Campaigners have called for the government to abandon its use of child spies, whether a court rules against them or not.
The Home Office has been criticised for allowing children to be used as informants against drug dealers, terrorists and sexual predators.
UK charity Just For Kids Law brought their case to the Royal Courts of Justice to examine whether the use of child spies by police and other agencies caused mental and emotional harm. The organisation says the lack of safeguards involved breaches young people’s human rights.
Acting for the charity, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC flagged up the case of a 17-year-old girl recruited to spy on the man selling her for sex.
She said: “A justification put forward is that some children are involved in or in close proximity to serious crimes which they could as a covert source help police to investigate and prosecute.
“That justification also demonstrates the acute need for stringent safeguards: keeping a child close to serious crimes may serve a compelling public interest, but it would appear to be antithetical to the child’s own interests.”
Whichever way the court rules, it’s clear from the reaction we’ve had to our case so far that the government’s policy appears to be out of step with public opinion
The court heard that children recruited to act as covert surveillance in dangerous situations have fewer safeguards when handled by investigators than those arrested for shoplifting.
Justice Michael Supperstone will now consider his judgement.
But after proceedings, Enver Solomon, CEO of Just for Kids Law, called on the government to change its policy immediately. He said: “We are proud to have brought this case to court to stand up for the rights and wellbeing of vulnerable children at risk of exploitation.
“Whichever way the court rules, it’s clear from the reaction we’ve had to our case so far that the government’s policy appears to be out of step with public opinion.
“The Home Secretary should act urgently to introduce the necessary safeguards to protect these children from physical and emotional harm.”
Security Minister Ben Wallace has rebuffed the calls. He told The Big Issue: “Juvenile covert human intelligence sources are used very rarely and only ever when it is necessary and proportionate and when there is no other less intrusive way to get the information needed to convict criminals or terrorist suspects.
“This could include helping to prevent and prosecute gang violence, drug dealing and the ‘county lines’ phenomenon all of which have a devastating impact on young people and local communities.
“Throughout any deployment and beyond, the welfare of the young person is the paramount consideration.”
Mr Wallace added that since 2015 there have been only 17 instances when children have been used in covert surveillance. In one case the child was aged 15, the others were either 16- or 17-years-old.
The Home Office says these low numbers show the tactic is only used in the most extreme circumstances.