Welfare watch

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Simon Haskel on government plans to extend the use of under 18s in covert surveillance

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee was asked recently to approve an Order extending the use of under 18s in covert human intelligence – from one to four months. The government presented this as matter of administrative convenience for the authorities, and of benefit to the juveniles who may have felt time pressured to gather evidence.

The justification for using young people in this way appears to relate to the increased amount of juvenile crime, with covert sources considered of great assistance to the relevant authorities. An explanatory memorandum for the Order reveals that police and law enforcement agencies have been consulted and offers assurances that a range of welfare safeguards are in place. 

But the more our Committee considered the matter, the more we wondered how effective the supervision was and whether adequate and consistent assessments were being carried out. While larger police forces may be able to do this, what about the smaller ones?

The 16 to 18 period can be one of great change in the life of a young person and a time when they are particularly vulnerable to outside pressures. They can be more easily sold the idea of acting as a covert agent but do they fully understand the personal risks and potential stress? And who is to judge if they are being exploited or put in jeopardy for a greater good?

Rights Watch UK, which has had some experience in dealing with this issue in Northern Ireland, point out that all individuals under 18 are legally children and therefore entitled to protection under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They also have entitlements under the Convention on Human Rights and the safeguards in this Order do not seem to provide such protections. Indeed, if the government was applying the ‘best interests of the child’ test, it is hard to imagine that they could be engaged in any covert activity.

There are also clear conflicts with the obligations of local authorities and schools – none of which seems to be recognised in the code of practice. Risk assessment is mandated, as is having somebody with the juvenile while they are being interviewed by their handler. But nowhere does it say that an independent social worker, psychiatrist or safeguarding practitioner must be involved. Presumably to maintain secrecy?

The code of practice says the risk has to be ‘understood’ by the young person but proper consent by them or their parents goes unmentioned. But if a parent or guardian supports the ideology against which the child might be deployed, implications arise for confrontation or family break up. Yet there are laws protecting families from such outcomes. 

The welfare of these juveniles should take precedence and their rights to this are clearly expressed in the conventions. I would suggest therefore, that Ministers would do well to ask the Joint Committee on Human Rights to scrutinise and advise on the Order before it goes any further.

Lord Simon Haskel is a Labour Peer. He tweets @simon_haskel

Published 18 July 2018

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