Armed Forces Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 25th March 2021.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 2—Equalising the Minimum Term for Service in the Army—
“(1) The Armed Forces Act 2006 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 329, subsection 2(c) substitute “or to transfer at a prescribed time to a reserve force” with “or to transfer to a reserve force after a prescribed number of years from the date of their enlistment without regard to his age on that date”.
This new clause ensures that service personnel aged under 18 are not required to serve for a longer period than adult service personnel.
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.
I recognise that the Minister will oppose the new clauses, especially on the age of recruitment—I am sure we disagree on that principle—but I hope the Government and members of the Committee will recognise the age discrimination for those under 18 who remain in the armed forces and the detriment caused through their service not being recognised. I hope we can agree in a collegiate way that anyone who remains in the Army once they reach 18 must have that prior service calculated in their long-term service in the armed forces. Anything else is a detriment to them and also underscores our lack of commitment to them, with their military service not being counted.
I understand that there are individuals who wish to support a ban on those under 18 joining the Army. I know that that has been campaigned on for quite a while now. Those individuals draw an analogy between what the Army does and the situation of child soldiers around the world. I do not agree with that, and I must say I do not agree with the provisions of the new clause.
It is quite clear now that individuals under 18 cannot be sent into combat, which I totally support and think is right, but we must balance that against the opportunities that recruiting 16 to 17-year-olds gives those individuals. I suggest that anyone who wants to see the positive way individuals can and do improve their lives visits the Army Foundation College in Harrogate.
Many of those individuals, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North West highlighted, come from deprived communities; many have been failed by the education system, so credit to the Army particularly for the work it does at the Foundation College, giving people a second chance, which the education system has failed to do. On my visits there, what appalled me was the fact that the education system had failed individuals, but the Army had given them a second chance with raising basic numeracy and literacy skills. Individuals who would possibly not have had an opportunity to have a fulfilled career were able to do so through the work undertaken at the Army Foundation College.
The other issue raised is the duty of care for those individuals, but we have come a long way on the duty of care for under-18s. There was a huge problem with the way under-18s were supervised and looked after, especially those who joined the armed forces who came from care, for example. Mr Justice Blake’s reforms following Deepcut had a huge amount to do with that.
We will disagree, I am sure, on the age of recruitment, but on new clause 2 on minimum service terms, does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that, if under-18s who are recruited at 16 remain within the armed forces, that minimum service should be included? While we may disagree on the recruitment age, should that minimum service not be included within their service period?
I will come on to that—I was going to address that in the second part of my contribution.
There has been change in terms of the duty of care of individuals. Ofsted, for example, now inspects places such as the Army Foundation College, and the practices that the Army has in place to ensure that there is a duty of care around those young people set an example that many other institutions could follow. In terms of the opportunity it gives people, I would not want, by banning under-18s, to stop many young people getting the positive move forward in their lives and the opportunities that the Army gives them.
There are two issues on which I do agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow North West, relating to early service leavers. That is not just an issue for under-18s, but for those who join post 18. To be fair to the armed forces, they have done quite a lot on ensuring that early service leavers have support. That is an issue that I raised when I was in the Ministry of Defence, because some of those individuals end up in the social services network, homeless and so on.
The question is about when people leave, if they are under 18 and decide that the armed forces, or the Army in particular, are not for them. I stand to be corrected if I am wrong, but I think there is a package around those who have left care and joined the armed forces. Anything that can be done to improve their experience is the right thing to do.
I am not against new clause 2, but we need to look at what happens in practice. There are quite good reasons why people have to sign on for a certain period of time, because of the commitment. From my experience, however, there is a mechanism to enable most people who do not want to stay in the Army and other armed forces to leave. I do not think it is such an onerous straitjacket as has it been described by some individuals.
I understand where the hon. Member for Glasgow North West is coming from, and I accept that there is a difference of opinion, but overall, my experience is that service in the armed forces gives great opportunities to many young people who would not get them if we did not recruit under-18s. The important thing to say is that many people who join at that age go on to have very good and fulfilling careers in the armed forces, and they also gain life skills and technical skills that they use when they leave the Army and move into civilian life. That is why I do not support the new clauses.
I agree with a lot of what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I have had constituency cases of young people who have really benefited from going to Harrogate at age 16, who are thoroughly enjoying and making the most of their time in the armed forces, and who have been joining up with our local regiment, the Rifles, as part of that. I urge hon. Members to think properly about the new clauses and the impact that they will have on some young people who have found a real path in the Army, with the extra training and support that it can provide both educationally and more broadly.
The new clauses seek to raise the age of recruitment to the armed forces to 18, and to ensure that recruits under 18 serve the same period of time as those who enlisted at the age of 18. We remain clear that junior entry offers a range of benefits to the individual, the armed forces and society, providing a highly valuable vocational training opportunity for those wishing to follow a career in the armed forces.
We take our duty of care to entrants aged under 18 extremely seriously. Close attention has been given to this subject in recent years, especially after the tragic deaths at Deepcut. We have robust, effective and independently verified safeguards in place to ensure that under-18s are cared for properly. The provision of education and training for 16-year-old school leavers provides a route into the armed forces that complies with Government policy on education while also providing a significant foundation for emotional, physical and educational development throughout an individual’s career.
There is no compulsory recruitment into the armed forces. 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. Additionally, parents and guardians are positively encouraged to engage with the recruiting staff during the process. Service personnel under the age of 18 are not deployed on hostile operations outside the UK, or indeed on operations where they may be exposed to hostilities.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North West is concerned that people who join the armed forces before their 18th birthday serve longer than those who join after their 18th birthday. However, this is not a matter of length of service, but a matter of discharge. The rules on statutory discharge as of right—DAOR—allow all new recruits, regardless of age, to discharge within their first three to six months of service if they decide that the armed forces is not a career for them. Additionally, service personnel have a statutory right to claim discharge up to their 18th birthday, subject to a maximum three-month cooling-off period. These rights are made clear to all on enlistment.
Ultimately, service personnel under the age of 18 have a statutory right to leave the armed forces up until their 18th birthday and without the liability to serve in the reserve, as an adult would. However, the benefits of an armed forces career, including for under-18s, are very clear. The armed forces remain one of the UK’s largest apprenticeship providers, equipping young people with valuable transferrable skills for life. Irrespective of age, all recruits who need it receive education in the key skills of literacy and numeracy; and, also irrespective of age, over 80% of all recruits enrol in an apprenticeship programme, equipping them with the skills that they need to succeed and which they will continue to build on throughout their careers, serving them well when they leave.
The armed forces offer apprenticeships across a broad range of specialisations, including the engineering disciplines, digital and communication technologies, construction, catering, human resources and administration. Ofsted regularly inspects our initial training establishment, and we are very proud of the standards that we achieve. Indeed, over the last 10 years, Ofsted has documented significant improvements in, among other things, support with English and maths, under-18s and care leavers, injury reduction, retention rates, communication with parents and staff selection, training and development.
Despite that record, we guard against complacency and recognise that there is always more that we can do. One example is the new inspection framework that we have agreed with Ofsted to align more closely with the unique challenges of initial military training.
I recognise what the Minister says about Ofsted, but I want to highlight a concern of a family in my constituency, whose son, Dan Bravington, was at Harrogate and has gone through basic training. As part of parental buy-in, one of the great things that they like to see is the passing-out parades at the end. When will those parades restart? They are an important way of binding families, especially those of young people, into the broader military family.
My hon. Friend is right that passing-out parades are a huge part of the journey of our forces’ families through the system. He will be aware, though, that generally we align with Public Health England’s advice and the Government’s direction. We are looking to get those parades going as soon as possible, and I am acutely aware of the effect on families of not attending them. Guidance will be issued in due course in line with the Government’s expectations on a relaxation of restrictions.
We welcome the independent scrutiny of Ofsted and the confirmation that it provides that we treat our young recruits well. Our armed forces provide challenging and constructive education, training and employment opportunities for young people, as well as fulfilling and rewarding careers. Following those assurances, I hope that the hon. Member for Glasgow North West will agree to withdraw the amendment, but I thank her for her careful consideration. I know that her husband is a veteran, and I am extremely grateful for the thoughtful way in which she applies herself to these subjects. I look forward to engaging with her further on these important issues down the road.
It is interesting to hear Members talking about the positive experiences of young people. Many Members will know that I am a teacher by profession. A number of the young pupils I taught went on to join the Army at age 16. Some of them had an extremely positive experience, as I highlighted in my comments; however, we need to look at the 30% who are dropping out. Why is there such a high drop-out rate?
For that 30% of 16 to 17-year-olds, some of whom do not have the strongest educational or family backgrounds, all they have from joining the Army is another failure under their belt. They have missed out on educational opportunities in the period they have been in the Army, and it is difficult to rejoin the education system after having dropped out of the Army. Also, there are under-18s who are on active service. They might not be on the frontline, but they serve in the Royal Navy on submarines.
On new clause 2, the Minister said that up to the age of 18, people can drop out. We understand that, but the problem is that once they turn 18 the clock starts again, and it is then four years beyond that before they can drop out. That is what they are signing up to. Their entire service is a six-year commitment, essentially, rather than a four-year one. If we were to equalise the opportunity for the youngsters who are joining up in comparison to adults who join aged 18, they should be able to leave sooner. They should simply be committing to another two years, not another four.
I understand the spirit and the background that the hon. Member brings to this. I think everyone knows that because of the unique circumstances of someone who joins at 16, where they can drop out at any point until they are 18, it is very different from the situation of someone who formally joins at 18 for another four years. Those things are slightly conflated in the new clause.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, but that is not the case in the Navy and the RAF, so there is already a disparity.