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Children: Covert Human Intelligence Sources

Volume 792: debated on Thursday 13 September 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the youngest age at which a child has been authorised to act as a covert human intelligence source under section 29 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

My Lords, there are no national statistics currently available relating to the authorisation of juvenile CHISs. However, the Home Office has been made aware of academic research into the use of juvenile CHISs which contains a number of case studies. They include the age of the juvenile CHIS, the youngest of whom is 15 years of age.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I had hoped that the Home Office would itself start recording the names and ages of these children, who are vulnerable young criminals who have been caught by the police and are then put straight back into criminal gangs to act as spies. Will the noble Baroness please commit the Home Office to keeping a proper record of these children—their names, ages and the serious crimes for which they have been arrested before being sent back into these gangs?

I certainly will not undertake to commit the Home Office to giving the names of these individuals, because that would breach data protection laws. However, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner recently wrote to the Joint Committee on Human Rights with an estimate of how many children we are talking about. He estimates that there are fewer than 10 at any one time. He has now undertaken to collect statistics on the number of juvenile CHISs in place and will consider how that information and his oversight in this area can be appropriately included in his annual reports in the future.

My Lords, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that the interests of the child must be paramount in all decisions and actions that affect children. When the Government recently decided to weaken the safeguards on using child informants, despite the environment in which they operate becoming more dangerous, they consulted the people who use these child informants but not one organisation or individual that is responsible for their welfare. Can the Minister explain how this is putting the needs of the child first?

I absolutely dispute what the noble Lord has said because, far from weakening the safeguards, we have strengthened them by ensuring that the appropriate adult is someone who is professionally qualified to take on the role. The UK ensures that the principles of the convention are considered and realised through the approach taken, both in the legislation and in other measures, to ensure that children’s rights and interests are safeguarded.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me how the current legislation affects the keeping by local authorities of lists of children at risk of non-accidental injury and their passing of that information about those individuals to other local authorities when those children move into their areas of responsibility?

As I am sure my noble friend will know, where there are safeguarding issues around children, information is shared, and certainly if the child moves from one local authority area to another. As the IPC has pointed out, the duty of care in the case of these children is absolutely paramount.

Would the Minister reflect that one possible way of alleviating understandable concerns about the use of young people in the way that is currently under discussion would be to extend the oversight and authorisation responsibilities of the judicial commissioners of the IPC?

I thank the noble and learned Lord for our conversation on this matter. Of course, that would require a change in the legislation, but we consider that this enhanced authorisation, which has been in place for 18 years and approved under the leadership of successive Governments, is robust. It is subject to enhanced safeguards and strong and effective oversight. It should command confidence.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how the safety of the child is ensured when they are put in these dangerous situations where serious criminality is suspected of taking place? That can include the children providing information about their parents and other close family members to the authorities.

The noble Lord asks the right question. The child’s safety remains paramount. Enhanced risk assessments are required before the CHIS is tasked and are reviewed and updated throughout the duration of an authorisation. They are also updated after an authorisation is cancelled where contact with the CHIS is maintained. In the case of children aged 16 to 17, the law recognises that these assessments must be done on a case-by-case basis. Therefore, the presence of a responsible adult may or may not be required at that stage.

My Lords, when these assessments are made of child informants, can my noble friend confirm whether an appropriate adult or guardian is part of that process? Can she also confirm whether the safeguards that we have in place for child informants in the United Kingdom apply equally to informants overseas?

I cannot answer the latter part of that question, but I will write to the noble Baroness. If a child is aged under 16, an appropriate adult—though not necessarily a guardian, because there may be conflict in that relationship—will be present in every case. Children aged between 16 and 18 are assessed on a case-by-case basis.

My Lords, even with all the safeguards mentioned by the Minister, is this not still exploitation of children?

The noble Baroness asks a very pertinent question. This is not a comfortable or easy arrangement. She will know, of course, that it was brought in by the Labour Government in 2000. With the safeguards that are in place and the work that needs to be undertaken, all these things are taken into consideration.

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that it is overwhelmingly in the interest of the child that he or she should grow up in a society in which crime is reduced? That is the purpose of the measures that are being undertaken.

My noble friend puts it absolutely succinctly and correctly: the overall aim is that children should grow up in a society free of crime.