In 2018, we were shocked to discover that the police were recruiting children to provide them with information on dangerous criminals.
Just for Kids Law was unaware of this little-known practice of using children as ‘covert human intelligence sources' (CHIS) or spies, despite all of the work we do with vulnerable children – including many who are involved in criminality; and sadly, some who are criminally exploited by gangs.
We began our campaign against the use of child spies that year, arguing that the practice puts children at risk of severe physical and emotional harm; and that the lack of safeguards for children used in this way contravenes domestic and international human rights laws.
The legal basis for the use of child spies can be found in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000. This allows authorised bodies, including the police, the secret services and local authorities to gather information from individuals who act as a CHIS.
This practice is not, therefore, about asking children to provide information they already know. It is about asking children to stay in a county lines gang or in a situation where they are being abused to help fight criminality.
In a House of Lords debate in Autumn 2018, Baroness Hamwee recounted the story of a 17-year-old girl who was being sold for sex by a man she considered to be her boyfriend.
Despite the clear harm posed, she was kept in that situation by the police to provide information on her abuser. She eventually witnessed a murder.
The lack of disclosure and information on the covert practice means that we do not know as much as we would like. From what we’ve been able to gather, we believe the use of child spies is rare – only 17 were used by the police between 2015 and 2018 – but we are waiting for confirmation of more up-to-date numbers.
The Home Office has confirmed that the police are able to use children of any age as spies; and that child spies are used to inform in cases of serious offending, including on county lines gangs and those involved in child sexual exploitation.
Although the use of child spies has so far been rare, we’ve been particularly concerned at suggestions that children should be used more, not less, to combat county lines gangs.
Neil Woods, a former undercover police officer, gave evidence and argued for greater safeguards in this area in the case we took against the Home Office. He explained that “children recruited as informants are also highly likely to end up getting drawn back into criminality and feeling trapped in their situation”.
Effectively, rather than helping a child to escape their circumstances, working as a CHIS can push them further into criminal networks and trap them in a life of crime.
The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill that is currently going through parliament will allow the police and other authorities to give CHISes the authority to commit criminal offences themselves.
And so, rather than preventing children from offending; and rather than removing them from gangs; the police can choose to leave them there and authorise them to continue in the criminality in return for information.
For professionals working with a vulnerable cohort of children, this practice poses many practical problems.
Children used in this way do not have any right to a lawyer – only those under the age of 16 have the right to an appropriate adult – so the majority of their parents, social workers, or the other significant adults in their lives will have no knowledge of their role.
We assume that children are unlikely to open up about their role, and indeed, will be strongly advised not to by their handlers.
Our experience and that of other professionals that we have spoken to is, children are unlikely to want to admit that they have even been approached by the police to share information, let alone agreed to do so.
Should you suspect your client is passing information to the police, then be prepared to handle the situation with a great degree of care and caution. It is not an issue that should, or could, be safely explored with your clients.
Jennifer Twite is a barrister and head of strategic litigation at Just for Kids Law justforkidslaw.org She also sits on the Standing Committee for Youth Justice...