Tory revolt looms over state plans to use child spies against their parents

Charles Hymas
·4-min read
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a coronavirus news conference at 10 Downing Street, London, Britain January 22, 2021. The prime minister announced that the new variant of SARS-CoV-2, which was first discovered in the south of England, appears to be linked with an increase in the mortality rate.  - Leon Neal/REUTERS
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a coronavirus news conference at 10 Downing Street, London, Britain January 22, 2021. The prime minister announced that the new variant of SARS-CoV-2, which was first discovered in the south of England, appears to be linked with an increase in the mortality rate. - Leon Neal/REUTERS

Boris Johnson faces a major Tory revolt this week over plans to allow children to be used as spies by state agencies against their parents.

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, and David Davis, former Brexit secretary, are among Tory MPs backing rebel proposals to restrict the use of children as spies when the Covert Human Intelligence Source (CHIS) bill returns to the Commons.

Mr Davis told The Telegraph the Government faces a major backlash if it pushed ahead with the plans. “Everyone I have spoken to has been horrified by it when it has been explained to them,” he said.

“It will allow 16 and 17-year-olds to spy on their parents. It also authorises them to commit crimes as well, so it needs to be extremely tightly controlled and those controls need to be greater than what the Government is proposing.”

Mr Duncan Smith said: “Once you start taking action like this to put spies in people’s homes whatever the purpose, this does have complications. It is very important for Government to recognise that this is not something that should be easily done in a democratic state.”

The Government was defeated on its plans in the Lords by 339 to 254 votes earlier this month but now plans to try to overturn the peers’ amendment this week in the Commons when the CHIS bill returns to be considered by MPs.

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Even if the Government wins, it is likely to lead to a major Commons versus Lords 'ping-pong' battle because of the scale of opposition in the upper house which was led by Lord Young, a former Tory chief whip and cabinet minister.

Opponents comprised 13 Tories, including former Cabinet ministers Lord Randall, Lord Garnier, a former solicitor general, and Baroness Warsi, as well as 79 crossbenchers, four bishops, the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats.

Among the crossbenchers opposed was former Cabinet Secretary Lord Butler, former independent reviewer of terrorism laws Lord Anderson, former national security adviser Lord Ricketts, Lord Janvrin, the Queen’s former private secretary, former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, and ex-permanent secretaries and ambassadors.

The Government’s CHIS bill allows children to be used as undercover spies by more than 20 state agencies.

Covert child agents can 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, says the guidance, quietly laid by the Government this 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 said 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".

Critics said the Government’s safeguards did not go far enough and in the Lords passed the amendment which would prevent their deployment if there was a risk of "any foreseeable harm".

The Government plans to overturn the amendment this week, because it claims the restrictions it imposes 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.

Labour MP Stella Creasy, who has led the parliamentary campaign against the plan, said: “If your 16 or 17-year-old child was arrested for shoplifting, the police would have tell you and ensure an appropriate adult was there when you spoke to them.

“But here they are creating a loophole to recruit child spies without any such protection. The Government faces strong opposition in the Lords and in the Commons too and must urgently rethink their plans.”

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