Amendment 43

Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 3rd December 2020.

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Lord Young of Cookham:

Moved by Lord Young of Cookham

43: Clause 1, page 3, line 2, at end insert—“( ) A criminal conduct authorisation may not be granted to a covert human intelligence source under the age of 18.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would prohibit the granting of criminal conduct authorisations to children.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Conservative

My Lords, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, I have tabled Amendment 43, to exclude the granting of criminal conduct authorisations to children. I am grateful for the helpful meeting with my noble friend the Minister, James Brokenshire and Home Office officials, who talked me through the need for this provision. I am also grateful to Jennifer Twite of Just for Kids Law and Tyrone Steele from Justice for putting the contrary view.

As it stands, the Bill is silent on the role of children in this aspect of law enforcement. It would have been helpful if the child rights impact assessment developed by the Department for Education in 2018 had been undertaken for this Bill. It would have illuminated our debate. The amendment would not prohibit the use of children as covert human intelligence sources entirely. That would have been my preference, but unfortunately it is outside the scope of the Bill. Therefore, the amendment is narrower, focusing on the prohibition of their involvement in criminal activities, for which the case is even stronger.

The Government are asking the Committee to approve the tasking of some of the most vulnerable children in this country, some as young as 15, with infiltrating some of its most dangerous organisations and groups—drug cartels, sex-trafficking rings and, potentially, terrorist cells. Let me address head on the arguments for allowing children to be used as CHIS. These were set out at Second Reading by my noble friend Lord Davies of Gower, whose views I respect as a former member of counterterrorism command at the Met and a former member of the National Crime Squad, by the Minister in her reply to that debate, and by the Minister for Security in another place. My noble friend Lord Davies said:

“The use of children has been much exercised today. It is unpleasant… particularly with issues that have been mentioned, such as county lines, paedophilia and child trafficking. If it has a long-term benefit to other children, I consider that that makes it necessary.”—[Official Report, 11/11/20; col. 1083.]

The Minister basically said the same:

“This may be necessary to stop criminal gangs from continuing to exploit those individuals and prevent others from being drawn into them.”—[Official Report, 11/11/20; col. 1112.]

The Minister for Security, James Brokenshire, stated in a letter to the chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights on 4 November that

“a young person may have unique access to information or intelligence that could play a vital part in shutting down the criminality, prosecuting offenders and preventing further harm.”

In a nutshell, the argument was that the end justified the means—that the imperative of fighting crime overrode normal standards and justified law-breaking. But I do not buy that.

Let us assume, for example, that it could be shown that waterboarding or sleep deprivation of suspected terrorists to extract information would save lives. On that theme, on the “Today” programme recently, Robert Woolsey, a former director of the CIA, said:

Would I waterboard again Khalid Sheikh Mohammed … if I could have a good chance of saving thousands of Americans or, for that matter, other allied individuals? Yes.”

Would we condone it in legislation? Of course not. Torture was abolished in 1628 and is prohibited under international law. The utilitarian argument is trumped by the moral imperative; torture is a red line. There are no exceptional circumstances where torture is justified, no matter that it might lead to the saving of innocent lives. It is not a price that civilised society is prepared to pay.

Using children as CHIS is not of course torture, but the analogy is apt, as it shows the vulnerability of the argument that the end justifies the means. I say to my noble friend that, for some of us, using children—often vulnerable, yet to come to terms with adulthood, unable to assess properly the risk of what they are being asked to do or even perhaps comprehend the limits of their mission and often being asked to continue in a harmful relationship, to commit crimes and to penetrate criminal gangs—is also a red line. Those under 18 are legally children, and the law accepts that they cannot make good decisions about their lives, hence the ban on marriage, buying alcohol et cetera—activities otherwise legal. How could it be that a child as young as 15 can give their full and informed consent to being placed in a sexually exploitative environment, particularly given the pressures on them to do so from people in authority, people whom they should trust, who might have been expected to save them?

This red line is embedded in our legal system. We are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 3 of which provides:

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

The Children Act 2004 makes this obligation all the more concrete. Section 11 states that public bodies, including the police and other law enforcement entities, must have

“regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children”.

I do not see how we square the circle. Either we safeguard and promote the welfare of children or we do not. How can it ever be in the best interests of a child to be a spy? Far from encouraging children to get further entangled in criminal activities, those who have their best interests at heart should do precisely the opposite: disengaging them from that environment and so helping them to rebuild their lives free from harm. We should be pulling children away from criminality at every turn instead of pushing them into the arms of serious criminals. How is a child protected from danger if a gang discovers that he or she is a CHIS? What would be the public reaction if, heaven forbid, a child CHIS was murdered by the gang he or she was infiltrating? How can a local authority in loco parentis for a child discharge its duties if a social worker is not aware of what is going on?

I make one final point. Under the Children Act 1989, every local authority has the duty to safeguard children in need. Where a local authority suspects that a child is likely to suffer significant harm, it can seek an order from a court to take the child away from those parents and place them into care. This would certainly cover parents encouraging their children to take actions such as drug trafficking or gang participation. How can the local authority perform those duties when another arm of the state, the police perhaps, is doing precisely the opposite? If a parent were putting children into such risky, harmful situations, we would rightly expect the children to be taken into care.

What is happening is that the state is seeking immunity for conduct for which it regularly takes parents to court. It is creating a statutory mechanism to expressly permit the harming of children. Local authorities already find this unacceptable when undertaken by parents; we must concur when the state does it. Noble Lords will have seen the statement by the Children’s Commissioner issued on Monday:

The Children’s Commissioner remains to be convinced that there is ever an appropriate situation in which a child should be used as a CHIS. She is extremely concerned that this practice is not in the best interests of the child and there are insufficient safeguards in place to protect these vulnerable children. To that end, the Commissioner supports the introduction and adoption of the following amendments: amendment 43.”

My objection is one of principle, but there are other issues to be raised, if the principle is set aside, about safeguards. Those will be addressed by others who propose other amendments in the group. I hope that, at the end of this debate, the Government will be persuaded to think again. They say child CHIS are used very infrequently. I believe it would be best if they were not used at all. In the meantime, I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Labour

My Lords, it is an absolute privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, to associate myself with every word he spoke just now and to have signed his amendment. Amendment 43 and, to some extent, the others in the group, go to the heart of who we are as a society and, indeed, to the heart of what dangerous, important law enforcement is all about if not, ultimately, to protect children most of all.

It is unconscionable that children should be used as agents per se. Unfortunately, as I have complained before, we cannot do anything about children being used as agents in the Bill, but we can amend it to prevent those children being put in even greater harm’s way by authorising them to commit criminal conduct, which is normally the opposite of the message we send to our children. Indeed, we condemn those who, elsewhere in the world, groom their children for crime or to act as soldiers even in grave situations of war, and such children have often sought refuge in the United Kingdom.

One of my fears in relation to children being used in this way is that many of them are particularly vulnerable children to begin with. Some of them may actually be wards of the state; they may actually be looked-after children who do not have a normal, viable, stable family to protect them. If these children are looked after by the state and then used by the state in this way, that is a double abuse, it seems to me, by all of us as a community.

There must be other ways to ameliorate this problem. There are young people, as I once was, who look far younger than their age well into their early 20s. There must be other, more proportionate ways to do some of the work that needs to be done, exceptionally. It is a very serious human rights violation for any state to put children as young as 15, as the noble Lord, Lord Young has said, into this kind of situation, with long-term consequences for their emotional health and, indeed, for their lives.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Immigration)

The noble Lord, Lord Young, is very persuasive, and he is right. My noble friends Lord Paddick and Lady Doocey and I have Amendment 52 in this group, and I have also put my name to Amendment 60, because if the outcome of the debates is to restrict but not prohibit the authorisation of under-18s and vulnerable people to commit criminal conduct, then Amendment 60 is the amendment that deals with both groups—I do not really like the term “groups”; they are individuals, but noble Lords will understand what I mean.

Our amendment provides that there should be no authorisation of someone under the age of 18, victims of slavery and other egregious exploitation—we have used the words in the Modern Slavery Act, essentially—someone unable to give informed consent, or someone likely to be adversely affected by the experience. Those categories may overlap.

I emphasise what I have said before: I cannot envisage how acting as a CHIS, let alone being expected to carry out what is, in other circumstances, technically a crime, can be in a child’s best interests—a point well made by the noble Lord. The more I have learned, including about safeguarding, the more this feels like grooming. Your Lordships have had plenty to say about that in another context. Among other things, it is criminal.

Here we are dealing with criminal conduct authorisations when the object of the conduct is not only, for instance, an organised crime member, but also, in a sense, the subject himself or herself. If noble Lords accept, as I do, that a 16 or 17 year-old is a child and still developing, we have to wonder about the effect on the child’s development. What will the effect be on their neurological development—as I understand it, not being an expert—and emotional development in this situation? It concerns more than well-being, but certainly it is about well-being.

Our amendment includes victims of slavery and other extreme, egregious treatment. They are quite likely to suffer further long-term damage on top of what they have already experienced. Someone who has very recently been treated as a slave, or otherwise exploited, is very likely to be further traumatised, and I doubt they would be able to give informed consent.

I am concerned that neither my amendment nor Amendment 60 adequately cover this situation. There must be a positive obligation on the relevant investigating public authority to consider whether the CHIS who, in the context of the Bill, is prospectively given an authorisation may himself be a victim. That should be in RIPA itself, as the noble Lord said, but we cannot do anything about that here.

We know that there have been instances of victims being prosecuted for working, for instance, in cannabis factories—and I mean prosecution of victims, because they are seen as offenders, not victims. The logic of this should be an absolute bar on their use. If it is not absolute, there should be very careful consideration of who is entitled to breach that bar and give authorisation, and what the processes should be.

My noble friend Lady Doocey will speak to proposed new subsection (8B) in our amendment, but in brief, if an authority is in a position to grant an authorisation it should make the assessment of the CHIS with regard to the issues to which I have alluded. If concerned, it must, with the person’s consent—consent is important —refer them to the national referral mechanism.

Photo of The Bishop of Carlisle The Bishop of Carlisle Bishop 7:00 pm, 3rd December 2020

My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 43, in the names of my right reverend friend the Bishop of Durham, the noble Lord, Lord Young, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Chakrabarti and Lady Bull, and Amendment 60, in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark. As we have heard, both concern the treatment of children.

We should not for a moment underestimate some of the evils in our society that the Government and the forces of law and order are tasked with confronting. Some of those evils involve the abuse of children and vulnerable people, including, as we know, the scourge of county lines drug gangs, sexual predators and traffickers. It does not take much imagination to see how, as a result of this, there is a periodic temptation to use children as covert assets. We must clearly guard against that temptation; as we have already been reminded, our first duty must be to the care and well-being of children. This applies all the more to children who find themselves in vulnerable and harmful situations, such as those used and abused by criminal gangs.

We are talking here about the exposure of children to dangerous, exploitative and traumatic environments, with significant potential long-term consequences for the children in question. Our responsibility must be to look first to their welfare. As we have been reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Young, it is argued that covert tactics involving children can be of great value in protecting other victims, but how do we determine an acceptable level of harm to a child, even if there might be a wider benefit? Even if that argument were acceptable, as, again, the noble Lord, Lord Young, observed, how can a child legitimately understand and give informed consent to keeping himself or herself in a harmful situation? It seems to be a very dangerous precedent to suggest that a child can provide informed consent to an activity that may cause long-term harm and trauma.

Therefore, I support both these amendments, which recognise the principle that our first duty is to protect and support children and vulnerable people. As we have been reminded, Amendment 43 would prohibit the use of children as covert agents in criminal activities, while Amendment 60 significantly raises the threshold for the granting of criminal conduct authorisations to guarantee that they could be used in only very extreme circumstances and with much more thorough safeguards than are presently provided.

As others have emphasised, we are all hugely grateful to those who work to protect children and confront criminals who would abuse them. I do not for one moment underestimate the difficulties that they face, but I fear that the Bill, as it stands, does not do enough to provide sufficient safeguards for protecting children from being seen as assets rather than victims who need support. That is why I am glad to support these amendments.

Photo of Baroness Bull Baroness Bull Crossbench

My Lords, I rise principally to support Amendment 43, to which I have added my name, but I fully support all the amendments in this group, which have in common their intent to protect children and the most vulnerable in our society. Before I address Amendment 43, I will speak briefly to Amendment 52, in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Doocey, and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. I mention Amendment 52 in particular because it addresses two issues that I and others raised at Second Reading: first that the code of practice’s definition of a vulnerable adult currently fails to include victims of slavery or trafficking; and secondly that, while the code stipulates that there must be an assessment of the juvenile’s ability to give informed consent, there is no consideration given to the ability of a vulnerable adult to give consent.

The insertion of proposed new subsection (8A)(b) would specify that authorisation must not be granted to anyone who is a

“victim of slavery or servitude or forced or compulsory labour or of human trafficking or exploitation”.

This addresses the concerns raised by Anti-Slavery International, namely that someone who has been either trafficked or exploited is unlikely to be able to give informed consent to acting as a CHIS, given their traumatic experiences of manipulation and control and the long-term psychological implications of this on their ability to make independent decisions.

Within the same amendment, proposed new subsection (8A)(c) would prevent authorisation being granted to anyone

“who has been assessed by an appropriately qualified independent person as likely to be unable to give informed consent to acting as a source”.

I believe this would go some way to addressing my concerns about the absence of any reference in the code of practice to mental capacity and the ability of someone with impaired mental capacity to consent to acting as a CHIS. It has to be borne in mind that mental capacity is specific to a given decision, rather than universal. The Mental Capacity Act code of practice is clear that someone can have capacity to make decisions in certain areas, such as deciding what activities they would like to do during the day, but lack it for others, such as deciding whether to engage in risky and dangerous activities such as acting undercover. Given this, it seems to me essential that mental capacity is specifically taken into account.

I turn now to Amendment 43. I am grateful to and in awe of the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, for introducing the amendment so effectively, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle for their contributions. I fully support their remarks and will add only a few of my own.

My primary objection to the use of children as covert sources is that it stands in direct opposition to our fundamental responsibility to children both morally and legally, as we have heard, to do everything in our power to extricate them from situations and relationships that promote criminality and risky behaviours. We know that vulnerable young people are targeted by criminal gangs who groom, manipulate, intimidate, coerce and force children into the packaging and supply of drugs and the transportation of money, drugs and drug paraphernalia. We know that these children are often obliged to commit criminal acts in order to establish their credibility and prove their trustworthiness within the gang.

These are children who almost inevitably come from disadvantaged backgrounds—growing up in deprived areas, living with experiences of trauma, substance misuse, mental health issues, learning difficulties and possibly even in the care of local authorities. These are children whose life chances and opportunities are already greatly reduced in comparison to their better-off peers, thus further deepening the inequalities between those who have and those who have not. It is hard to believe that, rather than acting to end this exploitation, the law itself would recruit them as covert sources, exploiting the existing exploitation and, in effect, becoming the next perpetrator in a cycle of continued abuse.

Alongside this moral argument, there is a more practical consideration. Research suggests that teenagers are not even particularly effective as covert sources, because information-processing abilities are not as developed in teenagers as they are in adults. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the rational part of the brain, which means they can respond to situations with judgment and with consideration of the long-term consequences. Teenagers process information with the amygdala: the emotional part of the brain. In teenagers, the connections between the rational and emotional parts of the brain are not yet fully developed, which is why they cannot always explain what they are thinking. Often they are not thinking—they are just feeling. Adolescents are more likely to act on impulse and engage in dangerous behaviours, and they are less likely to pause to consider the consequences of their actions.

We also know that most young people involved in gangs and drug supply are themselves regular users of drugs, which they may need to use in order to blend in. I am grateful to Dr Grace Robinson for sharing her work in this area. Drugs and alcohol use can change or delay development of the connections between the logical and emotional parts of teenage brains. All this throws into question the accuracy, consistency and completeness of any information provided by teenagers acting as covert sources and, as a result, its utility in intelligence-gathering operations.

Alongside the fundamental concern of whether it is morally and legally right to put young people directly in harm’s way, we need to set this secondary concern, of whether the information they are likely to provide would be of sufficient value to justify the risks. My belief is that, however valuable the information, it can never off-set the immediate and long-term harm to young people recruited to act as covert sources—young people whose life opportunities and outcomes are already likely to be compromised. For this reason, I stand with the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham. The end does not justify the means.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative 7:15 pm, 3rd December 2020

My Lords, I speak to Amendment 48 tabled in my name and support all those who have spoken in favour of limiting the use of children as CHIS. The reason for putting forward Amendment 48 is to try to probe the thinking of the Government on the relationship between the provisions of the Bill with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. How does my noble friend the Minister believe that they can square the use of children as CHIS with the provisions of that convention?

I endorse and support entirely the comments of my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham and I thank him for so eloquently moving his Amendment 43. I congratulate the other noble Lords who supported his amendment. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, has tabled Amendment 51, which would build on the thinking that I have put forward in my probing amendment about how the UN convention could apply in this regard.

My noble friend Lord Young referred to one of the four general principles that are set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child—Article 3, establishing what is in the best interests of the child. I support that view entirely; it is difficult how using children as covert intelligence sources can be squared as being within the best interests of the child, as opposed to the wider and broader interests of the community. I also have regard to the three other general principles of the UN convention: Article 2, on non-discrimination; Article 6, on the right to life, survival and development; and Article 12, on the right to be heard. In summing up this debate, can my noble friend the Minister indicate how a child’s voice, particularly one who may be as young as 15, in the instances that we are considering, in this part of the Bill, is heard before they are asked to operate as covert human intelligence sources?

I support entirely the comments made by others that children are particularly vulnerable in this regard. They may not understand what is being asked of them. Are they in a position to ask what the implications are for their future, and how their actions might be interpreted? Are they actually in a position where they could refuse to act, if it has been explained to them, when they are being asked to act in a particular way? It is difficult to understand the circumstances in which this might be explained to a child aged 15, 16 or 17—how their conduct might benefit our society, but also how it might be of harm to themselves.

I support this group of amendments. I have tabled Amendment 48 as a probing amendment, because I believe that the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child apply here. If that can be achieved by one of the other amendments in this group, I will be extremely happy. I urge my noble friend to put my mind at rest by indicating how what the Government are seeking to do through this Bill by using children as CHIS can be squared with the provisions to which I have referred in the UN convention.

Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour

My Lords, I agree with so many of the remarks made today by noble Lords following the powerful and moving opening speech by the noble Lord, Lord Young. I declare my interests as being involved with several voluntary sector organisations and all-party groups for children, and as a rapporteur on children’s rights issues in the Council of Europe.

Amendment 51, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Dubs, is based on the findings reflected in Chapter 5 of the Joint Committee on Human Rights report on the Bill. The amendment would prohibit the authorisation of criminal conduct by children without specific prior judicial approval. The Bill provides only for the authorisation of criminal conduct by a CHIS and does not make a distinction between adults and children, nor is any distinction drawn between adults and children for the purposes of CCAs within the revised CHIS code of practice. The JCHR report found that:

“It is hard to see how the involvement of children in criminal activity, and certainly serious criminal activity, could comply with the State’s obligations under the HRA and under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child … in anything other than the most exceptional circumstances. Article 3 UNCRC”, which has already been quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Young,

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

The best interests of the child must be at the core of all our concerns.

The JCHR report concludes:

“Deliberately involving children in the commission of criminal offences could only comply with Article 3 UNCRC or Article 8 ECHR in the most exceptional cases.”

The amendment provides protection against the authorisation of criminal conduct by children in unexceptional cases. It would require prior judicial approval before the granting of a CCA in respect of the conduct of a child in the limited circumstances in which judicial approval would be forthcoming—that is, only where the undercover operation is for the purpose of saving lives or preventing serious physical or mental harm.

I want to add some remarks based on my own experiences and interests that extend the issues expressed in the JCHR report. Children are often characterised as “young” under 16, but the UNCRC and the World Health Organization stipulate that anyone under 18 is a child. That puts an extra dimension on things. We also know that children are not a homogeneous group. Some will be vulnerable. As has been said, they may be subject to having been used for all manner of purposes. They are at significant risk already. This is a very important issue.

The UNCRC is clear about the rights of the child in its 42 articles. For example, Article 36 says that children shall be protected from any activities that could harm their development. Article 12 says that the child’s right to a voice when adults are making decisions is paramount. Child refugees have the same rights as children born in that country. Children have the right to get and share information, as long as that information is not damaging to them or others. That applies to all children. I ask the Minister to convince me that sufficient care is given to the stipulation that the best interests of the child are paramount and to provide some examples of how that care works in practice—for example, about who is consulted as to the appropriateness of a child being involved.

I want to repeat the reference that the noble Lord, Lord Young, made to the Children’s Commissioner; he made a very powerful statement. As she recently said, she suggests that she remains to be convinced that there is ever an appropriate situation in which a child should be used as a CHIS. She has called for a full investigation to take place into the use of children in such circumstances and believes that the current legislative framework should be amended to protect children’s rights. I agree totally. Child impact assessments are always useful. Many of us in this House, and in Parliament generally, have been calling for that for some time. Wales has integrated the UNCRC into its legislation and Scotland is discussing a Bill to do so. When will England do the same?

Before Report, will the Minister meet those of us concerned about child rights, including protection, in relation to the Bill? Can she produce reassuring evidence that children are not being exploited? If that evidence is not forthcoming, the amendment will certainly need strengthening.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour

My Lords, when I originally looked at this Bill and thought about it in relation to children, I felt that there might be some justification for using children as CHIS in the most exceptional circumstances. I am now doing something that is not very fashionable. I am changing my mind in the light of what I have heard in the debate so far, especially from my noble friend Lady Massey and the noble Lord, Lord Young. I now believe that there should be no circumstances in which children should be part of this process. It is wrong and cannot be justified. The highest standards of human rights would be fully met if we said that children should be totally exempt. There should never be any circumstances in which the end would justify the means. I have been persuaded by the argument. Maybe one does not often admit this publicly, but I am prepared to do so here and now.

Photo of Baroness Doocey Baroness Doocey Chair, Finance Committee (Lords), Chair, Finance Committee (Lords)

My Lords, I wish to speak in favour of Amendment 52. I too support the comments made about children by previous speakers.

This amendment seeks to place in law safeguards for young people, for those who have been trafficked and for other vulnerable individuals. There is a real risk to vulnerable adults, as well as to children, because victims of modern slavery and trafficking are not always recognised as such. This amendment puts safeguards in place for them, as well as for minors.

I share the same fundamental concern as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. Children should not be placed in harm’s way by the state or in the pursuit of any other alleged greater good. It is the job of the state to protect children, not to deploy them as spies.

I want to address directly the argument made on this point by the Minister at Second Reading. She said that, in practice, juveniles are not asked to participate in criminality in which they are not already involved. Surely the fact that children are already involved in crime does not make them any less worthy of protection. We like to say that with rights come responsibilities, but that maxim misunderstands rights. Rights are absolute and children should expect the absolute right to basic protection from this country. That protection should not be contingent on some invented responsibility to help the police by acting as a spy. Children seldom choose to become involved in gangs. Many are vulnerable. Many have been abused. Some are victims of trafficking. Others have been appallingly neglected both by their families and then by the state. It is not right to view them as having chosen a lifestyle of criminality and thereby complicit in their own fate.

Just as the Modern Slavery Act acknowledges that children cannot consent to their own slavery, we should recognise in the Bill that children do not put themselves into these dangerous situations. They should not be asked to take advantage of danger in the interests of police investigations. These young people are at very high risk of long-term physical and emotional harm from the experiences they have already had. Being designated a CHIS puts them at hugely increased risk. I find it indefensible that 16 and 17 year-olds can be brought into this highly dangerous territory of spying for the state with no appropriate adult to help and support them. The age of majority in this country is 18: 16 and 17 year-olds are children and these particular 16 and 17 year-olds are very vulnerable children. It is completely unacceptable for them to be co-opted by the police for spying without the same representation that they would enjoy if they were arrested for some minor offence, such as theft.

The police do a very difficult job. We are all in their debt for protecting us as individuals and as a society. The need to get a result can sometimes blur boundaries in the pursuit of solving a crime or bringing a prosecution. The genre of police drama would scarcely be so rich without the reality that rules can sometimes be bent and occasionally broken.

What I am hearing from charities that work tirelessly on the ground is that police sometimes—perhaps with the best of reasons or intentions—leave young people, very often girls, inside gangs, despite suspecting that those girls are probably victims of trafficking. The truth is that, to the officers, the girls are more valuable as spies than they are as victims, but, in my view, no result in a case is worth crossing that line or turning a blind eye to a very vulnerable child’s needs. Just as we do not believe in sending children into battle in the Armed Forces, we should not believe in sending them to battle crime among gangs in the depths of crackdowns and in the backrooms of pubs. I hope that the Minister will reconsider these issues when she responds.

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Deputy Chairman of Committees 7:30 pm, 3rd December 2020

I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Judd.

We will go to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and if we can reconnect with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, we will bring him in after the noble Lord, Lord Russell. I call the Baroness, Lady Jones.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

My Lords, this is an issue that I have raised several times in your Lordships’ House: the issue of child spies. We even had a debate on it about 15 or 18 months ago in Grand Committee. Everybody I have ever mentioned it to—either out in the wider world or here in your Lordships’ House—is absolutely horrified at the idea that the police or the security services use children as spies. Other noble Lords have mentioned how damaged these children probably are. The fact is that the police find them when they are committing crimes, so they catch them doing something criminal. Anecdotally, I have heard that the children are given the option of being arrested and taken away, or they can go back into the gang. I have absolutely no way of knowing whether this is true, but it sounds like blackmail to me. So in addition to the police not rescuing these children, the children are sent back into danger.

I said in my Second Reading speech that I would stop this process immediately. Luckily, the noble Lord, Lord Young, was faster in putting the amendment down, because his support is obviously going to carry a lot more weight than mine. It struck me at the time, however, that anyone can be horrified by this. You do not have to be a right-on, woke Greenie. It is horrifying to all of us.

I have put down an amendment about vulnerable people, which I consider children to be as well, and it covers anyone who is a victim of modern slavery. Quite honestly, we have heard from the Government that this whole Bill is all about protecting the country and the people of Britain; but it is not protecting some people. Some people are not getting the protection that the Government are offering to others. If we are not protecting vulnerable people or children, what do we think we are protecting: a way of life that we can be proud of? I really do not think so.

Personally, it is unforgivable seeing these children used as pawns and spies to somehow find out what we think might be useful information about criminal gangs. It is worse than state-sanctioned child abuse: it is state-sponsored child abuse, and the Government should be thoroughly ashamed of trying to put this into legislation. I would like to see the Government more inclined to taking these children out of criminality and actually saving them from the sort of life that they have been leading, rather than pushing them back into greater danger and possibly greater criminality.

I have met police whistleblowers: I think they are astonishing, because they go against their group and their friends; it is incredibly difficult. Two of the whistleblowers I have met suffer from PTSD. The PTSD is not from confessing what they did but from the work they did when they were undercover, because being undercover is highly stressful. The “undercover” I mean is not necessarily to do with drug gangs or terrorist organisations; quite often, when it comes to political groups or campaigns or NGOs, officers are sent in for years. We have heard about relationships lasting seven years, children being fathered and that sort of thing. When you are undercover that long, you do suffer trauma. It is extremely difficult to come out of that and feel normal again, because you have hidden so much of yourself and so much of your life from other people.

One of the whistleblowers I am talking about is absolutely divorced from reality; he finds it extremely difficult to feel any emotion. He told me when his father died, he could not cry, and he still has not been able to cry, some years later, because of the trauma he suffered as an undercover police officer. The other one, who I know quite well, told me he has the opposite problem: he is extremely emotional and cries very easily at all sorts of things because of the trauma he suffered as an undercover police officer. Can anyone please tell me that children are less vulnerable to that sort of trauma than adults? Of course not; children are more susceptible to that sort of trauma. I do not care how many children it is; one is too many. Those children will suffer, possibly for the rest of lives. We as a nation really should not be causing that.

Photo of Baroness Young of Hornsey Baroness Young of Hornsey Crossbench

My Lords, I am going to try not to repeat comments made by colleagues already. However, I feel it is important to put on the record some of my huge misgivings about what this Bill does in relation to children and vulnerable individuals. I wholeheartedly support the arguments put forward in other amendments in this group, especially when we are talking about children—whether we call them “children” or “juveniles” is semantics—and vulnerable adults as CHIS. I hope we can collaborate on a single amendment on Report, should that be necessary, because many of us feel we must pursue this until we cannot do so any longer.

I have been slightly conflicted about where to put my energy in this Bill: like other noble Lords who have already spoken, I fundamentally disagree with the practice of using young people and vulnerable individuals as covert intelligence sources at all, let alone encouraging them to commit criminal acts. It raises so many questions, and one that has been bugging me for a little while, since I read about this issue, is: who in this Chamber would be prepared to sacrifice—that is how I see it—their own, or a friend’s, 15, 16 or 17 year-old to become a CHIS and commit a crime in that role? When I hear people describe using children or vulnerable people as CHIS as unpleasant or uncomfortable, I think that that does not do justice to the seriousness of this issue.

All of us here accept that there are legitimate reasons for undercover work to disrupt criminality of all kinds and use a variety of strategies to secure credibility for agents working in the field. The question is, then: what are the limitations and checks and balances that are necessary to maintain confidence in the institutions undertaking such activities in our democracy and on our behalf? The draft code of conduct issued by the Government goes some way towards alleviating fears regarding the use of children and vulnerable adults, but it does not go far enough in my view or the view of most of those who have spoken in this group this evening. Amendment 60 seeks to address some of the gaps in the guidance with regard to the deployment of children, juveniles and vulnerable individuals and to ensure that these safeguards are enshrined in legislation.

Amendment 60 is straightforward. Proposed new subsection (1) defines its parameters by stating that children, vulnerable individuals and victims of modern slavery and human trafficking are the subject of this amendment. These individuals are defined in proposed new subsections (5) and (6). In essence, this amendment is concerned with the welfare of those with limited capacity to make informed choices—which noble Lords mentioned earlier—without adequate support and resources to protect themselves. I draw your Lordships’ attention to issues raised by colleagues working with learning disabled adults who have seen at first hand how vulnerable adults can be groomed and lured into being a cuckoo. Some noble Lords may not be familiar with that term but, in essence, it means an innocent person who is groomed or coerced into harbouring drugs, criminals or whatever.

This is a particular issue for people with learning disabilities because it is relatively easy to persuade them by fair means or foul to become a cuckoo—to use their spaces to hide criminal goods. The same can be said of looked-after or care-experienced children who are known to have left care and been given accommodation. These are also spaces where criminal gangs steadily work on that young person and inveigle themselves into to use for their criminal activities. The problem is that their vulnerability facilitates exploitation in both those groups. The idea, therefore, that we might endorse state or public bodies to enable vulnerable adults in hazardous situations or care-experienced care leavers to commit unspecified crimes with immunity should be totally unacceptable.

Those who have been subjected to trafficking or other forms of modern slavery are similarly vulnerable to coercion of various kinds, with threats made not only to them but to their families. On that issue, I should like some clarification on the Government’s draft code of practice. On page 18, reference is made to “collateral intrusion”—one of those terms—which concerns the potential harm that may be done to individuals who may be related to the culpable person being spied on. My understanding of that section is that the harm posed to the relatives or the family and private life of the CHIS is not under consideration there. I may have completely misread or misunderstood that and hope that the Minister can clarify it for me. If it is seen as an issue, and the authorities have to take account of the CHIS’s family welfare, perhaps I have missed it, and I apologise. However, if not, and the private life of the families of the juvenile or vulnerable adult is not a factor to be considered when assessing the appropriateness of deploying the CHIS and enabling their criminal activity, I should like to know why. This is particularly important for the welfare of the families of vulnerable individuals and young people because they may not have a complete understanding of the dangerous situation in which they are placing others, as well as themselves. It comes back to the issue of what is an informed choice.

The point of proposed new subsection (3) in my amendment is that an appropriate adult, if a parent or guardian is not available to take on that role, must be present and be independent of any of the authorities recruiting a CHIS. Whatever the age of the CHIS, whether 15, 16, or 17, it should be mandatory, not discretionary, that an appropriate adult is present. The reason is that, given that there must be exceptional circumstances when it is determined that a CHIS is the only way in which to deal with a specific situation—we explain what such circumstances are in our amendment—the young person or vulnerable individual must be able to make an informed choice on engaging with the authorities in this way, and protected as far as possible from making a decision that may cause them significant harm. If the situation is acceptable, it is all the more obvious that an independent appropriate adult must be present for anyone under the age of 18 and other vulnerable individuals. Do we really think that these young people or vulnerable adults will be able to keep what they have done to themselves, when in some circumstances they may have committed a crime at the instruction of an agent of the state? That would place not only them but their families and relations in jeopardy.

As my noble friend Lady Bull pointed out, anyone who knows young people of that age—15, 16 or 17 —will know that levels of maturity vary and that an understanding that actions taken today may impact negatively on their futures, to say the least, can be hard to grasp at that age. Why not make it mandatory for an appropriate adult to be present for all those described in proposed new subsection (1)? The very fact that they are in the predicament of involvement with a criminal gang indicates that some bad choices have already been made. Many of these young people will have been in care, as has been pointed out, excluded from school or charged with a crime; they will be using drugs. Many people are working really hard to turn the lives of these juveniles around, to set them on the right path and to point out role models who can help them make a positive contribution to society.

I have heard it said that we are talking about only a small number of people under 18 who have been recruited as CHIS. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said, if there is only one, it is one too many—but more than one has been recruited in this way over the years. I have heard a figure of around 15, but I am not sure over what timespan or whether that is accurate.

To recap: an appropriate adult must be available to all juveniles and vulnerable individuals and, to avoid a conflict of interest, must be able to demonstrate independence from any public body seeking to deploy the child. Coercion can be quite subtle. One of the former undercover police officers told us in a briefing how he had heard from a source—not necessarily a juvenile—that the police had told this potential or existing CHIS: “Either you inform on these criminals or we will tell them that you’ve done so anyway.” The kind of talk that says, “If you don’t do this, then we’ll arrest you”, does not really give people in those situations a real choice as to what future decisions they make.

At Second Reading, I pointed out to the Minister that a number of reviews had all reported the overrepresentation of young black and minority-ethnic men in the criminal justice system. I asked for the Home Office’s view on any equality impact studies made on this subject. Given that overrepresentation in the criminal justice system, it seems quite likely that there is at least a possibility that black and other ethnic-minority people might be overrepresented when it comes to using CHIS. I would like to hear a view on that from the Minister, as that question was not addressed adequately at Second Reading.

In summary, a key point of the amendment is clarification of the exceptional circumstances in which it would be “appropriate” for a child or vulnerable adult to be given a CCA. Secondly, appropriate adults should be mandatory for young people and vulnerable individuals and must be self-evidently independent. The state surely cannot be seen to be complicit in and to legitimate further exploitation of already vulnerable children and adults unless there really are no other options on the table and all possible safeguards have been implemented.

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Deputy Chairman of Committees 7:45 pm, 3rd December 2020

After the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, I will call the noble Lord, Lord Judd.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, this is a fascinating if somewhat one-sided debate. I will suggest in a minute why I think that is the case and why that gives the Government a problem. I thank the Minister who, with her usual courtesy, went out of her way to have a meeting with me with her Bill team last week. I am extremely grateful for that.

It is crystal clear from the Bill’s passage in the Commons, from Second Reading and from today that both Houses have significant concerns about the use of children as CHIS. I will make my comments across all the amendments in this group, but I will try to put them in the context of why I think Her Majesty’s Government have a problem.

The fact that so many of us are so uneasy about this subject is, to me, clear evidence that we are unconvinced. We have yet to hear a compelling, clear and detailed articulation of why this is necessary in the first place. As the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, said in his excellent opening speech, why, for example, did Her Majesty’s Government not conduct a child rights impact assessment on the Bill? I address that directly to the Minister, and I would like her to give me and the noble Lord, Lord Young, an answer to that, if not today, in future in writing. The template exists—why was it not used?

We feel that the onus is firmly on the Government to persuade us, and they have not yet done so. We need facts; we need solid data, redacted as appropriate, about previous and current deployments to demonstrate their necessity and value in the absence of viable alternatives. We need the evidence of their worth. We need a detailed and clear explanation of what is meant by “exceptional circumstances”, and we need examples to illustrate this. We do not have this.

Earlier this afternoon, the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, made what I thought was a very compelling case, which I ask the Minister to reflect on carefully. He recalled that in the passage of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, a process went through whereby the different authorities concerned spoke in private to a group of people—including the noble Lord, Lord Anderson—probably made up largely of judicial commissioners who are privy to the Official Secrets Act and can be entirely relied upon. They in turn were able to disseminate what they had heard and to give their judgment on the value, or otherwise, of it. I think that, in this case, that might be a very useful precedent to consider following. Subsequently, the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said that after that process there was a second stage, where those findings from that first group were relayed to both Houses of Parliament. That apparently was extremely effective, so we do not necessarily need to reinvent the wheel; I think we do have a precedent.

If the Government fail to convince us that there is a real need for and demonstrable value in using child CHISs, then it is highly probable that on Report there will be a strong case and significant backing for amendments, such as Amendments 43 and 52, which will simply prohibit their use, full stop. However, if the Government are able to convince us that this is a necessary evil, we are in a different but still problematic place. To their credit, both the Minister and her colleague, James Brokenshire, have made it clear that they acknowledge and even share some of our concerns. In that spirit, I appeal to them, and to the Bill team, to work with us to discuss and embed much more substantial and overt safeguards into the Bill on Report. Amendments 48, 51 and 60 are perhaps a good starting point.

As I said at Second Reading, we are dealing, thankfully, with a very small number of child CHIS deployments. If we can be persuaded that they are necessary, can we not create a watertight process which will mollify critics, put in place forensic scrutiny and oversight and which will, above all, focus on the best interests not of the police, or whichever authority it is, but of the child?

I think all of us who have spoken today are entirely at the Minister’s disposal and wish to work with her, should she so wish, to try to put our shared concerns to rest. But, as I said earlier, if the Government are unable to persuade us with strong evidence that there is a compelling justification for using child CHISs, many of us will feel compelled to insist upon prohibition. This is the Government’s challenge.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour

My Lords, I thank unreservedly the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, for the way in which he introduced this amendment. It was a challenge to us all. In protecting the values of our society, of which we like to speak so often, and in protecting the young and the vulnerable, there have to be some absolutes. I am glad that some of the other amendments have drawn attention to other vulnerable people who have been through nightmare experiences, and to whom the damage from being used in this way can be quite incredible.

We have to take seriously—again—the point that I have made several times this afternoon. I am afraid that we could be giving those who seek to undermine our society a victory, because they have provoked us into a situation in which we have acted against what we know to be essential. Nobody can calculate the damage to young people of being used in this way. Very few can really understand or analyse the damage done to other vulnerable people by being used in this way.

So, if we are going to stand firm for the society in which we believe, we must not allow ourselves to give in on these things; we must have absolutes. I therefore counsel those who have moved important amendments raising very serious points about “exceptional circumstances” to consider that probably, in this situation, there are no exceptions. We have to make our stand absolute and, in that way, we can win the battle for humanity that we are determined to win. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Young, for having challenged us so clearly.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, the Committee will not welcome me trying to summarise what has been said, and I could not do justice to the excellent contributions that we have heard, not least from the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, who completely summed up the position with a very compelling argument, using the analogy with torture that the ends do not justify the means—in the case of this Bill, using children as CHISs and authorising them to commit crimes.

A number of noble Lords said—and the Minister may be about to tell us—that it is a very small number of children who are actually involved in this sort of activity. But the whole reason for using child CHISs that the Government use to try to justify it is that the growth in child sexual exploitation, the growth in county lines drug dealing and the growth in human trafficking mean that they need to use more children as CHISs. These are not going to be small numbers for very long—that is the point I am trying to make.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, in her excellent speech, asked us to consider placing one of our own 15 year-old or 16 year-old sons or daughters into such a situation. But I ask the Minister to imagine being put herself—let alone a child—into a criminal gang and being asked to try to carry off an act where she was pretending to be part of a gang and at the same time passing information to the police, or being asked to commit a criminal offence.

Many of these children, as other noble Lords have said, are vulnerable, either because they have substance misuse problems, because they are looked-after children or simply because their decision-making is immature because of the physiology of the brain, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, said. This is a horrifying situation in which to place anybody, let alone a child. As my noble friends Lady Doocey and Lady Hamwee said, this should not apply just to children who are vulnerable; there are many vulnerable adults who, arguably, are more vulnerable than some streetwise teenagers. We are, again, very grateful for the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, in that respect.

We have debated this before in relation to statutory instruments regarding the use of children as CHIS. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Juveniles) Order 2000 sets out some of the attempts by the Government to mitigate the risks that these children face, including, at Article 5(a)(ii), that,

“the nature and magnitude of any risk of psychological distress to the source arising in the course of, or as a result of, carrying out the conduct described in the authorisation have been identified and evaluated.”

Identified and evaluated by whom? It means by the police—and, with the best will in the world, the police are going to be primarily focused on tackling criminality and dismantling the criminal gang, rather than on the best interests of the child. As my noble friend Lady Doocey said, the focus is not going to be on the welfare of the child. In a recent article in Independent Voices by a former undercover police officer, he described how they would go out to exploit vulnerable people, to get them to do this sort of thing. In short, children should not be seen as a disposable asset to be used in this way.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Housing) 8:00 pm, 3rd December 2020

My Lords, this is one of those debates where you can stand up and quite honestly say you agree with every single word that has been said from across the House. I am sure the noble Baroness understands that this presents particular problem for the Government, because I am sure that, in addition to the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, who made an excellent speech, many other members of the Government’s own party will agree with all the points that have been raised here today.

This group of amendments brings the House back to an issue that was first raised by my noble friend Lord Haskel on a statutory instrument, to which the noble Baroness responded. I remember sitting in a much more packed House, and there was lots of concern around the House—“What is this?” People were quite shocked to learn that children were being used in such a way, and that shock and concern has continued, which is why we have come here today.

Everyone around the House is very worried. That is certainly why I signed Amendment 60, which was so ably spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey. Other noble Lords have spoken, and all these amendments are excellent, but I hope that we can hone this down to one. I particularly like Amendment 60, but I think we can see the concern expressed by the House, and we need to deal with this. Our Amendment 60 does not rule out child CHIS completely, but it certainly restricts them. I accept that in very limited circumstances, you might have to use a child, but it must be a very limited, rare occasion.

I am confident that the House will pass an amendment on this issue. Ideally and hopefully, it would be a government amendment, but I am confident that the House will pass an amendment by a large majority on this issue, which is about children. As you have heard, people under 18 can be quite streetwise—certainly, children think they are quite streetwise, although I do not know if they are; they are not quite as streetwise as they think they are. It is about that ability to give informed consent.

We are asking these children to take part in, be involved in and inform and report back on some very dangerous situations. This can be terrorism, drug dealing, sexual abuse or paedophilia: all sorts of really appalling, terrible things. We have to ask ourselves the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham: how is that individual child protected? What would be said if a child CHIS is authorised and that child dies? That would be appalling—what would we say then? I think we have to take note of and be concerned about that, as well as the comments of the Children’s Commissioner in respect of using child CHIS.

Of course, sometimes—we have had this before—the child CHIS can be asked to pass information back to their handler, who can be a member of their own family. There are often situations when they are involved in a crime family: it could be their own father or mother. It is not always the case that the child is in care and hanging around the streets before getting involved; sometimes, it can be members of their own family, who can be very dangerous people. We are putting people in very difficult situations, and we must be even more careful about the individual child in those situations. These children have rights, and we need to ensure that, as the state, we protect them even more. As I said, if you are under 18, you are legally still a child and deserve protection from the state.

The right reverend Prelate made the point again about children, and I fully support his comments, as I do the points about mental capacity made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, which are very important. I also support the point of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, that, sometimes, you can have quite a streetwise child and, equally, an older adult who is not that streetwise, so there is an issue there as well. These are things that we need to consider.

I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to tell the House that she fully understands the situation—and I know she is concerned about this. I hope that she will work with the House and, as the noble Lord, Lord Russell, says, can see the concern and genuine desire to agree something. I hope that she will welcome noble Lords from around the House and that we will come back with an amendment that, hopefully, we can all sign up to on Report, allowing very limited circumstances where a child may need to be used—very limited. Equally, I want to see much more protection for people. I hope that, when the noble Baroness responds, she will be able to give the House that information.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, I start with the words of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and absolutely confirm that I fully understand what all noble Lords have been talking about this evening. Of course, I will continue to work with the House, as I have done to date, in discussing what is, for me, the most difficult part of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, asked me: would I like to be a CHIS? No: I would be utterly terrified. Could I see my children being deployed in such activity? It would be incredibly difficult for me.

We need to put ourselves in the shoes of those children, who, as every noble Lord has said, are fairly vulnerable people in the sense that they might have been involved in, or their home life might be the site of, criminal activity. This is a very difficult area indeed. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Russell, Lord Paddick and Lord Kennedy, and my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham—and any noble Lords who are behind me—who have taken the time to come and speak to me about this aspect of the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Russell, put to me the suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, about sessions in private. We are thinking about the best way to ensure that people have some of the information they need, although noble Lords will understand that some of that is sensitive to the point that it cannot be given out. I hope that noble Lords will appreciate that I have taken the time to have a one-to-one session with any noble Lord who requested it, on any aspect of the Bill. That said, these issues are very difficult, and I totally understand the concerns that have been raised. Nobody likes to think of children or young people being involved in these horrible areas.

Noble Lords may recall that the issue of juvenile CHIS, including whether they should be authorised at all, was discussed extensively in Parliament in 2018. The noble Lord, Lord Russell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, asked me why there was no child impact assessment of the Bill. As a result of concerns being raised about the use of juvenile CHIS, the IPC himself launched a review of all public authorities that have the power to authorise CHIS, to ensure that there was a comprehensive record of how often these powers were used in relation to juveniles. The conclusions of the review were reported in March 2019 to the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I have discussed them before, including the numbers, on the Floor of this House.

On the basis of these detailed reviews, the IPC was satisfied that those who grant such authorisations do so only after very careful consideration of the inherent risks, and that concerns around the safeguarding of children and the public authority’s duty of care to the child are key considerations in the authorisation process. He also noted that public authorities are reticent to authorise juveniles as CHIS unless the criminality and the risk of harm to individuals and communities that the authorisation is seeking to prevent is of a high order and cannot be resolved in less intrusive ways. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, put that challenge to me.

The IPC also highlighted that juvenile CHIS are not tasked to participate in criminality that they are not already involved in and that becoming a CHIS can, potentially, offer a way to extricate themselves from such harm. The decisions to authorise were only made where this is the best option for breaking the cycle of crime and the danger for the individual, much as that might sound contradictory.

As well as the IPC investigation, the High Court considered the issue of juvenile CHIS last year. Mr Justice Supperstone set out his view that it was clear that the principal focus of the framework for juvenile CHIS is to ensure that appropriate weight is given to a child’s best interests and that the practical effect of the enhanced risk assessment is that juveniles are,

“only utilised in extreme circumstances and when other potential sources of information have been exhausted.”

I hope that that goes some way to reassuring noble Lords that the decision to authorise a young person to act as a CHIS, or participate in criminality, is never taken lightly.

I will now set out the additional safeguards that apply to the authorisation of juveniles as CHIS, and which will equally apply when criminal conduct is being authorised. These include authorisation at a more senior level, a shorter duration for authorisations—four months, rather than 12 for adult CHIS—with monthly reviews, and a requirement for an enhanced risk assessment. There must also be an appropriate adult present at meetings between the public authority and the CHIS for those under 16 years of age. To answer another question, appropriate adults are always independent of the police or other investigating authorities. This must be considered on a case-by-case basis for 16 to 17 year-olds.

These safeguards are contained within the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Juveniles) Order and the updated CHIS code of practice, where the safeguards for juveniles have been further strengthened. The revisions to the code will be subject to a full consultation before they are finalised and will have legal force.

While public authorities will very rarely use young people as CHIS, we must recognise that some juveniles are involved in serious crimes, both as perpetrators and as victims. Consequently, young people may have unique access to information that is important in preventing and prosecuting gang violence and terrorism. This helps remove from the cycle of crime not only the young person authorised as a CHIS but other young and vulnerable individuals caught in criminality.

We should also acknowledge that by universally prohibiting the authorisation of young people to undertake criminality we are increasing the risks to them and placing them in an even more vulnerable position. If criminal gangs and terrorist groups know that a young person will never be authorised by the state to undertake criminality, such groups will be more likely to force young people to engage in criminality, confident in the knowledge that they could never be a CHIS. In seeking to protect young people, we do not want inadvertently to place them at greater risk of being exploited by criminal gangs. We therefore cannot support amendments which place a blanket prohibition on authorising juveniles to participate in criminal conduct.

With regard to vulnerable groups, equally, a vulnerable person will never be coerced into becoming a CHIS or undertaking criminal activity. However, there may be occasions when they take an informed and independent decision to assist a public authority that is seeking to help them, and others in a similar position, by bringing the gangs that exploit them to justice. The updated CHIS code of practice makes it clear that such individuals should be authorised to act as CHIS only in the most exceptional circumstances, and there are further safeguards, including higher authorisation levels. Full risk assessments are also carried out and maintained throughout the tasking.

Amendment 51 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, would make prior judicial approval a requirement for all criminal conduct authorisations that related to CHIS under the age of 18. The amendment encounters the same practical issues as those that we have already discussed more broadly on prior judicial approval: namely, that it takes the decision to authorise the criminal conduct of a juvenile CHIS away from the authorising officer, which may result in greater risks to the young person. Authorising officers are highly trained and must consider the requirements set out in the code of practice, including those additional safeguards for juvenile CHIS, as part of their decision-making role. The authorising officer will know the juvenile CHIS and their circumstances in precise detail and will have a duty of care to ensure that the well-being and safety of the CHIS is a primary consideration of the authorisation decision. Thus, we think that the authorising officer is the best person to take those decisions. Of course, the IPC maintains an important role in providing independent oversight for authorisations of juvenile CHIS, as he does more broadly for all CCAs.

Amendment 48 from my noble friend Lady McIntosh would ensure that where criminal conduct authorisations were granted in relation to juvenile CHIS, the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child applied. Clearly, the provisions of the convention use language intended to apply to a range of legal systems worldwide. The detailed CHIS code of practice, together with the protections contained in legislation, contain safeguards to ensure that the juvenile’s interests are protected. The code states explicitly that the need to safeguard and promote the best interests of the juvenile is a primary consideration in all operations involving juvenile CHIS, reflecting the requirement in Article 3 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Amendment 60 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, places restrictions on the authorisation of juveniles and vulnerable persons, but without going as far as to restrict the use of these groups in their entirety. This was the group that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, referred to. I have already explained in detail the safeguards that are in place for vulnerable and juvenile CHIS. We think that these safeguards strike the right balance but recognise that, on rare occasions, it may be necessary to authorise participation in criminal conduct, to prevent further criminality or to protect the identity of a young person who may be deployed as a CHIS.

Turning to the specifics of the amendment, it seeks to define vulnerable groups. The updated code of practice, which has legal force, already provides a definition of “vulnerable individuals”, so we have not placed it in the Bill. The amendment also requires an appropriate adult to be present at all meetings between a handler and a CHIS up to the age of 18; obviously, this is already the case for those up to the age of 16. For 16 and 17 year-olds, it must be considered on a case-by-case basis; if an appropriate adult is not present, the IPC can consider the reasoning set out as part of his oversight function.

I have said before that the law recognises that parental responsibility diminishes as the child gets older, but I assure noble Lords that the vulnerability of all young people aged under 18 is taken very seriously. These assessments are made on a case-by-case basis and focus specifically on the young person’s safety and welfare. Public authorities may draw on the expertise of those with specific training and experience in fields such as mental health and social care.

Turning to the requirement to define “exceptional circumstances”, we want to avoid highlighting the circumstances under which young and vulnerable people are authorised to undertake criminality when acting as a CHIS, as this would hand to our adversaries a greater understanding of how public authorities operate. In addition, the specific restrictions in this amendment are very restrictive. County lines are an example of where it may be necessary to use this tactic but where it might not be covered by these restrictions. However, the code of practice, which I reiterate has legal force, is clear that juveniles and those who are vulnerable are to be used only in exceptional circumstances. Indeed, between 2015 and 2018, there were only 17 instances where law enforcement bodies deployed juvenile CHIS. Their participation in criminal conduct is rarer still.

I understand noble Lords’ concerns and look forward to further discussions with them to consider before Report whether there are ways to provide, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, additional reassurance and safeguards, as well as provide assurance about some of the safeguards that are in place.

Photo of Baroness Henig Baroness Henig Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 8:15 pm, 3rd December 2020

I have received requests to speak after the Minister from the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark. We will start with the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees

I thank the Minister for her very full reply. I asked whether the approach of my noble friend Lord Anderson of Ipswich in 2016 to the scrutiny of the Investigatory Powers Act, as it went through both Houses, might not be a model to follow. In our meeting last week, the Minister discussed with myself and those of us who are sceptical about the use of child CHIS for evidence the requirement for this. To convince us, she was kind enough to indicate that the 17 cases that we know of through IPCO produced a result that was deemed, in the balance of all things, positive and justified the use of those cases. In the absence of that sort of evidence, those of us whose primary concern is the best interests of the child are understandably very cautious and a little sceptical. We are willing to be convinced but we need the evidence to be convinced, please.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

I will reiterate what I said, which is that I am trying to work out a mechanism for sessions that might be helpful but not leaked, and perhaps where we can give some working examples—again, perhaps in private. We will try to do that if not before Report then during it, but before we come to this amendment.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Housing)

Actually, I have nothing to ask. The noble Baroness answered my point right at the end, after I had asked the clerk if I could speak, so I will leave it there.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Conservative

My Lords, I am very grateful to everyone who has taken part in this debate—not least the Minister, who has been on her feet answering debates for over six and a half hours and has done so with patience and courtesy. It is probably in breach of her human rights to be on duty for such a long time.

I am also grateful to all those who have taken part in this debate, the vast majority of whom have been in favour of Amendment 43—namely, there are no circumstances in which children should be used as CHIS. That is reflected in most of the amendments, with one or two, as it were, blurring the red line a little by specifying certain circumstances in which that might be possible.

Perhaps I may briefly pick up some of the points that were made during the debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, made a good point about those over 18 who look younger than they are and whether, if it is inevitable that people who look young will be used, it should be them rather than people who actually are under 18. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, made a good point about the rather narrow distinction between, on the one hand, grooming, which we are all against, and, on the other, persuading vulnerable children to act as covert human intelligence, which we are less enthusiastic about.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle asked us to think about the consequences for the child, and he wanted better safeguards. The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, quite rightly, wanted the ban extended to victims of slavery and trafficking and those who are unable to give informed consent. She delved into the psychology of teenagers to query whether this worked and whether somebody of that age could make rational decisions. My noble friend Lady McIntosh wondered how the use of children could be compatible with the UNHCR. Then the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, joined others in pressing for a meeting with the Minister between now and Report, which she has readily agreed to.

We then came to what I thought was the most valuable contribution—from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. He was the floating voter in this debate. He said that he had been swung by the argument and was now in favour of Amendment 43. As a former Chief Whip, I was always rather worried when colleagues went into the Chamber to listen to the debate just in case they could be swayed the wrong way, but on this occasion I am delighted that we have had an impact on the floating voter.

The noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, said that vulnerable children need support, particularly if they are already victims. She made the valid point that we do not send children into battle, so should we send them into circumstances that might be equally dangerous? The noble Baronesses, Lady Jones and Lady Young of Hornsey, touched on the risk of blackmail: “Either work with us as covert human intelligence or you will be arrested”. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, mentioned evidence from police officers that this was the case.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that it is not just Greenies who are in favour of this. I was a member of Friends of the Earth for a very long time— until, as Secretary of State for Transport, I built the Newbury bypass, when, I am sad to say, it expelled me. She also made the valid point that if the police are traumatised when they act in these circumstances, what will be the position of children under 18?

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, made a point that was picked up by others: would we allow our children —or, in the case of many Peers, our grandchildren—to be used as human spies? Of course, under the terms of the draft code, parents would not necessarily know that this was happening; they do not have to be told.

The noble Lord, Lord Russell, summarised the concern in both Houses and said we need the evidence. I hope we get the evidence and I hope it is all of it: not just the evidence that may substantiate the case that the Minister wishes to persuade us of, but evidence of where things have not perhaps gone quite as they should. The noble Lord asked whether the process used for the Investigatory Powers Act might be used in this case. I am not familiar with it but that sounds like a very helpful suggestion.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, made the point that demand is likely to increase because of the nature of criminal activities with the growth of county lines. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, sounded to me as though he was veering towards Amendment 60 rather than Amendment 43, and I will have to use the time between now and Report to see whether we can nudge him a little further to one side.

I very much welcome what the Minister has said. She wants to work with us to see if we can get clarity to try to find a way through. As of now I remain, with the Children’s Commissioner, unconvinced that there are any circumstances in which this is right, and the Minister has a challenge to make me shift my position between now and Report. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 43 withdrawn.

Amendments 44 to 48 not moved.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 8:30 pm, 3rd December 2020

My Lords, we must finish at 8.45 pm but the next group has only five speakers, so if noble Lords are willing to keep their comments brisk and brief then we may just be able to finish it before we have to adjourn.

Photo of Baroness Henig Baroness Henig Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

We come now to Amendment 49. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division should make that clear during the debate.