“Touting” and the ethics of gathering information…

A number of years ago the Andersonstown News carried on a front page headline the phrase: “Ten Pound Touts.”  “Ten Pounds Touts” was a reference to what was perceived at the time (and indeed is still perceived by some people) as the practice by the RUC/PSNI of recruiting as informers (touts) young people involved in car crime, anti-social behaviour, or low level crime. These youths were/are given small amounts of money for doing this – allegedly as little as a tenner.

In other words, the police wouldn’t prosecute the young people in return for them being willing to pass on information about other people involved in crime.  It is unlikely that the use of children (anyone under the age of 18 is considered a child in law) as informants is at anything like the level that people in local neighbourhoods believe it to be. Nonetheless, while or if the practice continues, so will the urban myth of the widespread use of the “£10 Tout.”

This alleged practice bothered me then and to this day it still bothers me.  There was a recent editorial in the Guardian newspaper raising major concerns about the practice of children being used as “Covert Human Intelligence Sources’ or “CHIS” for short, to use the official terminology.

The use of children as informers

Legislation exists to allow for children to be recruited at times as CHIS for one month. But this may change to allow them to be used for several months.  For me this raises several issues including the most basic one of a child’s safety.  My question: when is it ever safe to use a child as an informer? I believe that using a child as a CHIS places him or her in considerable danger. I wonder what safeguarding concerns are raised by the practice?

The police will understandably say there are all sorts of “checks and balances” and it will only be with the most stringent guidelines in place if any child is recruited as a CHIS. Though I recognise the police now have a greater willingness to engage with groups within society, by its very nature the intelligence branch will be very limited in talking about the practice. Such secrecy makes it more difficult for the public to understand what is going on.

Vulnerable people

There is also the issue of vulnerability.  Is it ever ethical to recruit a child as a CHIS? The younger the person is and the more vulnerable he or she is, the more this raises ethical issues.   The Guardian editorial made this point: “… the most vulnerable gang members are often the most dangerous.”

I believe as a principle the police should not recruit any child or indeed any vulnerable person as an informer.  But that has implications for the need for information the police require for doing their jobs. The purpose of this article is to encourage discussion on what is civic responsibility in this context. (I prefer talking about civic responsibility to talking about “a culture of lawfulness,” a term which is being used at the moment in some official circles.)

Some questions

So how we do encourage and support people to report crime?

Are there legal alternatives to people having to come to court in order to bring criminals to justice?

At present, to expect people in some communities to bring forward information is unrealistic. In such communities where people are too fearful to contact the police directly, I wonder if there is some way they can contact community leaders to pass on information, particularly local representatives on bodies such as the Policing and Community Safety Partnerships or faith leaders.  I am also keen to raise awareness of the work of Crimestoppers (0800 555 111), where people are able to provide information confidentially, where calls are not recorded, where the caller is never contacted back and anonymity is guaranteed.

We have come a long way in Northern Ireland in terms of policing reform. But we have still some way to go to develop community confidence in policing in many neighbourhoods, so that people know their local police officers and are confident about contacting them directly.  Some policing tactics such as the excessive use of Stop and Search powers and the use of children as informants seem to be counter-productive to the goal of building community support and information sharing.

The principle of “not touting” is deeply ingrained within society. Being a “tout” is considered to this day despicable and not to be done. Yet there is a need to break the silence to stop wrong doing. This is a sensitive subject, but it needs to be discussed more fully and openly if we want to build a safe and peaceful society.

Fr. Martin Magill is the Parish Priest at St Johns Parish, Belfast.