LONDON: Children are being used as spies in covert operations against terrorists, gangs and drug dealers by the British police and intelligence agencies, according to British media reports.
Some of the children are under 16 years old.
The reports emerged after a House of Lords secondary scrutiny committee raised concerns about the use of "juvenile covert human intelligence sources", after the government proposed to increase the amount of time under-18s could be involved in operations to four months, from the current one month.
The practice has drawn criticism from some, with former Brexit minister David Davis branding the use of child spies as "morally repugnant" and shadow home secretary Diane Abbott calling for an immediate end to it, The Guardian reported.
Defending the practice, Downing Street said that juveniles are used as covert human intelligence sources "very rarely" and only when necessary.
Using undercover under-18s help to prevent and prosecute problems such as gang violence and drug dealing, the BBC reported, citing the Home Office.
“Juvenile covert human intelligence sources (CHIS) are used very rarely and only ever when it is necessary and proportionate and when there is no other less intrusive way to get the information needed to convict criminals or terrorist suspects,” the Home Office added.
Home Office minister Ben Wallace also said that a juvenile CHIS may have "unique access to information", The Guardian reported.
"For example, it can be difficult to gather evidence on gangs without penetrating their membership through the use of juvenile CHIS," Wallace was quoted as saying.
"As well as provide intelligence dividend in relation to a specific gang, juvenile CHIS can give investigators a broader insight into, for example, how young people in gangs are communicating with each other," he added.
RISKS TO MENTAL AND PHYSICAL WELFARE
Currently, children under the age of 18 in the UK can be used in an operation for up to a month before their involvement would be renewed, BBC reported. The UK government has said in a statement that an extension to four months would reduce the pressure to get quick results, BBC reported.
"We are concerned that enabling a young person to participate in covert activity associated with serious crime for an extended period of time may increase the risks to their mental and physical welfare," the legislation scrutiny committee was cited as saying in the British media reports. The committee also noted that some of the child spies were under 16 years old.
In response to the committee, the Home Office issued a statement saying that the "pressure to obtain results" in a month "could be unhelpful" to the children as well as the law enforcement agencies they work with, said media reports.
"This pressure to obtain results could be unhelpful to the juvenile CHIS (covert human intelligence sources) and also to the law enforcement agency ... In some circumstances this requirement can also act as a deterrent with law enforcement avoiding the use of juvenile CHIS," The Guardian cited the Home Office as saying.
It also pledged to review operations every month to look at welfare and safety concerns, and said that the children would not be deployed to obtain evidence against their parents or guardians.