Restrictions that could prevent state agencies using child spies backed by the Lords

Charles Hymas
·3-min read
 Screen grab from the House of Lords of the House after the EU (Future Relationship) Bill received an unopposed third reading in the House of Lords, with the legislation to ratify Boris Johnson's trade deal with the EU being on the verge of becoming law. PA Photo. Picture date: Wednesday December 30, 2020. See PA story LORDS Brexit. Photo credit should read: House of Lords/PA Wire - PA Wire
Screen grab from the House of Lords of the House after the EU (Future Relationship) Bill received an unopposed third reading in the House of Lords, with the legislation to ratify Boris Johnson's trade deal with the EU being on the verge of becoming law. PA Photo. Picture date: Wednesday December 30, 2020. See PA story LORDS Brexit. Photo credit should read: House of Lords/PA Wire - PA Wire

Tough restrictions that could prevent state agencies using child spies have been backed by the House of Lords, in a major Government defeat.

Peers passed by a majority of 339 to 254 an amendment to the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) bill that would severely restrict the use of child spies by preventing their deployment if there was a risk of “any foreseeable harm".

The revolt was led by former Conservative Defence Secretary George Younger and children’s rights campaigner and filmmaker Baroness Kidron and backed by Labour and the Lib Dems.

Baroness Kidron is chairman of the 5Rights Foundation, which exists to make to make 'systemic changes to the digital world that will ensure it caters for children and young people' - David Rose for the Telegraph
Baroness Kidron is chairman of the 5Rights Foundation, which exists to make to make 'systemic changes to the digital world that will ensure it caters for children and young people' - David Rose for the Telegraph

The Government had warned that the critics' proposed restrictions could backfire by making it more difficult even to extricate children from county lines gangs.

“We must make sure that we get the safeguards right, otherwise we risk making the capability unworkable which would put children at further risk,” said a Government source. 

However, ministers faced overwhelming opposition including from the children’s commissioner Anne Longfield who said she remained to be convinced “there is ever an appropriate situation in which a child should be used as a CHIS.”

File photo dated 10/9/2018 of Stella Creasy, who has been praised for her bravery after speaking out about Parliament's rules over maternity leave as she admitted feeling forced to choose between "being an MP and being a mum". PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Tuesday June 18, 2019. The Labour MP revealed she was expecting her first child after having had two previous miscarriages.  - Niall Carson/PA Wire
File photo dated 10/9/2018 of Stella Creasy, who has been praised for her bravery after speaking out about Parliament's rules over maternity leave as she admitted feeling forced to choose between "being an MP and being a mum". PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Tuesday June 18, 2019. The Labour MP revealed she was expecting her first child after having had two previous miscarriages. - Niall Carson/PA Wire

Stella Creasy, the MP who led the opposition in the Commons, welcomed the vote, saying it showed a substantial majority for the principle that “no child should ever be put at risk to benefit any investigation, no matter how important.”

Under the bill, children can be used as undercover spies by more than 20 state agencies.

Covert child agents can also break the law if it means they will be able to glean information that could prevent or detect crime, protect public health, safety, or national security or help collect taxes, reads the guidance laid by the Government last month.

Older children aged 16 and 17 could even be recruited to spy on their parents if they were suspected of being involved in crime or terrorism.

However, the guidance says child spies should only be recruited or deployed in “exceptional circumstances,” with their handlers required to give “primary consideration” to the need to “safeguard and promote the best interests of the juvenile”.