LONDON • British intelligence and police units are using children in undercover operations in a drive to expose terrorists, criminal gangs and drug dealers amid a nationwide rise in violent crime.
A House of Lords committee revealed the practice last week after reviewing the government's new draft of legislation that seeks to extend the period for which youths under the age of 18 are authorised to work as a "covert human intelligence source".
The Home Office has asked to extend the period in which a child is authorised to serve as an undercover informant to four months, from one month. The proposed legislation comes as violent crime in England and Wales has jumped, with murders up by 12 per cent over the same period last year, according to figures published by the Office of National Statistics.
"We are concerned that enabling a young person to participate in covert activity for an extended period of time may expose them to increased risks to their mental and physical welfare," the House of Lords secondary legislation scrutiny committee said in a report released on July 12.
The committee said the explanatory memorandum accompanying the legislation failed to explain how the authorising officer would weigh the intelligence benefits of extending the participation of juveniles in covert operations against the potential negative effects on the children.
The report also questioned the Home Office's rationale for differentiating the treatment of the youths according to age.
"We note that this order requires those sources under 16 to have an appropriate adult 'qualified to represent the interests of the source' present at any meetings with their handler," it said. "How are the interests of 16-to 18-year-olds to be protected?"
In correspondence with the committee, the Home Office said that extending the authorisation period would alleviate administrative burdens that have had the "unintended consequence" of rushing youths to carry out tasks before the period ends.
As a safeguard, the Home Office proposes to carry out monthly reviews of the authorisation to provide the same level of oversight of the welfare and safety for all youths involved.
Mr David Videcette, a former counterterrorism detective for the Metropolitan Police who has worked with young informants, explained that such informants were used as a last resort.
"There is often this misconception that we are wandering down the street looking to recruit children," Mr Videcette said by phone. "That's just not the case. Young people usually come into contact with the police as a result of their involvement with a crime or form of extremism."
"They are either looking for an opportunity to rid themselves from the crime or group, or get a reduced sentence," he added.
Police and intelligence officers say that when they recruit children as sources, they do not ask them to participate in crimes.
"Unlike the US, we have very strict controls over what a registered informant can do," Mr Videcette said. "There is a whole different authorisation process for participating informants."
Nonetheless, children's rights groups say the decision to authorise child sources should not be left solely to the police and security services.
"There is a clear conflict between the use of children as informants and agencies' safeguarding obligations," Rights Watch UK, a civil liberties group, said in a Twitter message.
"The government's own guidance requires steps to be taken to prevent children from being exposed to criminal activity, not embed them further in it."