New clause 1 establishes age 18 as the minimum age for recruitment into the UK armed forces. Each year, the British armed forces enlist over 2,000 young people aged 16 and 17, mostly for the Army, and particularly for the infantry. It is notable that most Army recruits are 16, more than any other age. The United Kingdom is out of step with many of its allies in allowing enlistment at 16, and in a response to a written question from Liz Saville Roberts, we find that underage recruits require longer training. We also know that they warrant more complicated duty of care plans and demonstrate a greater frequency of attrition.
In the three-year timeframe from 2015 to 2018, the Army enlisted just under 5,300 16 and 17-year-olds, and of this cohort, nearly a third dropped out before they completed their phase 2 training. As the Army’s accredited educational requirements for under-age recruits are limited to basic literacy, numeracy, and information and communications technology courses, it is clear that many 16 and 17-year-olds who withdraw from their training will re-enter the civilian world without immediate access to further employment, training and education. Typically, it has been commonplace for the Army to recruit young people from economically deprived areas, and while military service is a fruitful and fulfilling career for many of our service personnel, it is undeniable that encouraging 16 and 17-year-olds to remain in full-time education generates considerable benefits. Full-time education until the age of 18 should be the norm for all young people, and the opportunities for professional and personal development are indisputable, alongside the invaluable psychological, emotional and social growth that full-time education facilitates.
On top of these considerations, it also makes clear economic sense to increase the age of recruitment to 18, as the large drop-out rate that I have previously mentioned is costly in terms of both resources and time spent on training. Finally, adopting such a policy stands to bring the UK into line with the vast majority of its international contemporaries. Three quarters of states worldwide now have armed forces personnel who are exclusively aged 18 and over, including most of our NATO allies. While 16 and 17-year-olds cannot serve on the frontline, recruitment at the ages of 16 and 17 is detrimental to international efforts to end the use of children in military settings. The UN convention on the rights of the child has urged the UK to increase its minimum recruitment age to 18. If, as this Government have often stressed, we are entering an era of a truly global Britain, it seems appropriate that the UK should align with its global partners in the international community.
Adopting an adults-only enlistment policy would also be welcome domestically. The Children’s Commissioners for the UK’s four nations, the UK Joint Committee on Human Rights and numerous trade unions and health professionals have expressed their support for adult-only recruitment. If we are to safeguard the wellbeing, development, educational opportunities and physical safety of our young people, it is crucial that we change the minimum age for armed forces recruitment to 18.
New clause 2 would ensure that service personnel aged under 18 would not be required to serve for a longer period than adult service personnel. Most of the Committee’s discussion up to now has centred on removing any disadvantage experienced by service personnel in relation to their civilian counterparts, but we have not yet discussed the age discrimination that exists within the armed forces. The Bill does nothing to ensure that personnel recruited under the age of 18 experience no disadvantage compared with those recruited as adults.
At present, Army regulations that define a minimum service period discriminate against younger recruits. An Army recruit has a right of discharge for a fixed period of time after enlistment, but, once that period has expired, a recruit who enlisted at age 18 or above must serve for at least four years from the date of their enlistment. However, for recruits who enlisted at age 16 or 17, the clock restarts at age 18, so they must serve until they turn 22 at least—another four years. That commits them to up to six years of service when they are still a minor. As result of that disparate treatment, young recruits have to serve longer to have the right to leave the Army.
That inconsistency on service relates solely to the Army; it does not exist in the Navy or RAF. Only due to an armed forces exemption in the Equality Act 2010 is that allowed to remain. Such age discrimination would be prohibited in the civilian workforce, and new clause 2 would correct that by equalising the minimum service period for all recruits across the Army, ensuring that recruits under 18 experience no disadvantage compared with their adult counterparts.
The new clause builds on comments in the Army’s 2019 review of its junior entry policy that considered new terms of service to align the minimum commitment length of recruits aged under 18 to those who joined over the age of 18. The review commented on how a change in this area could attract potential young recruits and their parents and
“would mitigate some external criticism and provide greater consistency.”
In addition, the review mentioned that the change could make the process of leaving the Army as an under-18 “more transparent” and easier to understand. As such, the new clause would be an entirely reasonable and straightforward addition to the Bill and bring a consistent and logical approach to the minimum length of service across the armed forces. I urge the Committee to consider it carefully.