A government scheme that recruits children to act as spies in serious crime investigations lacks “adequate safeguards” and breaches human rights laws, a charity has warned.
Lawyers for Just For Kids Law told a High Court judge that youngsters could be used in the “most grave and dangerous of contexts”.
The charity is bringing a legal challenge against a Home Office scheme to recruit and deploy children as informants in investigations run by the police and other investigative bodies.
There is “increasing scope” to use children as covert human intelligence sources (CHIS), lawyers added, because they are increasingly involved in serious crimes, both as “perpetrators and victims”.
The crimes youngsters are being used to help investigate include terrorism, county lines drugs offences and child sexual exploitation, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC said.
The use of children as CHIS was confirmed in a letter to a House of Lords committee from security and economic crime minister Ben Wallace in July 2018.
He wrote: “Given that young people are increasingly involved, both as perpetrators and victims, in serious crimes … there is increasing scope for juvenile CHIS to assist in both preventing and prosecuting such offences.”
Investigatory Powers Commissioner Lord Justice Fulford, who is carrying out a review into the use of children as CHIS, said in March that 17 children had been used as informants by 11 public bodies since January 2015.
Ms Gallagher said there had been a “particularly shocking” case – raised in the House of Lords last year – which involved a 17-year-old girl who was recruited to spy on a man who had been sexually exploiting her.
Ms Gallagher said the girl continued to be exploited by the man while deployed, adding that “the papers suggest she was even coerced into being an accessory to murder”.
Sir James Eadie QC, representing Home Secretary Sajid Javid, said the use of children in such investigations could be “very important for reasons of national security, public safety, and the prevention of disorder and crime”.
The aim was to ensure proper control and appropriate decision making, he added.
“To that end, the welfare of the child is placed at the forefront of decision making as to the deployment of CHIS and the scheme provides adequate and appropriate safeguards,” he said.
Ms Gallagher said in written documents: “The government has recently indicated that it considers there to be ‘increasing scope’ for child CHIS to be used in the most grave and dangerous of contexts.
“This raises serious concerns regarding the welfare, well-being and safety of children recruited and deployed as child CHIS.”
The barrister added: “A justification put forward for the use of child CHIS is that some children are involved in, or in close proximity to, serious crimes which they could, as a covert source, help the police investigate and prosecute – that is, the use of a child CHIS serves a compelling wider public interest.
“That justification also demonstrates the acute need for stringent safeguards – keeping a child close to serious crimes may serve a compelling public interest, but it would appear to be antithetical to the child’s own interests.”
Just For Kids Law has raised more than £5,000 through crowdfunding towards case costs.