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Armed Forces (Recruitment Age)

Volume 563: debated on Tuesday 21 May 2013

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Davies, although I wonder whether, in different circumstances, I might hear you use the words “nanny state” after you hear what I have to say.

I am pleased to secure this debate on a topic that most hon. Members will agree is sensitive and important. I have every respect for the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), who has served with distinction in our armed forces and who will respond to the debate, but I am disappointed that the Ministry of Defence could not field a Minister to do so.

That said, I do not consider this a party political question, and Governments of all colours have maintained the status quo. In fact, when I raised the issue during the Armed Forces Public Bill Committee in 2011, the challenges from my own colleagues were even more robust than that from the Minister for the Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), who was then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence. The purpose of this debate, however, is to raise the profile of the issue and to ask the Government to consider being the one that makes this much-needed change.

Most people know that the armed services in Britain can recruit from the age of 16 upwards. Most accept it as simply the way things are, but I think many have never really considered what it means to enlist 16 and 17-year-olds and whether the needs of the military really justify that position. It strikes me as amazing that in the 21st century we have 16-year-olds deciding to sign up for the UK’s armed forces—and, in time, for combat roles—when the vast majority of nations across the globe have ended the recruitment of children.

It is correct that recruits do not take part in armed conflict until they are 18, but 16-year-old recruits overwhelmingly enlist into combat roles, so as soon as they turn 18 they can be sent to the front line. Those enlisted as adults are less likely to be in front-line combat positions. I am pleased, however, that following the 2011 Public Bill Committee, the Minister amended the terms of service regulations to allow young people up to the age of 18 to leave the armed services, but he now needs to do more.

I am most interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Having commanded a company of junior leaders and a battalion of more than 1,000 regular soldiers, I seriously challenge his figures. How can he possibly say that the majority of adults do not go into combat roles and that combat roles rest more with those who are recruited at 16? Nothing in my 25 years as an infantry officer supports that.

I respect the hon. Gentleman and his work in the military. Perhaps he has more knowledge of the matter than I do, but my understanding is that it is less likely for a person who enlists as an adult to be in front-line conflict. I will check my facts and ensure that, if I address the situation again, I am correct.

The time has come to heed the advice of Child Soldiers International, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, UNICEF, the United Nations, the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Select Committee on Defence and raise the lowest age of recruitment from 16 to 18.

I spoke to the hon. Gentleman before this debate. Through my role in the armed forces parliamentary scheme and my contact as a cadet force representative in Parliament for those in Northern Ireland, over the past 20 years I have met some of the most excellent young men and women. They have tremendous qualities and, having been introduced to the Army at 16, are leaders of men today. With great respect, I cannot understand how the hon. Gentleman can advance this point of view when we all have experience of young people who excel at what they do having being inducted at 16.

I have no doubt that there are young people recruited at a very early age who go on to excel, but there are some people who might have chosen a different path had they been given the opportunity. I will address some of that later in my speech.

There is no similar under-age recruitment in other dangerous public service vocations, such as the fire or police services. Young people under 18 are legally restricted from watching violent war films and playing violent video games, yet they can be trained to go to war.

Not many people realise that having 16 as a minimum recruitment age is hardly typical among developed and democratic countries. In fact, the UK is the only member of the European Union and the only permanent member of the Security Council that still recruits at 16. We are one of only 20 countries that continue to recruit at 16, while 37 countries recruit from the age of 17. We receive the same criticism as several countries that I am sure no one here would want to see us lumped in with.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has asked the Government to

“reconsider its active policy of recruitment of children into the armed forces and ensure that it does not occur in a manner which specifically targets ethnic minorities and children of low-income families”.

I am saddened that such language could be used about our country.

Will the hon. Gentleman make a clear distinction between those countries that routinely exploit children as young as 10, 11 and 12 and this country, which recruits 16 to 18-year-olds in non-combat roles where they have an opportunity to change their view of what they want to do at 18 and beyond?

There is a tremendous difference between countries that deploy children as young as 12 or 13, or even younger, and what we do in Britain, but we are still recruiting children into our armed services. Although they do have the opportunity to leave the armed services before the age of 18, they do not have to make that specific decision. I will address that later in my speech.

Despite the recommendations from the various groups I have mentioned, no British Government have yet carried out a feasibility study for an all-adult military. I realise the Minister’s representative cannot speak for previous Governments, but is that something on which the Government will keep an open mind? Is it something that will be considered within the MOD?

I certainly do not wish to denigrate the efforts of our troops and those who serve at the age of 16 and 17. They serve our country proudly and should be congratulated, like all armed service recruits, on their bravery and commitment, but these are decisions that should be made on the basis of as much information as possible and with full adult consent—and I do not mean the signature of a parent or guardian, but young people making their own decision when they reach adulthood.

No, I will not.

In most other walks of life, we would not expect 16-year-olds to make commitments that could potentially endanger their life and safety, and I hope hon. Members agree that the armed services should not be any different, although I again acknowledge the change that means recruits now thankfully have the right of discharge up to their 18th birthday. I also hope that Ministers will agree that someone at that young age is not equipped to take such a serious decision that could bind them to fighting on the front line, in some cases many thousands of miles from home.

That commitment to duty is often made when the recruit is 16 years old, with no obligation proactively to reconfirm their enlistment once adulthood is reached and they can be deployed. We ask an awful lot of our recruits. Teenagers are significantly less mature emotionally, psychologically and socially, and young people from deprived backgrounds, who form the majority of under-age recruits, are particularly vulnerable. It can be no coincidence that recruits who sign up as minors suffer higher rates of alcoholism, self-harm and suicide than those who enlist as adults.

Aside from the moral rights and wrongs of tying children to service at a later date, there is a compelling fiscal case for an all-adult military. Based on data from the MOD compiled by ForcesWatch, the cost of recruiting and successfully training those aged 16 to 17-and-a-half is between 75% and 95% higher than for adults. The longer period of initial training, at 23 weeks or 50 weeks, is enormous compared with the 14 weeks for adults.

According to the latest report of Child Soldiers International, “One Step Forward,” the annual saving of increasing the armed services recruitment age could be up to £94 million, which is enough to fund more than 24,000 civilian apprenticeships. I doubt the MOD wants to surrender even more of its budget, so that cash could instead be used elsewhere to offset the cuts that will see it reduce its regular fighting force from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2017.

I do not want to make my case on the basis of cost savings, but I hope that those who are more motivated by fiscal concerns will see the scope for assisting with the MOD’s commitment to cutting its costs. If the Minister’s representative is not convinced by my argument, or interested in the substantial savings, he may be motivated to make changes because of their political appeal. In March 2013, ICM asked respondents what they thought the minimum age should be to join the forces. Some 70% of those who expressed an opinion said it should be 18, so there may well be votes for him and his colleagues in a change.

There are also issues of long-term social mobility and employability to consider. I have no doubt the Minister’s representative will rehearse the well-worn argument that the Department uses of giving employment and training opportunities to young people who may otherwise be unemployed. The fact is, however, that most 16-year-olds are not in the market for work. In 2009-10, 94% of 16-year-olds stayed on in education. Others may argue that the armed forces provide for young people who come from difficult home circumstances, from a background of suffering abuse or simply because they have been thrown out on the streets. As I argued during the Armed Forces Bill Committee nearly three years ago, the armed forces must not be seen as some kind of escape route from abuse or unemployment. As a nation, we need to develop the support and services young people need, rather than holding up the armed forces as an easy option so early in life.

While I am pleased that the Army continues to set targets for functional skills qualifications in literacy and numeracy, the case can be made that young recruits would be much better served by the state education system in developing those skills. A higher minimum recruitment age would mean that young people need not choose between a higher standard of post-16 education and armed service.

Our country would be better served by an all-adult military. Is it right that many soldiers serving in Afghanistan find themselves there due to a decision they took when they were still children? It is a decision that many would have reversed in adult life, had they been given the chance. We should listen to what the United Nations and the Joint Committee on Human Rights are saying, and join with the overwhelming majority of nations worldwide, which have stopped recruiting children—that is what they are: children—and have raised the age to 18 and upwards. We could do it because it would save the Government money or because it would be popular, according to the polls, but I hope we do it because it is the right thing to do and so that we can leave the military to adults.

It is a pleasure to be able to respond to this debate, and I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing it. I acknowledge his genuine concern about the recruitment age for armed forces personnel and, in particular, the recruitment of those under the age of 18. I fondly recall serving with him on the Armed Forces Bill Committee a couple of years ago and to his credit he has been consistent in his view; he raised this issue then.

Let me begin, however, by reminding the House that there is no compulsory recruitment into the armed forces. All those under the age of 18 are volunteers and the Ministry of Defence takes pride in the fact that our armed forces provide challenging and constructive education, training and employment opportunities for young people while in service, as well as after they leave. The armed forces remain the UK’s largest apprenticeship provider, equipping young people with valuable and transferable skills for life.

I declare an interest, because I applied to join the Army before the age of 18. I went through a regular commissions board, and I made an informed choice to join the Army when I was still a minor. Although I did not attend Sandhurst until shortly after my 18th birthday—a short course for the type of commission I was undertaking—I recall my time in the regular Army while I was a teenager with great pride and a sense of satisfaction. That may in part be due to my posting to Hong Kong, but that is another matter.

I thought it would be useful for the House if I set out our recruitment policy. The minimum age for entry into the UK armed forces reflects the normal minimum school leaving age of 16, and although changes under the Education and Skills Act 2008 are being progressively introduced between 2013 and 2015, the minimum statutory school leaving age will remain at 16. Participation in education or structured training will be mandatory until 18. In the services, all recruits who enlist as minors and do not hold full level 3 qualifications are enrolled on an apprenticeship scheme unless their trade training attracts higher level qualifications. All undertake structured professional education as part of their initial military training and therefore automatically fulfil their duty to participate under the new regulations. No change in policy is required.

Many individuals who join under the age of 18 are not academically high achievers and the duty of care and the training that the armed forces provide enhances their self-esteem and prospects for their whole working life, within or without the services.

I think I omitted this part of my speech, but I wonder whether the actual educational outputs for young soldiers are poor. What will the Government do to drive up the amount of education, so that they have transferable skills when they leave the armed forces? We find that so many of them do not have those skills.

I am afraid I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. In my experience as a Royal Engineer, I commanded some young soldiers. The standard of the training in the secondary skills they obtain, be it in bricklaying or plumbing or as an electrician, was second to none. I experienced that first hand, so I do not agree with his point.

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene. While I absolutely applaud many of the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), not least the financial argument, which I partially buy, does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that it is difficult to recognise the element of despair that the hon. Gentleman brings into his arguments? It is as though these individuals have no choice and their backgrounds are so dreadful that it is either prison or the street. It is as though the Army is a bad alternative to those things. My experience commanding junior soldiers and regular adults was just the opposite. Juniors in particular were treated with kid gloves and not a single soldier in the infantry ever went on operations if they did not want to.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which I agree with. I fully respect the position of the hon. Member for Stockton North, but, with the greatest respect to him, I am not sure that his concerns are borne out by our experiences of service within the armed forces. I will return shortly to the point, not least the cost-benefit aspect.

We fully recognise the special duty of care that we owe to under-18s, and commanding officers have had that made clear to them. Our recruiting policy is absolutely clear. No-one under the age of 18 can join the armed forces without formal parental consent, which is checked twice during the application process. In addition, parents and guardians are positively encouraged to engage with the recruiting staff during the process. Once accepted into service, under-18s have the right to automatic discharge as of right at any time until their 18th birthday, as the hon. Member for Stockton North said. All new recruits who are under the age of 18 and have completed 28 days’ service have a right to discharge within their first three to six months of service if they decide that the armed forces is not a career for them. All service personnel under the age of 18 have the right to leave the armed forces before their 18th birthday, following an appropriate cooling-off period. It is not in the interests of either the individual or the services to force them to stay where they are not happy.

MOD policy is not to deploy personnel under the age of 18 on operations. Service personnel under the age of 18 are not deployed on any operation outside the UK, except where the operation does not involve them becoming engaged in or exposed to hostilities. I am aware of instances where minors have inadvertently entered operations, but on those occasions we have taken immediate action to correct any breach of policy as soon as it has been discovered.

The total number of armed forces personnel under the age of 18 was 3,130 in 2011-12. The majority of them were in training. That figure breaks down to 90 in the Navy, 2,930 in the Army and 110 in the Royal Air Force. There is evidence to suggest that those joining at a younger age remain in service for longer and that under-18s in the Army achieve higher performance based on their earlier promotion. For example, when we looked at the 2001 intake of junior entrants, we found that the number still serving after six years was 44%, compared with only 33% of those who joined when they were over the age of 18. For the same intake, 23% of junior entrants reached the rank of lance-corporal or corporal, compared with 16% of the standard entry cohort. Figures for other cohorts reinforce that picture. Evidence clearly shows that junior entrants are likely to serve longer and to achieve higher rank than some senior entrants, so the additional costs incurred in their training reap considerable benefits for the service, the individual and society as a whole. As the hon. Gentleman said, that additional cost is recouped because, generally, the individual remains in service for longer: an additional three years for the infantry, four years for Royal Engineers, Royal Signals and Army Air Corps, and 10 years for the Intelligence Corps and the Corps of Army Music.

I am sure that some Members are aware that the services are among the largest training providers in the UK, with excellent completion and achievement rates. Armed forces personnel are offered genuine progression routes, which allow them to develop, gain qualifications and play a fuller part in society, whether in the armed forces or in the civilian world. In the naval service and the Royal Air Force, initial military training is conducted on single sites and, because of the smaller scale, no distinction need be made in the training provided to those under age 18. In the Army, phase 1 training for under-18s, the basic military training course, is completed at the Army foundation college, where the facilities have been specifically designed for this age group. The training courses last either 23 or 49 weeks, both of which are longer than the basic over-18s course, dependent on the length of subsequent specialist training. Since junior entrants are likely to serve longer and achieve higher rank than some senior entrants, as discussed, the additional costs incurred can reap long-term benefits.

Our duty-of-care policy for under-18 entrants is laid down in a defence instruction and covers the duty-of-care obligations of commanding officers, together with welfare, mentoring and discharge regulations. This is a comprehensive document, setting out for the chain of command the many aspects of a commanding officer’s responsibility for addressing the particular issues that can affect those under the age of 18. It makes clear that the care and welfare of under-18s require particular attention by the chain of command. It refers to the supervisory care directive, through which commanders are to set out for their environment, based on risk assessments, the processes that are to apply in caring for the particular vulnerability of young recruits. Commanders are to ensure that they comply with the wider legislation, which prohibits under-18s from purchasing or consuming alcohol, from gambling or from purchasing cigarettes and tobacco. Commanders are to ensure that they maintain appropriate contact with parents and guardians, and not only when there is the possibility that the recruit wishes to leave the service. The policy is regularly reviewed, to ensure in particular that it keeps pace with changes in legislation as they affect young people.

All recruits enlisted as minors who do not hold full level 3 qualifications are enrolled on an apprenticeship scheme, unless their trade training attracts higher-level qualifications. The time taken to complete the apprenticeship varies according to the programme being followed, but completion rates are high. There are two levels of apprenticeship: intermediate, which is equivalent to GCSEs at grades A to C; or advanced, which is equivalent to A-level. Additionally, while in service, all armed forces personnel, subject to meeting certain qualifying criteria, can claim financial support for education under the standard learning credit scheme and the enhanced learning credit scheme.

Inevitably, some recruits leave the armed forces after a relatively short period. All service leavers, regardless of their length of service, can attend housing and financial management briefings to assist their transition to civilian life. In addition, those with less than four years’ service are entitled to advice on the type of state and voluntary and community sector assistance available to them post-discharge. I am aware of the criticism made of the support available to armed forces personnel who decide to leave. In recognition that we can do more for early service leavers, an enhanced package of resettlement for those having served less than four years has been trialled. Those trials have recently ended and the results are being evaluated. The evaluation will help to decide what resettlement provision for early service leavers should be made available. Furthermore, all service leavers, regardless of how long they have served, are entitled to lifetime job-finding support through either the Officers’ Association or the Regular Forces Employment Association.

In conclusion, it is important to state that under-18s who choose to join the armed forces are an important and valuable cohort among those starting their military career. We invest strongly in them and they repay that investment with longer service and high achievement. The duty of care for that cohort is paramount, and we are regularly inspected by Ofsted. Their training and education are clearly first class, and our policies on under-18s in service are robust and comply with national and international law. We remain fully committed to meeting our obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict. The armed forces provide prestigious and respected career opportunities for young men and women who may not have achieved the same in civilian life. We shall not deny them that opportunity.