Children are being used to spy on terrorists, drug dealers and grooming gangs by police and security services in Britain.
The government admitted that the use of children as “covert human intelligence sources” could rise as teenagers are increasingly drawn into extremism, gang violence and “county lines” drug running.
A report by a House of Lords committee raised concern about proposals to extend the period – from one to four months – that police and the intelligence services use underage informants.
Lord Trefgarne, chairman of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, said the change appeared to be founded on “administrative convenience” without sufficient protections in place.
“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,” he wrote in a letter to the security minister.
“I cannot hide from you the committee’s considerable anxiety concerning the principle of employing young people – sometimes very young people – in this way.”
The Home Office was unable to give the number of juveniles currently being used as spies, which peers said they found “surprising”. The government department also said it did not have a breakdown of specific age groups.
The amendment to current law requires that sources the age of 16 should have an appropriate adult “qualified to represent the interests of the source” present at any meetings with their handler, but those between the ages of 16 and 18 are expected to go alone.
Peers said that a code of practice was “very vague” on how children’s welfare would be protected. This is both while they are working for the security services and afterwards.
They questioned whether police and intelligence officers were capable of assessing juveniles’ mental health. asked how a consistent approach was guaranteed across forces and other agencies including MI5 and the National Crime Agency.