Armed Forces Recruitment: Under-18s
I beg to move,
That this House has considered recruitment of under-18s into the armed forces.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. This is an emotive and controversial issue, and I recognise the strength of feeling on both sides of the debate. For that reason, I will preface our discussion by saying that I want this to be the beginning of a dialogue on which we can build consensus and uncover the rational facts that should underpin any good policy.
Fundamentally, I sought the debate because I am concerned about the welfare of young people who join the armed forces—in particular, the Army. I have a professional background of more than 20 years of working in the education of young people aged between 14 and 19. The last group I taught were taking level 2 public services at Coleg Menai, many of whom had their sights set on joining the Army. I wish them all the best in their chosen career.
Some of my colleagues appear to believe that any questioning of the armed forces or Ministry of Defence policy is somehow an attack on the institution as a whole, so I would like to emphasise that nothing could be further from the truth. It is not attacking the Army to express the desire that soldiers be treated well and fairly, and that their short and long-term welfare be considered priorities in the recruitment and training process. I do not believe it is a threat to national security to seek the highest standards of welfare and educational attainment for all young people in this country. As we can see all too clearly in the world today, it is essential for the healthy functioning of a true democracy that Government institutions and the policies they make are continually exposed to scrutiny and challenge.
The purpose of the debate is to seek answers from the MOD regarding numerous concerns about the recruitment of young people under the age of 18 to the armed forces and to press for a thorough and independent review. Dozens of religious, military, legal and policy organisations, alongside unions and trusted military professionals, have expressed concerns about this policy. They include the Select Committee on Defence, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Children’s Commissioners for all four nations of the UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, UNICEF and many more. They seek to ensure the same fundamental standards of welfare and protection that are taken for granted for that age group in any other sphere of life, but the MOD has not yet provided a detailed response to assuage those concerns.
We have heard from the MOD many general assertions about the wider benefits to the individual and society as a whole of early enlistment, anecdotes about individual recruits who have achieved remarkable things, and apocryphal stories about the lad who would have been dead or in prison if he had not joined the Army at 16. We have also heard from many senior Members of the House about their own happy experience of military service—sometimes decades ago, sometimes more recently. Although I respect the insights drawn from the personal experience of many Members, possibly including some in this Chamber, the plural of anecdote is not facts. I and many others want to hear from the MOD hard, objective, empirical evidence and analysis that demonstrates a carefully thought through policy, taking into account both the recruitment requirement of the armed forces and the welfare of those who enlist.
The UK is unique in the developed world in enlisting 16-year-olds into its armed forces. That is not standard practice, it is not a necessity, and it is not a policy shared by our military allies and peers. It does not make me proud to say that our colleagues in this matter are North Korea and Iran.
Am I correct in saying that the UK is the only NATO member that recruits at the age of 16?
It is my understanding that we are indeed the only NATO member and the only standing member of the UN Security Council to do so.
This is a well-rehearsed argument—forgive me—but it is worth reminding the House that 16-year-olds cannot buy a kitchen knife in a shop, although they can be taught to kill with a bayonet. They can enlist and train in the Army, but the law states that they cannot play “Call of Duty” on an Xbox or watch the Channel 5 documentary series “Raw Recruits: Squaddies at 16”. To watch it online, they would have to tick a box to confirm they were over 18. If it were not so serious, it would be laughable.
Our respect for the armed forces as an institution and for the individuals who represent it makes it easy to treat the institution as beyond question, but I propose strongly that that is dangerous and wrong. There has been no thorough review of the enlistment of minors since at least the time of Deepcut, and I hope today that we can restart that conversation to ensure the welfare of our soldiers and young people across the country.
On the matter of education, I am sure we agree that the educational opportunities that we afford our young people must aim to achieve a common baseline, no matter what their background. The armed forces are, however, exempt from the Department for Education’s standard minimum target for all 16 to 18-year-olds of GCSEs in English and maths at grade C or above. I hope the Minister will be able to explain why our young recruits are not provided with those qualifications, which are deemed essential by all educational employment experts.
The MOD claims that the qualifications it offers—functional skills for numeracy and literacy—are equivalent to GCSEs, but they have been labelled as suffering from major and fundamental flaws by the Department for Education’s own expert review of vocational education, the Professor Wolf report. That finding holds true for all young people, including those who are not academically inclined in any traditional sense and are pursuing vocational, rather than academic, education. I am sure my colleagues agree that young soldiers deserve, as a very minimum, the same educational opportunities as their civilian friends, and certainly nothing less.
The MOD frequently refers to the apprenticeships that young recruits undertake, but closer examination of the curriculum and the content of those courses reveals that, although those apprenticeships may be excellent training for a military career, they are of little value for future civilian employment. Let us bear it in mind that soldiers may be with the infantry until their early 30s, but those young people will need to find work until they are 67, so they need those skills for their long-term welfare.
Those courses consist of modules such as “Tactical advance across battlefield” and “Use of light weaponry”. Young veterans have repeatedly stated that those qualifications were effectively useless in finding employment after they were discharged. That has been borne out repeatedly by Royal British Legion studies on unemployment among ex-service personnel, which show that young veterans are significantly more likely to be unemployed than their civilian peers, and that the lack of qualifications and skills that are transferrable to civilian life is a major factor in that. I hope the Minister will explain how young veterans, the majority of whom are trained for combat roles, not technical ones, can use those highly specialised military skills in future civilian employment.
The MOD has frequently asserted that the Army provides a constructive alternative to young people who otherwise would not be in employment, education or training, or worse. That is an appealing argument, and it would be quite persuasive if there were robust data to support it, but researchers working on my behalf have found none. I regret to say that MOD data indicate quite the opposite.
Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the problems appears to be that if the Army recruits at 16, it does not have access to the complete pool of 16-year-olds? In fact, there is now a presumption in public policy that education and training should continue beyond 16 to 18. Therefore, the only people available for recruitment at 16 are, to put it mildly, the ones the system has left behind. That gives rise to statistics such as the fact that three quarters of 16-year-old recruits have a reading age of 11 or less. Does that concern her?
It does concern me. I would like to emphasise the long-term welfare of those young men and women, who need to be equipped to leave the armed forces. If they are serving their country, it is our duty to equip them as well as we can with the skills they will need in future life. They may well be working until they are 67, so literacy and numeracy skills are particularly important to that cohort, which I have taught.
More than a third of under-18 recruits drop out of initial training, and 40% of infantry soldiers who enlisted under the age of 18 are discharged within four years as early service leavers. Having left education early to enlist and without having achieved GCSEs in the Army, those young ex-service personnel will be significantly less qualified than their civilian peers and at increased risk of long-term unemployment and social exclusion.
Such findings are again borne out not by anecdotes, but by British Legion studies. According to a major 2012 study of education in the Army by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, recruits who enlisted at a young age and who had previously been excluded from school were more likely to drop out of the Army than those with a more positive academic record. The same BIS study showed that 48% of recruits who trained at Army Foundation College Harrogate, the junior entry training site, had left the Army within four years.
Without doubt, individual positive anecdotes exist and will always inspire, but there is scant evidence that, as a rule, the Army can turn around young people who have not engaged well at school. Will the Minister provide any data to support the hypothesis that enlisting disadvantaged adolescents in the Army is an effective way to secure their long-term engagement in education and employment? Will he provide any analysis of how cost-effective that strategy is in comparison with, for example, greater investment in specialised education and social-support services for at-risk young people? We have other institutions such as further education colleges and other training centres to help those young people, who may as well be in the cadets at the same time as receiving a decent education to equip them for future life.
On combat roles and the channelling of the youngest recruits into the most dangerous roles, I intended to discuss the MOD policy to seek under-18s “particularly for the infantry”, which has the highest fatality and injury rate of any major branch of the Army. In the interests of time, however, I simply ask the Minister to explain on what basis his Department decided to restrict the choice of roles for the youngest recruits to frontline combat roles only, rather than giving them the opportunity to enlist in the full range of technical roles.
Following a damning report in October last year by medical charity Medact, I want also to touch briefly on the long-term health impacts on young people recruited under the age of 18. The report revealed such recruits to be more vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse, self-harm and suicide. There is a 64% increased risk of suicide among men under the age of 20 in the Army as compared with the wider population.
Many in the House and in the country are deeply proud of the armed forces and supportive of the institution as a whole. We would be failing in our duties, however, were we not to hold up their policies to scrutiny. The overwhelming majority of nations worldwide enlist from the age of 18 or above. Welbeck College in Loughborough provides an outstanding residential sixth-form college that, without the burden of formal enlistment before 18, educates young people intending to pursue a military career, with evident advantages to the students and to the institution.
I hope that the debate will open the door to a fruitful, frank and detailed discussion of how improvements can be made to policy. It is not in the interests of young people or of the Army to continue assuming that the status quo is the best possible model without a thorough examination of the evidence and consideration of alternatives.
Only 52% of the population voted to leave the European Union, but today Parliament is acting on it. In 2014, according to a nationwide Ipsos MORI poll, 77% of respondents who expressed a view supported raising the minimum enlistment age to 18 or above. Will the Minister respect the wishes of the population and the recommendations of child rights, health and education experts, and commit to a thorough independent review of policy?
I thank the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for bringing this important debate to the House. The Minister is probably having a moment of fear that, because I am standing up to speak on military matters, I might not be entirely in support of Government policy, but he could be no further from the truth. I am an advocate of the armed forces covenant as a real and engaged process throughout our nation.
Recruitment to and training of our young people in the armed forces from the age of 16 can be a hugely positive experience, as the hon. Lady mentioned, and we do it very well and in a variety of ways. In my constituency, the Military Academy at the Kirkley Hall campus of Northumberland College was set up precisely for those young people whom the hon. Lady was thinking of. They not only were in vulnerable family environments and have not been able to make best use of their previous schooling environments, but were not even capable of living the sort of disciplined and ordinary life that joining the Army might provide. The Military Academy has, however, created a framework in which those young people who wish to participate in society and have an interest in the armed forces can develop those basic skills of discipline, leadership, teamwork, communications and personal self-motivation to understand what decisive thinking and such skills can mean for building them up as individuals.
Does the hon. Lady not share my concern that basic literacy and numeracy skills are what we need to equip young people with for their lives as adults? Functional skills as a curriculum method does not appear to be sufficient. It was described by Professor Wolf as “fundamentally flawed”.
The reality is that school has failed for some young people, and their literacy and numeracy skills are not where we would like them to be—they have not been able to benefit from such a development.
For example, one of my caseworkers spent 25 years in the Army and is now running my association office in Berwick. He left school at 15 functionally illiterate. He was severely dyslexic and throughout his school career he had been told that he was thick, useless and pretty much not good for anything. He joined the Army and within one week it was clear that he was none of those things, but simply dyslexic. That was some time ago, so I hope we are even better now with young people coming into the Army—perhaps the Minister will confirm that.
That new recruit was given intensive tuition to assist his literacy, which improved dramatically, as so often with dyslexic children who need a different way of learning, and he had a fulfilling career in the Army. He represents one of those anecdotes to which the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd referred. We need to understand that those young people who choose to join the Army early in their lives, after leaving school where they have often had a poor experience, want to be doing something positive. The framework offered by the armed forces provides that opportunity.
The Medact report to which the hon. Lady referred is clear that 16-year-olds are not exactly being press ganged into our armed forces. After they have spent six weeks on the initial training course, young people may step off. After up to six months, they may again step off, if they feel that that career option is not right for them. Also, up to their 18th birthday, they may step off with three months’ notice. That is pretty similar to an employment framework that one might find after taking a job in a supermarket or on the factory floor. The implication that young people are somehow sucked into the armed forces against their will and cannot develop is wholly unfair to the armed forces and the incredible work of the training programme.
I am a little surprised that the hon. Lady has not referred to parental consent, which is necessary under the age of 18. Does she share my concern that once parental consent has been given, parents have no right to revoke it?
I am sure the Minister will be able to confirm such details, but a 16-year-old who chooses to leave school and go into employment and training elsewhere is still in charge of their own destiny. I am the mother of an about-to-be-16-year-old and an 18-year-old, and if they choose to step into the workplace, that would be their commitment to take on the responsibilities of adult life. Having supported them to make whatever their choice was, I would be very comfortable with them continuing with their choice. That is what growing up and taking adult decisions is all about.
Those under 18 cannot go out and serve in frontline roles, as was mentioned earlier, but they can participate in what we call national resilience activities. Over the past few years when we have had flooding problems in the north-east, on a number of occasions I have met some really energised and enthusiastic young men and women helping out with the flood defence crises, both in Morpeth in my patch and over in Cumbria. That highlights the many good qualities that joining the armed forces can give to young people—that sense of belonging and of learning to work in a team, which they so often have not had in their own lives.
The report highlights the statistical imbalance in post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems for those who have joined young and come out the other side, but that is a chicken-and-egg argument.
The hon. Lady makes quite a compelling case about the benefits of early recruitment for 16 and 17-year-olds themselves, some of whom, as I said, may well have been let down by the system elsewhere. I do not choose to dispute any of her examples of those benefits, but I worry about whether that is the Army’s proper role or, in fact, a distraction from providing a good and efficient security service. If the Army waited until those individuals were 18 and other agencies had had the opportunity to try to improve their lot, it might recruit much better and more able people.
The hon. Gentleman suggests that because some people might join at 16, others would not join at 18. One does not negate the other. The Army in particular offers young men and women who do not want to be in the education system anymore because they found that it failed them—perhaps because they had poor teachers or they have dyslexia, or perhaps due to other issues—a framework within which they can really develop and thrive. I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd that we need to ensure the welfare of those young people and that the covenant supports them as they develop skills in what can be a demanding and stretching environment, but that is part of the challenge, and so many of them really take that up.
I turn to the mental health issues of people who come out of the Army, who so often joined up early. There is a lot of work going on in that field, which I am involved with. Those young people would probably have been unable to find secure long-term employment had they fallen out of school and become NEET; they would have struggled through the system. They had the opportunity to take up an extraordinary career. I have the most enormous respect for anyone who joins the armed forces. It is a choice. To defend our nation and be part of a team of people who will put themselves in harm’s way to protect us and our families is an extraordinary thing to do. We must always bear that in mind.
I was interested in the report by Medact, which promotes disarmament and the abolition of nuclear weapons more broadly. I know quite a lot about that—my father was the leading journalist and specialist in the area in the 1960s, so it is a subject that I grew up with—but we cannot just wipe everything away and say, “Let’s no longer have armed forces. We want the world to be a happy and peaceful place.” I can think of nothing I would like more, but the reality is that we need robust and resilient armed forces, and we have some of the best in the world. Those young men and women, who join earlier than people who go to university and therefore come out of education at higher levels, do so because that brings them the opportunity to be part of a team that they can be proud of, and we can be proud of them.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate—this will be my first expedition into Welsh—the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), who put forward a good case. I spoke to her before the debate, and she knows where I am coming from; my opinion is similar to that of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan). Although the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd clearly set the scene for the issues that she wishes the Minister to respond to, I will give a slightly different opinion about where we are. However, I concur with her request for an uplift in education. I have absolutely no doubt that the Minister, who has a special interest in the issue, will respond with positive steps for the way forward.
I joined the Ulster Defence Regiment at 18 and served in it for three years. I then joined the Royal Artillery in the Territorial Army, which I served in for 11 and a half years. I believe that that helped to shape and mould me as a man. Whether that is to everyone’s liking only the people can answer, but they elected me twice, so I suspect that they like what they see.
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but I think it should be clarified for others in the room that people could not join the Ulster Defence Regiment before the age of 18, because it was always on operations. We should perhaps pay tribute to it for that.
I thank the Minister, who is knowledgeable about this subject.
I am the Democratic Unionist party’s representative at Westminster for the Cadet Force. I am proud to hail from Strangford, which has a proud and strong record of military service, including in the Special Air Service—Blair “Paddy” Mayne was born and bred in the constituency’s main town, Newtownards. With that in mind, hon. Members may be able to see where my comments are leading. Joining the armed forces is a vocation, not simply a career. A career does not demand of people what is expected of our soldiers, sailors and Air Force personnel; a vocation does. That calling is felt from a young age. I will give three examples of people who joined at an early age and excelled greatly in their choice of service.
A young lady from my area went to the Army-run youth camp at the age of 15 and on her return decided to join the Army, which she did at 16. She trained up and has completed three tours, some of them in conflict areas. She is now a sergeant. She met and married her husband, who is also a sergeant and lives here on the mainland serving Queen and country. Michelle’s family are so proud of her, as indeed we all are. She was equipped for her life as it is now by the life that she had in the Army at an early age. I know her, so I say that in all honesty.
A young lad from my area was the youngest person ever to be wounded in action on duty in Afghanistan. He was only 18 on his first tour, and he had joined the cadets as a young boy. I had the privilege of meeting him again at the remembrance service just across the road at Westminster Abbey in November last year. He had recuperated quickly from his injury and was raring to get back into uniform. He is no longer a boy; he is now a young man, and he is maturing greatly. I laid the wreath on behalf of the DUP, and it was an honour to see that lovely young fella, who was made in the British Army. The Army has moulded him well, and his family life has been exemplary, too.
The list is endless, but we must also note young Channing Day, who gave her life for Queen and country in the Medical Corps, as the Minister and other Members who were in the House back in 2010 will know. Those of us who know that family know that she always wanted to be in the Army. She was a cadet from a very early age, joined the Medical Corps and served her Queen and country. Her family and her town of Comber were inspired by her.
Although those young adults are indeed young, they have a passion and should be allowed to follow that passion. Let me make it quite clear, by the way, that I understand that the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd does not say that they should not. She says that their qualifications and education standards must be lifted, and I am sure that the Minister will respond to that point. I remind Members that there is protection to ensure that young people cannot be sent on tours until they turn 18. To me, that means they have an additional two years’ training to ensure that they are safe and secure in what they do and how they do it.
The major issue is the length of the contract that young people sign, which can last until they turn 22. If they join at 16, that is six years, which is a major commitment. That is a massive concern for people who are so young, but I remind the House that for under-18s in the Army and everyone in the Navy and Air Force, the discharge as of right period is between 28 days and six months of service. After those six months are over, an unhappy junior in the armed forces may be discharged at the discretion of their commanding officer. There are several stages at which someone can get out if they so wish. I believe that that discretion is applied as needed, and I understand that the Army in particular tightly controls, monitors and regulates it. If there are issues to address, those must be addressed.
Some 2,180 under-18s were serving in the armed forces in October last year, of whom 170 were female and the other 2,010 were male. Those are people who made the choice to join at a young age, and I believe that that should be encouraged and allowed. The MOD also has apprenticeships, which the Minister no doubt will deal with, too. Those enable young people who join the services at an early age to achieve good educational standards, which is important, and then go beyond uniform into civilian life, as many do. We all know of those who have come through the cadets, gone into the Army at an early stage, served in uniform for a great many years and are now retired.
I understand the argument that no other UN member allows under-18s to join the armed forces, but we lead the way and should not be ashamed of that. We lead the way on many fronts, and there is a reason our armed forces are the best in the world. The US army, which is perhaps the second greatest army in the world after ours, allows recruitment at 17 with parental consent; we are not alone in allowing under-18s to join. And this is not child labour; it is training.
The ability to leave should be protected, but the young people whom I know personally in my constituency are glad that they had the option to join. Other young people should be allowed to make a career and serve Queen and country. I understand fully what the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd is putting forward, but I think it is important that we recognise the benefits to those who join at an early age and what they can do. I have mentioned just three of them—there are many more—and they have been exemplary. They have done well, and the Army has helped to build them as people.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Let me provide guidance for Members. We have two speakers left, and I want the winding-up speeches to start at about seven or eight minutes past 5, so it is up to Scottish National party colleagues to share the remaining minutes if they wish to do so.
I am grateful for the chance to speak and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. The SNP’s position is that we recognise persons who have reached the age of 16 as old enough to leave school, marry, work and pay tax, and, despite scepticism from the other parties in Scotland before the independence referendum, we believe and have long believed that they have the right to vote as well. I am glad to say that we have won over the doubters on that particular campaign and I look forward to that example being followed down here.
Fundamentally, the SNP position on this issue reflects our ambition to empower young people—to trust them with responsibility in these areas and trust that they will take that responsibility seriously. It also reflects the legal position in Scotland under the Age of Legal Capacity (Scotland) Act 1991, which determines that a person has full legal capacity from the age of 16. For those reasons, my party backs the current position on recruitment age for the armed forces for those who are 16 or 17 and choose to serve their country.
The minimum age at which an individual can enlist is set down in the Armed Forces (Enlistment) Regulations 2009. In summary, the current MOD policy is that service personnel under 18 are not deployed on operations outside the UK, except where the operation does not involve personnel becoming engaged in or exposed to hostilities. Humanitarian operations, for example, might qualify. In addition, in line with current UN policy, service personnel under 18 are not deployed on UN peacekeeping operations. As has been mentioned, age restrictions also apply when it comes to Northern Ireland.
It is important that there is recognition that a special duty of care is owed to under-18s who choose to serve in the armed forces—not because they are not old enough to make that decision and take that action, but because inevitably they have less experience in the world of work and in life.
I do not want the hon. Gentleman to mislead the House unintentionally and I may have misled him. The only unit in Northern Ireland that could not do what we are discussing—it has been disbanded now—was the Ulster Defence Regiment, because it was permanently on operations. There are recruits of 16 and over from Northern Ireland serving in the armed forces today.
I am grateful for that clarification—I am skipping through my speech rather quickly, because I do not have the time that I thought I would have.
As I was saying, we have a special duty of care to these young people because of their lack of experience of work and of life in general. Whenever that has been discussed in Parliament before, Ministers have been very clear that they accept that and that safeguards are in place.
I can attest to the excellence of the practice that I witnessed in this area when I visited RAF Halton last year. I was able to meet young recruits, hear about their experiences in initial recruit training and see them being put through their paces by the officers. The recruits were developing a range of practical and problem-solving skills that were no doubt essential for the career in the Royal Air Force that they hoped to pursue, but also transferable skills that could assist employers in other sectors in the future. My visit to RAF Halton and particularly the conversations with those recruits were a very positive experience. I am assured that the welfare of our youngest recruits is taken very seriously.
A number of safeguards are built into the recruitment process for 16 and 17-year-olds. First, parents and guardians are positively encouraged—in fact, required—to be part of that process, and their consent is sought. Once accepted into service, under-18s have the right of automatic discharge at any time until their 18th birthday. It is not in the interests of either the armed forces or the individuals themselves for people to be there if they do not want to be. I welcome the provisions allowing for early discharge if that is appropriate.
MOD policy is not to deploy personnel under 18 on operations. That is absolutely correct. Service personnel under 18 are not deployed on any operation outside the UK, except where the operation does not involve their becoming engaged in or exposed to hostilities. However, there is a recommendation, I think, that has not been actioned since the 2005 report of the Defence Committee, on armed guard duty. Perhaps that is something we could look at again. My understanding is that that is still allowable.
Finally, I will offer a few thoughts on the Medact report “The Recruitment of Children by the UK Armed Forces: a critique from health professionals”. For the reasons that I have outlined I do not agree with the use of the word “children”. We have taken a decision as a country—certainly in Scotland and, I think, down here too—that 16 is the age at which we consider young people to have moved from adolescence to adulthood. If that is the case, I would argue that it should apply across the board. We choose to draw that arbitrary line at 16. However, it is entirely right that we should ensure that there are safeguards for those for whom the armed forces are not the right choice, or who may not be ready at 16 or 17, and that those safeguards should be taken seriously by commanding officers. That was my experience from visiting the RAF base.
I am open, however, to considering whether more can be done to improve the duty of care for under-18s—I have already mentioned guard duty. I am also open to any review that looks at educational attainment, as has been alluded to. Where we can demonstrate that better outcomes could be achieved, we must build on what there is, and make sure that those outcomes are realised. I would also welcome further consideration of the messages that the Ministry of Defence uses in recruitment drives, so that in addition to the many positive opportunities offered by the armed forces, the reality of the danger that serving can entail is clear and understood. It is because of the danger that members of the armed forces put themselves into on our behalf that we owe them the respect and gratitude that they have from us.
Order. Ronnie Cowan has 30 seconds. I will then call the Front-Bench speakers, which allows five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for the Labour party, and 10 minutes for the Government.
Order. Please resume your seat. I advised the hon. Gentleman’s colleague that if he wanted to split the remaining minutes he could; clearly he had a different view. There are now 10 seconds remaining.
Let us be clear: the SNP supports 16 and 17-year-olds getting a vote and my view is quite simple. Sixteen and 17-year-olds—
That is farcical.
Order. Mr Sheppard, I do not expect any backchat from you. You intervened twice in the debate; you have had your say. I said to the hon. Gentlemen that they could split the time between them. Mr Paterson chose to give a longer speech than perhaps Mr Cowan would have liked, but that was his decision and their decision. Do not question the Chair, or you might not catch my eye next time. The SNP have had their say.
It is a pleasure to be here to discuss this important topic under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I must thank the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for bringing the matter to the House. We have a great deal in common in many of our positions—and that is largely so in the present case, although perhaps not entirely.
I was struck by the focus on the duty of care that came through in all the speeches today. I think that all hon. Members, whether they spoke or not, will have reflected on that particularly. We might want also to reflect on the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) about how serious the decision to join the armed forces is for anyone. I agree with the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd about the need for transparency, facts and education, which the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) also touched on.
It is important that we should fully consider how countries around the world recruit, in considering that issue. Of course there are different approaches and age thresholds. Some countries conscript and some do not. I am glad that we do not. From my alphabetical list I think that the situation is somewhat more complex than we have heard; that is just from looking at Australia, Austria, Canada, Croatia and Cyprus at the beginning of the list. However, it is a mistake to focus too narrowly on that. As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling, at 16 people can vote, in Scotland; they can marry and pay tax, and make their own choices.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am going to run through this, if I may.
It is particularly important for those under the age of 18 who choose to pursue a military career that we understand the impact on them. We have heard about the impact on young people from challenging backgrounds; that is important, and in considering it we should examine the entirety of those backgrounds. Young people should have the opportunity to choose as widely as possible as they move forward in their lives. For some people, joining the armed forces may be a positive choice. However, of course it is not the same as other jobs. It is therefore vital that full information is provided, that full discussions are had and that those are open, honest and transparent. For instance, it is vital that every opportunity is given for a recruit to change their mind and leave the forces. I know there have been many positive changes in recent years to allow people to leave more easily, particularly at that young age, which is hugely important. I would like to hear more from the Minister on that.
I would also like to hear from the Minister on what new measures he would propose to achieve greater post-service employment for young early-service leavers. The figures are not positive there, as I am sure he knows. I would also like to hear more from him on training, transferable skills and qualifications, because a recruit in the armed forces under 18 is essentially training, and it is important that we see that from that perspective.
As well as developing those skills, it is important to be clear on what under-18s must not be doing. They must not be deployed, and it is our position that there must not be any flexibility or room for manoeuvre on that. There cannot be any of the margin of error issues of the past; that would be quite unacceptable.
May we focus on welfare, which is the key issue I have heard today? That must be a key focus, because physical and mental health and pastoral care-wise that could not be more important. I would be interested to hear more from the Minister on the review that my hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd referred to. What are its parameters, what is its aim and when will it report? In the interests of transparency and aspiring to make the best progress for young recruits, full detail on that would be welcome.
We support the continued ability for 16 and 17-year-olds to make this choice if that is an informed, positive and open choice. However, it must be based on transparency. There must be a culture of improvement, training and aspiration and an openness to ongoing discussion about how we do the best we can for all our young people.
I call the shadow Minister. You have five minutes.
I thank the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for initiating this important debate. I have always had a positive attitude towards the recruitment of young people—16 and 17-year-olds—to the armed forces, and the Army in particular. I come from and represent a valleys community in south Wales, and I recognise only too well that many young people are drawn to the armed forces. By and large, they have a positive experience, which sets them up well for a future life in civvy street. However, as the hon. Lady rightly said, various concerns have been raised by a raft of organisations for some time—including recently—and it is only correct that we have a proper debate and dialogue about the appropriateness of such recruitment as we have in this country. I therefore look forward to the Minister’s response to the many points that have been raised.
It is a fact that the British armed forces recruit about 2,000 16 and 17-year olds each year, and 80% of them are recruited by the Army. I suggest it is significant that fewer than 20 countries throughout the world allow direct recruitment of 16 and 17-year-olds. The United Kingdom is the only member of the United Nations Security Council that does that, the only member of NATO that does that and the only member of the European Union that has such recruitment. It has been said that although the Ministry of Defence says that it wants 16 and 17-year-olds, particularly for the infantry, and although minors are no longer routinely deployed to war zones, over their military career they make a disproportionate contribution to front-line combat roles.
It is often said that recruits come from disadvantaged backgrounds, but it is not as straightforward as that. In fact, enlisting at 16 leads to a higher risk of unemployment because of the large drop-out rate among 16 and 17-year-olds. That is a fact. I also want to express concern about the relatively weak safeguards around parental consent. Yes, it is correct to say that recruits need the consent of their adults. However, I suggest that for such a big commitment as joining the armed forces at 16 or 17 there should be an obligation for a face-to-face meeting between the armed forces concerned and the parent whose consent has to be obtained. It is important to have that ongoing dialogue so that the parents, as well as the young person, are fully aware of what is being signed up to.
At a time of austerity, let it be said, this is also a very expensive way to recruit to the armed forces given the relatively high drop-out rate. This country is not that different from many other countries. I suggest that we have the same demographics as many other countries and the same factors apply to like-minded countries and the United Kingdom in terms of the pressures.
I also want to make this broader point. This Government, like all Governments in recent times, have a proud record of being steadfastly opposed to the deployment of child soldiers. That is a reprehensible practice that takes place in some countries, and this country has always been adamant and forthright in its condemnation of it. It has been suggested that the argument we put forward is weakened to some extent because we rely so heavily on 16 and 17-year-olds ourselves. Although I do not consider them to be children, they are nevertheless not fully fledged, mature adults. That is something we ought to be careful of.
My final point is that the Defence Committee prepared a very thorough report in 2005 that made a number of recommendations to the Ministry of Defence. Several of those recommendations have been acted upon, but others have not. I would like to know from the Minister precisely what the Government intend to do next to ensure that they fulfil their rhetorical commitment to improvement.
I call the Minister of State, who will close at 5.27 pm, which will allow the mover of the motion two minutes.
As usual, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I know what it feels like to get stuck within the time—we have all been there—and why the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) probably does not feel great. We are where we are, but we have all done that.
It is a pleasure to discuss this for many reasons, as I will explain, and to see the—near enough—wide support for the young servicemen and women. I understand the concerns, particularly following Deepcut, for those of us who are interested in the armed forces, as I have been for many years. Lessons had to be learned from the terrible situation out in Deepcut, but we must not in any way look at Deepcut as what is happening in 2017.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) about facts, but we cannot get away from some anecdotes, and I will use some anecdotes and some facts. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, someone can serve in the American armed forces at 17; at 17 and a day they can serve with their parents’ consent. It is not true to say that there are no young servicemen in other NATO countries—they are there.
It is also very important to look at some of the figures as to why the armed forces invest so much time and money in recruiting young adults. Probably one of the most obvious ones, which goes completely against some of the evidence given by the hon. Lady, is that of those who were under 18 on enlistment between 2007 and 2013, 60% made warrant officer level 1—senior NCO. That is 60% of those who came through. It is also not true to say that the majority, in percentage terms, are from the infantry, or even from the Army, because the numbers are different. We have to look at this in context. As of October ’16 there were 32,500 personnel in the Navy and 8% of them were former junior servicemen. In the Royal Air Force on the same date, there were 33,270 and 5%. In the Army it was 8.7%, because the Army is much larger and thus the proportion is different.
Let us have a bit of anecdote. In 1974, a young man of 16 had been told by his headmaster three or four years earlier that he was too dim to take his 11-plus. He struggled enormously at school and came from a socially and economically deprived area of London. His father and grandfather had served in the armed forces—most of my generation’s grandparents had served in the second world war—and he applied to go into the Army. He struggled educationally when he went for assessment at Sutton Coldfield, but got into the Army and went as a boy soldier to Pirbright.
At the time, there were junior leaders and apprentices, and junior guardsmen, as there were junior infantry in other units. At no time did that junior soldier do armed guard. At no time did he do anything different in military terms from when he was in the cadets. He went on the ranges and thoroughly enjoyed it and went on exercises and thoroughly enjoyed them. At 16, that young person who had been written off by society, did the dispatch rider’s course and got a full motorbike licence. In civvy street, the age for a motorbike licence was 17, but at 17 he got a full car licence and was sent on a medic course—not just a first-aid course, but as a battlefield runner. He was still not available for operations, but was gathering skills.
Will the Minister give way?
The hon. Lady interrupted many times and she can sum up at the end of the debate.
The young man was gaining life skills. He was not a great soldier and did not make huge rank, but he fell in love and left the Army after four years, which was the term for adult service, not boy’s service. At 18, he had to sign to stay in. His parents signed for him to go in early, and at 18 he went before his Adjutant, who gave him the option to leave the Army or to sign up for three, six or nine years. After four years, he fell in love and bought himself out of the military—people can opt to leave now—but did not settle and went back into the Royal Army Medical Corps. He went on several other courses, which subsequently helped him to get into the fire service when he left the armed forces. That person went on to be the MinAF—the Minister for the Armed Forces; the person standing here now.
The Army gave me a home, a trade, aspiration and a chance to get on in life after being written off. I have been on several journeys in my career, not least as a journalist here, and in the fire service. What was interesting was my welfare. Why did I struggle when I was in the armed forces? Like my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), I am dyslexic and it is not something I hide. When I was at the Department for Work and Pensions, I outed myself as dyslexic, but at no time when I was at school did anyone pick that up and say, “We know why you have problems; you have learning difficulties.” Within weeks of me joining a boy soldier, a Royal Army Education Corps officer picked it up, got me on the relevant courses and helped me to become a journalist here, a politician and the first MinAF from the ranks, which I am enormously proud of. The earlier we can train people with apprenticeships and the skills we need throughout our armed forces, the better, without a shadow of doubt. We can utilise that time for that person to feel fulfilled, aspirational and to get the skills—
No, I will not give way. The hon. Lady will have three minutes at the end and she has intervened quite a lot.
No one gets things perfectly right and there have been mistakes, but I believe passionately that it is wrong to say to a young person of 16 that they cannot go into the armed forces because they will become a trained killer. Tell that to the medics who are training as I was. I am proudly wearing a 23 Parachute Field Ambulance tie, which was presented to me by the regiment only a couple of days ago. Medics are there to save lives and their training is worth while. We are also desperately short of qualified Marine and RAF engineers. We need people with those skills, and the sooner we start to train them, the better. Of course, as I said earlier, if they want to leave at the age of 18, they can. As for the leaving rate, the figure of four years has always been there—it was about four years when I was in the armed forces many years ago, and it still is today.
I went to RAF Halton only the other day. It is the shortest journey that I have done as a Minister, because it is right on the edge of my constituency. What a fantastic facility for training young people, building them up and showing them what they can do! A lot of those young people will go on to be cooks, chefs, medics or firemen. They are not being trained as killers; they are being told, “We value you in our armed forces and we are giving you skills that can be used when you leave.”
I am absolutely passionate about ensuring that we never have another Deepcut or anything like it ever again, but as the hon. Lady said, we must use facts. I am afraid that, on some of the so-called facts that she gave earlier on, I will have to write to her specifically about the points she raised.
We continue to review how we do this. Ofsted inspects all the premises, which is important. We make sure that welfare support is there for those young people at a vulnerable age. For instance, I admit that when I was a young 16-year-old soldier, I went to see the lady from the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service regularly, because I wanted the comfort of talking to a mature lady who was not my sergeant, my warrant officer or one of the other officers. Those services are still there—I was at Pirbright the other day, and the facilities are there. Nor must we forget the work that the padres do, particularly at a junior level, because no matter what faith someone belongs to or whether they have no faith at all, having that comforting facility is crucial.
I am passionate that we need, and should have, a junior entry. These are young adults whose aspirations and life skills we can build so that they can actually get on in life slightly, as I myself have done—rather than writing them off, as some people seem to want to.
I appreciate the hon. Members who have contributed today. There has been a general agreement that a duty of care is owed to our young recruits and that welfare and educational attainment is important to us all.
I am disappointed by the Minister’s response. I expected more of an answer to the specific questions I asked, although I welcome his offer to write to me. Although I was interested in his personal history, I have to bear in mind that as Minister he is also the person who is chiefly responsible for the welfare of young recruits.
I will end with the words of an early-day motion from 2005:
“That this House notes that those currently entering the army at the age of 16 years are committed for four years beyond their eighteenth birthday; welcomes the recommendation of the Defence Select Committee that the Ministry of Defence consider raising the age of recruitment into the armed forces to 18 years; further welcomes the finding of the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the UK Government’s declaration on ratifying the UN Optional Protocol to the Rights of the Child is overly broad, thereby undermining the UK’s commitment not to deploy under-18s in conflict zones; and urges the Government to withdraw its declaration and to raise the age at which young recruits can be enlisted into the armed forces to 18 years and thereby set an example of good practice internationally.”
The Minister signed that early-day motion in 2005. When did he change his mind?
They’re not on ops.
Order. I am putting the question, Minister.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered recruitment of recruitment of under-18s into the armed forces.