an extension be allowed, and any attempts to weigh up the benefits of these operations against the negative effects on these children.

The practice of using child spies has been widely condemned. Tory former cabinet minister, David Davis, called the recruitment of child spies “morally repugnant”, and Corey Stoughton, advocacy director at Liberty, said: “This practice is deeply troubling. Vulnerable children are just that – they should be protected, not co-opted by the government into potentially dangerous activities.”

The revelation has also ramped up anxiety levels within minority communities, who, in the wake of rising terrorism, feel targeted and under attack by the government.

Massoud Shadjareh, who is the chair of the Islamic Human Rights Council, compared the practice to the government’s Prevent strategy, calling it “a community-wide spying programme that sees mothers spying on their own children.”

He goes on to say:

“While it is shocking to even consider the abuse of children in this manner, it is not far removed from the spirit of Prevent and the ever-increasing criminalisation of innocent communities in the name of security”.

For those who would like an in-depth analysis of this development, there is an excellent piece over at Just Security, written by barristers Shaheed Fatima Q.C. and Hanif Mussa, which offers a detailed and very well informed view.

Researching Reform is disgusted by the practice, though not surprised.