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UK politician calls for answers on use of child spies

A powerful committee of the Houses of Parliament Thursday demanded to know the extent of the use of child spies in covert operations to trap law breakers.

Harriet Harman, chair of Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, has demanded more details on the use of children as covert human intelligence sources, known as CHIS.

Authorities in Britain have since 2000 allowed law enforcers to use children in the investigation of minor crimes. This usually involved using young children to attempt to buy cigarettes or alcohol, when under the legal ago of 16 for cigarettes and 18 for alcohol.

Veteran politician Harman has asked about the increasing scope for children to assist in both preventing and prosecuting serious crimes including terrorism, gang violence, drugs offences and child sexual exploitation.

Harman wants to know whether those dangerous types of assignment were envisaged when the original legislation was introduced, and what impact assessment was undertaken regarding the risks posed to children before such assignments were introduced as part of CHIS scheme.

She also said Britain’s interior ministry, the Home Office, has been unable to say how many children have been used in the scheme.

Harman’s committee wants details of the numbers of children aged 16 used in the scheme since it was introduced in 2000, and the number of public authorities who have used so-called child spies.

A recent rule change now allows public authorities to use juveniles aged under 18 for four months, rather than the one-month limit originally permitted.

Harman said the recent changes came after consultation with intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

“Whilst these practitioners do have experience of considering the welfare of child CHIS, their primary objective is to tackle crime, hence presenting a potential conflict of interest. The consultation does not seem to have heard from external experts in child welfare, or indeed from children,” she said.

Harman added: “We have been told that in dangerous assignments relating to terrorism, drugs, and child sexual exploitation, there is inevitably a risk to the physical and mental welfare of the child.

“Physical harm may result from being in a violent environment, or from punishment if discovered to be working covertly. Mental harm, which can be more pronounced because children’s minds are still developing, may result from, for example, exposure to damaging behaviors, the pressures of having to ‘live a lie’, and the imbalance of power between the child and their handler.”

In a statement Thursday, the committee said it wants the Home Office to explain how the regime adheres to Article 3 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) that the best interests of the child are a primary consideration.

“MPs and Peers (House of Lords members) are pressing for more information on what assessments are made in considering both the risks to and the welfare of the children, and what support and advice they are given before, during and after the process,” the statement added.

Harman has called for an official government response to her questions by Sept. 6.

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