It has been revealed that British police and intelligence agencies are using children, some under the age of 16, as spies in covert operations against terrorists, violent gangs, sex abuse rings and drug syndicates.

A committee of the House of Lords revealed the practice and have also raised the alarm over government plans to give law enforcement authorities even more freedom over their use of children.

Former Tory cabinet minister David Davis has joined politicians and human rights groups in their condemnation of the use of children, some younger than 16 years old, for spying

Davis branded the recruitment of child spies as “morally repugnant”

The Guardian reports: The recruitment of children as so-called covert human intelligence sources (CHIS) emerged this week after a House of Lords committee raised the alarm over proposals to loosen restrictions surrounding it.

The secondary legislation committee reported that Ben Wallace, the home office security minister, had informed it there was “increasing scope” for children to be used to counter crimes such as terrorism, gang violence, drug dealing and child sexual exploitation.

But the government faced a growing outcry on Friday over the use of child spies, with Davis, who resigned from his cabinet post less than a fortnight ago, warning that the key to such operations must be the winning of the hearts and minds of people. “That means winning and holding the moral high ground,” he said. “Morally repugnant tactics are a fast route to failure.”

Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, said ministers must end the practice immediately and explain why it had been allowed to continue for so long.

“Our children should be protected, not intentionally put in precarious situations involving serious and violent crime,” she said. “It beggars belief that the Home Office, with responsibility for safeguarding and vulnerability, has the gall to ask members for even more time to expose children to gang culture and crime.

“There appear to be no guarantees from the government that safeguarding measures are in place, no indication of parental authorisation, and no detail on whether these ‘child spies’ are given any support once they have finished with them.”

The government has advanced secondary legislation to extend the period that agencies could use child spies from one month to four months before needing reauthorisation. It now faces a challenge to the amendment and the practice itself.

Lord Simon Haskel, a Labour peer who sits on the secondary legislation committee, said he and colleagues were considering referring the orders to parliament’s joint committee on human rights after the government refused to do so itself.

“I’ve spoken to the clerk [of the committee] and that seems what we are going to do,” he said. A decision will be taken at the next committee meeting, on Tuesday.

Haskel said he and colleagues were not satisfied with the Home Office’s explanations for wanting to extend the powers, nor with the safeguards it claimed were in place for young people. “The whole tone of the thing is that it’s for the convenience of the authorities, it’s not for the convenience of the young person,” he said.

Despite the outcry, Downing Street defended the use of children in spying operations. Asked about the committee’s concerns, Theresa May’s spokeswoman said: “Juvenile covert human intelligence sources are used very rarely and they’re only used when it is very necessary and proportionate, for example helping to prevent gang violence, drug dealing and the ‘county lines’ phenomenon. The use is governed by a very strict legal framework.”

But human rights groups condemned the practice. Allan Hogarth, Amnesty International UK’s head of policy and government affairs, said it was “shocking and unacceptable” to expose children to the dangers associated with undercover operations.

“Instead of seeking to extend the length of time that law-enforcement agencies can potentially use children like this, the government should go back to first principles and seriously consider whether children are being endangered. If so, these operations should be stopped immediately,” he said.

Corey Stoughton, the advocacy director at the human rights group Liberty, said: “This practice is deeply troubling. Vulnerable children are just that – they should be protected, not co-opted by the government into potentially dangerous activities.”