The Covert Human Intelligence Source (CHIS) Bill will, if passed into law, allow 22 state agencies, including the likes of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and local councils, as well as the intelligence services and police, to recruit children as “covert human intelligence sources” — spies, essentially. Children aged 16 and 17 could even be used to spy on their own parents, and afforded certain protections to break the law while doing so.
“Once you start taking action like this to put spies in people’s homes whatever the purpose, this does have complications. It is very important for Government to recognise that this is not something that should be easily done in a democratic state,” warned Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative party leader and Cabinet minister, in comments reported by The Telegraph.
“Everyone I have spoken to has been horrified by it when it has been explained to them,” added David Davis, the former Secretary of State for Brexit who famously resigned his seat in Parliament and ran for it again in a by-election to highlight the erosion of civil liberties by the previous Labour government.
“It will allow 16 and 17-year-olds to spy on their parents. It also authorises them to commit crimes as well, so it needs to be extremely tightly controlled and those controls need to be greater than what the Government is proposing,” Davis warned.
The CHIS bill was amended to heavily restrict the use of child spies when it went to the House of Lords for revision, as part of the normal parliamentary process, but it is understood that the government wishes to strip these amendments out when it returns to the House of Commons.
If the government can retain a solid majority for its bill in the Commons, the Lords can only delay its passage, not having the power to outright block legislation the elected lower chamber is determined to push through in most cases.
Mr O’Neill told Sky News the development is “pretty shocking” and highlights how Boris Johnson has been a “fairly disappointing” prime minister especially on issues of liberty.
“This is really really dodgy,” he said.
“Everyone accepts the need for covert human intelligence, we need spies we need to break up terrorist groups. But recruiting children to watch their own families, spy on their families, there’s something quite Orwellian about that.
Labour sources said they believed there would be enough backing to ensure the bill is returned to the Commons, where it is hoped the government may accept some of the new safeguards.
The guidance in the bill would allow children spying for government agencies to break the law if their actions would prevent or detect crime – and even permits those over the age of 16 to be recruited to inform on their parents if they are suspected of terror or criminal involvement.
It allows 22 state agencies, including the intelligence service, the military and the police, to use children as undercover agents, though there must be a senior executive overseeing the operation.
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