To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many young people under the age of 18 years are currently serving in the armed forces.
As at 1 January 1992, the latest date for which we have information, there were 7,647 personnel under 18 years of age serving in the armed forces.
In view of the growing international concern about the use of children and young people in various conflicts, especially in third-world countries, how on earth can the Minister possibly justify a situation in this country whereby a young lad can join the Army at the age of 16, or in some cases at the age of 15, but if he changes his mind and wants to leave after serving more than six months he cannot do so and is forced to continue in the armed services until the age of 21? Is not it about time that the Government stopped this practice of recruiting and exploiting young people who are deemed not old enough to cast a vote but in some cases are being forced to continue in the Army and can be put into armed combat, as they were during the Gulf war?
The issue of people not being able to leave the forces until they are 21 was raised by the Select Committee that examined the Armed Forces Bill, now the Armed Forces Act 1991. We are looking at the matter and it is currently being considered by the Department. The hon. Gentleman asked about young people joining the armed forces. I do not know who the hon. Gentleman thinks he is speaking for, but I remind him that these people are volunteers and join with the approval of their parents. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that a person under the age of 18 should not have joined his unit in the Gulf? I do not think that that would have been the attitude of the young men who were very keen to fight for their country and to serve with their compatriots.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that his earlier answer emphasised once again how essential and right it was for the Government to stand up against allowing homosexuality in the armed forces? Many parents of potential boy soldiers, sailors and airmen would have been very reluctant to allow their sons to join the armed forces if homosexuality had been allowed among those who were to train them.
My hon. Friend is right. We carefully considered that issue, and I agree that many parents would have been reluctant to allow their children to serve with the armed forces at such a young age if homosexuality had been allowed.