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Children: Covert Human Intelligence Sources

Volume 796: debated on Monday 18 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the debate on the regret motion on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Juveniles) (Amendment) Order 2018 on 16 October 2018 (HL Deb, cols 435–50), what assessment they have made of the recruitment, use, deployment, numbers and oversight of children used as spies by the police.

My Lords, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, Lord Justice Fulford, undertook to report on this issue. He has now written to the chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights with his findings, and a copy of the letter has been placed on his website.

I thank the Minister for that response. Does she agree that the police setting targets for increasing the number of child spies in each region goes beyond what the Minister told us before—that this is a rarity? I have been alerted by a whistleblower that the police are doing exactly this. There is no way I can check, so will the Minister check for us and report back to the House?

I most certainly will. Obviously, the police are operationally independent of the Home Office, and I do not know why they would be setting targets for this. The noble Baroness referred to the letter of Lord Justice Fulford, which says that 17 juvenile covert human intelligence sources, or CHISs, have been used in the past three years. When she refers to targets, I assume she means targets upwards, but I will certainly look into the matter.

My Lords, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that all those under the age of 18 should be treated as children, yet the Government allow the police to recruit 16 and 17 year-olds as informants without an appropriate adult being present. Accepting that it does not have to be a parent or guardian if they are also involved in criminality, can the Minister explain why such children cannot be questioned as a suspect in a criminal investigation without an independent adult being present but they can be recruited as an informant?

The noble Lord and I have gone over this on a number of occasions; the situation reflects the emergence into adulthood of 16 and 17 year-olds. That said, where anybody undertakes covert human intelligence, there is always an independent assessment of various aspects of their personality, their willingness and their ability to undertake such a difficult task.

My Lords, I recall from our previous discussion on this issue that the young people involved are likely to be the children of people the authorities are interested in. That puts these children in a very dangerous situation. What measures are in place to ensure that children are protected and do not feel pressurised into undertaking this dangerous activity?

The noble Lord brings forward an important point: someone recruited as a covert human intelligence source might be the child of someone who is already involved in criminal activity. Anybody under the age of 16 cannot be involved in anything to do with their parents.

Who conducts the independent assessment of potential child spies, to which my noble friend referred, and what happens to the results of those assessments?

My Lords, do the assessments to which the noble Baroness referred include an assessment of the best interests of the child under the UN convention?

My Lords, is the increase due to the amount of criminals who are now using young people, especially in the drugs-related elements of crime? What are the Government doing to address that problem?

My Lords, a number of complex matters are driven by knife crime, by gangs, by county lines and by drugs, and the noble Lord is right to raise the issue. I have gone through the various things we are doing on knife crime—including the Offensive Weapons Bill—and the various aspects of what we are doing to tackle drugs, most notably a public health approach to the issue.

My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to children under 16 not being allowed to be involved in intelligence involving their parents. Does that prohibition include other family members—for example, siblings or carers who are not their parents?

I know the prohibition involves parents. I do not know about siblings—I shall get back to the noble Baroness on that—but any family affiliation would make it difficult to ask them to undertake such a thing.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Investigatory Powers Act has been the most amazingly successful piece of legislation? It has enabled us, for example, to identify the growth in right-wing extremism, into which the agencies have put a great deal of effort recently. We should be pleased that it went through this House and the other House and is now on the statute book.

My Lords, are there guidelines which restrict the use of children in this way to cases where the suspected offences are very grave indeed and where there are no other means available to obtain necessary evidence?

The noble Lord will appreciate that I cannot talk about operational matters. I hope he will be comforted by the fact that the use of a juvenile as a covert human intelligence source is only in exceptional circumstances.

When we discussed this on previous occasions, the Minister promised us a much higher level of judicial supervision over the process. Is that in place?

At the time, I said that Lord Justice Fulford, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, provided the oversight needed. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, had referred to judicial oversight, which I explained would require primary legislation. I said that Lord Justice Fulford provided a sufficient level of oversight and that it was satisfactory at this point.