Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill – Bishop of Durham raises child safety fears

On 11th November the House of Lords debated the Government’s Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill at its Second Reading. The Bishop of Durham spoke in the debate, raising concerns about the risks to the safety of children:

The Lord Bishop of Durham [V]: My Lords, I too would like to welcome the noble and learned Minister to the House and to his new role. Not many find their maiden speech to be that of introducing a Bill to the House, and I congratulate him on the necessarily blended speech.

I welcome the Government’s move to provide a statutory basis for covert human intelligence sources to participate in criminal conduct, where it is necessary and proportionate to do so for a limited set of specified purposes. We recognise the heavy duty placed on ​government to protect its citizens, and this Bill is a necessary step so that those undertaking these activities with a view to protecting the public can be clear in their status and duties.

However, while welcoming the intent behind this Bill, I am concerned that safeguards should be properly scrutinised, in particular when they concern the treatment of children. Sadly, we know that children are used and abused in evils such as county lines, child sexual abuse and other serious crimes. In facing these, there is an understandable temptation, however small, to make use of children as assets for the forces of law and order. We should never lose sight of the fact this places and keeps children in situations of harm and of increased risk. The primary concern must always be that, when children find themselves in vulnerable situations, we look after them as children first and foremost rather than assets for fighting organised crime.

We must guard against the temptation to undermine that essential principle in the pursuit of security. Regardless of the children’s age—I note that they are usually 15, 16 and 17 and few in number—we must still treat them as legally children. They are not to be used and must be protected.

Therefore, how can using a child as a CHIS and in doing so placing them at greater risk of harm ever be in their best interest? Allowing these children to act illegally only worsens this. It is preferable for children never to be used. I am confident that the majority of noble Lords would agree, including the Minister. However, I recognise that there may be rare instances in which children are being used. If this is to be the case, then fixed protections need to be put in place. Although there are guidelines in the code of practice for children used as CHIS, this requirement should be made statutory so that there is sufficient legal weight. Vague phrases like “exceptional circumstances” must be met with explanation and guidance rather than leaving it open for interpretation and even manipulation.

We trust our law enforcement agencies to act within the law, but we must protect them from themselves when the temptation arises to use children for what appears a greater good. It is unfair on those agencies not to provide clear legal parameters by which they must operate.

Let us not settle for compromising the safety of children for the pursuit of a safer nation, for is it not for those very vulnerable children for whom we seek to create this safer nation? If on rare occasions children are to be used as covert human intelligence sources, there must be clear and meaningful safeguards set out in statute. I will be looking in Committee to support amendments in this space.

Lord Young of Cookham (Con)..I do not have any fundamental objections to the Bill but, along with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, I have reservations about its impact on children.

Baroness Young of Hornsey (CB) [V]:  My own view is similar to that of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and of my noble friend Lady Bull: under-18s should never be used as undercover operatives. I find the whole idea absolutely repugnant rather than uncomfortable. I cannot see how it is legitimate to recruit juveniles as informers and spies in dangerous, violent situations but not to allow 16 year-olds to vote.

Baroness Blower (Lab):  Such children as are recruited will have engaged in risky and quite possibly illegal behaviours, and will therefore be in need of help, support and protection. On this, I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. I am aware that the High Court has determined that it may be appropriate to use children where the welfare of the child could be protected, though it is hard for me to ​see how putting children in harm’s way could be considered to comply with Article 3 of the UNCRC, which provides that

“In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private … welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

Lord Haskell (Lab):… before we start debating amendments in Committee, I ask the Minister, do we really want juveniles to be authorised to carry out this criminal activity, even under the strictest supervision? As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and others have suggested, are we not making a victim of the juvenile, bearing in mind the risk of violence and sexual assault, the emotional and associated mental, physical and psychological damage, and the risk of corruption, which will damage them well into their adult lives. To some, it would appear that these young people are being exploited by our public authorities, leaving it to the rest of us to clear up the mess.

Baroness Hamwee (LD): Many noble Lords, including from our Benches my noble friend Lady Doocey, have spoken forcefully of the use or, as the right reverend Prelate said, the abuse, of children—because juveniles are children—and vulnerable adults as CHIS. What does it say about us, as a society, that we contemplate exploiting children—often, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, says, disadvantaged children—in this way?

Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op)…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, my noble friend Lord Haskel, the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, and many others raised the question of child CHIS. The important thing to recognise is that they are children—just that. On the rare occasions that they have to be used to combat crime—if there is no alternative—we have to be absolutely clear that proper and meaningful safeguards are in place. Every possible safeguard must be there, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, said.

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