Select Committee on Armed Forces Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by AT EASE

  We wish to draw to the attention of the Select Committee certain adverse changes that have occurred since the last Select Committee in 1996. These include the following.

    —  The lengthening of the minimum period of service.

    —  Misleading offers of education and training to young recruits.

    —  Unfair dismissal of adults.

    —  Possible health hazards in the present deployment of under age soldiers.


The lengthening of the minimum period of service

  In 1986, 1991 and 1996 AT EASE gave evidence to previous Select Committees on the Armed Forces Bill about the problem we termed "the five year trap". That was the system by which young people who joined the Army at 16 years old were compelled to remain until the age of 21.

  The Report of the Select Committee on the Armed forces Bill 1991, which appeared to be unanimous, agreed that the situation of contracts for recruits aged under 18 was unjust and called on the MoD to bring forward proposals for change within a year. It further stated in the strongest terms that troops aged less than 18 should not be sent on active service overseas except in national emergency. Both these recommendations were disregarded by the MoD. In 1996, in answer to questioning by Mr Keith Mans MP, who had been a member of the Select Committee in both 1991 and 1996, the MoD witnesses admitted that nothing had changed regarding the contracts of soldiers under 18 and that some were then on active service in Bosnia.

  In March 1996, three members of AT EASE, Margaret Johnson, George Grimes and Gwyn Gwyntopher received a promise (sic) from Dr John Reid MP that the contract conditions of those who joined under the age of 18 would be reformed when the new Government was elected and he was Minister for the Armed Forces. He suggested that those who were unhappy could be allowed to leave at the age of 18 and that those who opted to remain in the Army would be paid a bounty.

  Not only has this promise not been kept, but in November 1999, a year was added to the minimum length of service. Those who join at the age of 16 now will be compelled to remain until they are at least 22 years old. The five year trap has become the six year trap.

  As was pointed out to him at the time, Dr Reid's proposal to allow soldiers to leave at the age of 18 would have brought reality into line with what many recruits mistakenly imagine is already the case. Those who join the Army under the age of 18 years sign a contract that commits them to serve until the age of 18 and thereafter for 22 years. Many 16 year old recruits and their parents misunderstand the term "thereafter" and assume that recruits sign on again for their adult contracts at the age of 18. In fact 16 year old recruits sign a commitment to the age of 40.

  New recruits may leave, having given two weeks' notice, only between the end of six weeks' service and six months' service. Six months from the date of first reporting for duty they cease to be voluntary members of the Armed Forces. Thereafter retention is compulsory and enforced, if necessary, by custodial punishment.

  The six months during which they have the status of volunteers coincides with basic military training. They are then usually assigned to their permanent units and undergo induction training appropriate to the specialist service of that unit. After that training, they may undergo training in preparation for a particular area of active service. At the present time, for instance, that may mean training for service in Kosovo/a.

  The minimum total period for these consecutive forms of training is usually just over one year. British soldiers are not usually sent on active service overseas before the age of 17 years and three months. No other European country allows troops under 128 to be sent into battle.

  After the end of the first six months' service young soldiers have no right to apply for a discharge until they reach the age of 21 years and three months when, (provided they have not undergone an educational course) they may give 12 months' notice and leave at the age of 22 years and three months.

  If they leave at the age of 22, having served full time since the age of 16 they must then serve in the Reserves until the age of 28 and may be recalled for war service until that age.

  If they are charged with an offence just before their discharge is due the discharge can be postponed until after the disciplinary matter has been concluded.

  If they have been absent without leave then the time absent can be added to their date of release. Many young soldiers go absent without leave after they discover that they cannot leave the Army legally. If they come to the attention of the civilian police, they are arrested and detained at a police station until collected by the military police. Sometimes civilian police allow a solicitor, doctor or AT EASE counsellor to interview detainees in the police cells before they are collected by the military police. This is particularly important if the young solider is in a distressed or dangerous state of mind. One effect of the proposal to extend the powers of military police to pursue fugitives in the Armed Forces Bill 2001 may be that both the full extent of the social problem of military absentees and the distress of individuals will be hidden.

  In Britain young people under 18 are not permitted entry to certain films. Yet 17 year old British soldiers, who are protected from viewing simulated sex and violence on film, are sent to Kosovo/a to deal with real people seeking revenge for real massacre and real rape.

  No other European country sends under age troops into such situations. Soldiers of other countries have expressed disquiet at having to serve alongside such young allies whom they refer to as "the boy scouts".

  Conscripts under 20 in continental Europe are usually assigned to Border Guard duties. Border Guards would normally only be engaged in active service if their own country were invaded. The reasoning (which is similar to the conclusion of the British Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill 1991) is that only such a national emergency could justify using such young troops for armed combat.

  Complaints from our allies about the youth of British troops serving in Bosnia led to a ban on soldiers aged under 18 serving at United Nations peacekeepers. The British Government was obliged to withdraw the 17 year old troops serving in Bosnia.

  However, during the war with Serbia the British Government was able to take advantage of the technicality that the KFOR troops in Kosovo/a were under NATO command so the UN ban did not apply. So 17 year olds were and are sent on active service in Kosovo/a.

  One reason that the MoD in November 1999 sought to extend minimum service by one year may be a fear that the raising of the minimum age of sending troops into battle may be enforced either by the objections of the other Armed Forces who will participate in the proposed European Rapid Reaction Force or by a public outcry in this country if 17 year olds are killed in Kosovo/a.

  The extension, in November 1999, of the earliest date of release by one year, means that the system of the five year trap will be able to continue but each stage will move forward one year. Instead of recruitment at 16, availability for combat at 17 and compulsory retention until a minimum age of 21, in future there will be a system of recruitment at 17, availability for combat at 18 and compulsory retention until a minimum age of 22.

  Meanwhile the present unfortunate generation of young recruits have the worst of both worlds. They can be recruited at 16, sent to war at 17 and retained by compulsion until a minimum age of 21 years.

  This may be the reason the why the extra year was sought by the MoD. What is harder to understand is why Parliament agreed to it.


Misleading offers of education and training

  Members of the Armed Forces who undergo a course of instruction (other than a narrowly defined military training) of more than two weeks lose the right to give 12 months' notice. (QR 9.086b).

  This means that they may be compulsorily retained in full time service for the whole of their engagement. In the case of those who signed on at the age of 16, this means until the age of 40. However, in the experience of AT EASE, the Army usually just add on another three years to the earliest date of release so those aged sixteen joining under the current regulations may be released from full time service at the age of 25 and from the reserves at the age of 31.

  QR 9.086b also means that the only way young soldiers can be certain they will be free to leave at the age of 22 is by declining all offers of education or training. They may then leave the Army at the age of 22 and seek civilian employment with no more qualifications than those they had on entry at the age of 16.

  Soldiers have told AT EASE that it is common practice to be offered a choice of educational and training opportunities. Just before the course is due to start they are told that they have to sign a document or give up the course. The document states that, in return for the educational course, they voluntarily surrender their right to give 12 months' notice.

  Many sign these waivers in the mistaken belief that they will be able to "buy themselves out" later on. That form of discharge, premature voluntary release, is not available to anyone who joined after 1991.

  QR9.086b is not a new regulation. However, the situation has been aggravated since the last Select Committee in 1996 by an intensification of advertising campaigns which stress educational opportunities without any warning about the prolongation of service incurred. There has also during the last five years been an apparent increase in the use of the education time bar to detain, against their will, those with educational qualifications.

  The current policy appears to be to target younger teenagers, particularly those in areas of low rates of educational achievement and high rates of youth unemployment. Schools, youth clubs, careers offices, Prince's Trust, new deal projects, children's organisations and youth advice services are being inundated with booklets, posters, videos, interactive computer games, family information socials, offers to take groups to use Army sports facilities etc. These different forms of publicity all stress educational opportunity but we have not seen any which warn young recruits about the prolongation of service.

  This material does not, to our knowledge, contain falsehoods. It does, in our submission, contain equivocation, that is literal truth told in a way that is intended to deceive.

  For instance young people are told that everyone signs on for 22 years but soldiers can leave after giving 12 months' notice. That is literally true. Some soldiers can leave. Nothing is said about the exceptions such as the minimum age for giving 12 months' notice or the fact that it is forfeited on undergoing an educational course.

  Another example of equivocation is that young people are told that qualifications available in the Army such as NVQ, GCSE, A levels etc, are relevant to civilian employment. This is true. The qualifications are relevant to civilian employment but the qualification holders will not be free to seek civilian employment for a long time.


The unfair dismissal of adults

  Members of the Armed Forces are currently excluded from the right to claim unfair dismissal by section 192 of the Employment Rights Act 1996.

  One reason for the continual demand for young recruits is the policy of discharging experienced adults unless they are promoted. As well as addressing the problems of young people who are retained in the Army against their will, AT EASE has also to address the converse problem of adults being discharged against their will with little or no apparent justification.

  It is difficult to believe that there is a real "manpower shortage" when so many soldiers are discharged apparently for the offence of still being in the ranks when they reach their 20s. It might be more accurate to speak of a "boypower shortage".

  There is a peculiarly British tradition, which is regarded as absurd by soldiers from other European countries, that the most junior soldiers in rank must also be the most junior in age. In a hierarchical structure the higher the rank, the fewer individuals are needed to occupy that layer. The policy of insisting that rank must correspond to age means that, unless they are promoted by what is regarded as the appropriate age, experienced soldiers who are committed to the Army are discharged and replaced by teenage recruits.

  We have seen discharge papers which describe a soldier as competent and conscientious with exemplary conduct give as reason for discharge "not required for full Army career".

  There is a particular injustice in the practice of medical downgrading. Adults who are found at routine medical inspections to have a slight medical condition or disability are medically downgraded which affects their chance of promotion, even if the condition does not in any way affect their performance of their duties, they have a negligible record of sick leave and are recommended by their superiors as suitable for both retention and promotion. Because they are no longer eligible for promotion. They are obliged to leave when they reach what is regarded as the age limit for their present rank. A civilian employee treated this way could claim disability discrimination.

  Pre-occupation with age does not just affect the ranks. The MoD complain of shortages of officers expressed as a shortage of officers aged 28 and a greater shortage of officers aged 24. It is not clear what duties of a modern Army Officer aged 24 could not be performed by an officer aged 28.

  One possible explanation for the policy of compulsorily discharging adult soldiers whilst compulsorily retaining young soldiers may be the influence of public school traditions on some senior MoD personnel. The Duke of Wellington claimed that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. This attitude may linger on. In some traditional public schools the youngest boys were always the fags and the eldest boys were always the prefects.

  AT EASE alleges that, whilst young people who are desperate to leave the Army are being retained under compulsion, conscientious, competent, experienced adults are being discharged in circumstances that in any other occupation would be regarded as unfair dismissal.

  The truth or falsity of all this allegation might be tested if Parliament reversed its decision of 1996 which prevented all the ex-service men and women who claim to have been unfairly discharged having their claims investigated.


Possible health risks in the present deployment of under-age soldiers

  AT EASE will not dwell on the wider subject of Gulf War Syndrome or recent concern about a possible Balkans equivalent as this Committee will, no doubt, wish to hear the evidence on that subject from the organisations representing Gulf War Veterans.

  However we would like to comment on the responsibilities incurred when under-age soldiers are sent to such locations. They are of the age when other young people are still at school. We suggest that Members of the Defence Committee now face a situation comparable to that of school governors of a school which sent pupils, against their will and despite objections from their parents, to a location which subsequently was alleged to be carcinogenic.

  The present Government insists on sending 17 year old troops to Kosovo/a as the previous Government insisted on sending 17 year old troops to the Gulf. Now our allies fear that their Forces may have suffered from depleted uranium. The promptness with which the Governments of Portugal, Italy and Germany reacted to the suggestion that there might be a risk to the health of their exclusively adult troops is in contrast to the attitude of the British Government to young people for whom the Army is arguably in loco parentis.


Bonded Servitude

  AT EASE has received calls from members of all three branches of the Armed Forces enquiring whether the implementation of the Human Rights Act will improve their situation. Unfortunately we are not able to give any assurance that it will.

  The European Convention on Human Rights, and presumably its incorporation in the British Human Rights Act, exclude military service from the declarations against slavery and servitude.

  AT EASE does not allege that members of the British Armed Forces are in a condition of slavery. We do allege that they are in a condition of bonded servitude.

  The Armed Forces Bill 2001 does not appear to include any evidence that the British Government has any intention of rectifying that situation. Instead there is just a declaration that this Bill does not contravene the Human Rights Act.

  We submit that when members of the Armed Forces are excluded from legislation designed to protect human beings then they are accorded a legal status that is less than human.

  In 1986, 1991 and 1996 AT EASE appealed to your predecessors for reform of the system of contracts of young persons entering the Armed Forces.

  We are now addressing representatives of a Parliament which in November 1999 made those conditions even worse.

  We yet again ask for reform of the law regarding the contractual obligations of those who join the Armed Forces under the age of 18 years. We ask for reform which is long overdue.

  We do not ask you for a strongly worded recommendation in the Report of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill. That was published in 1991. It was worthless.

  We do not ask you for a promise of reform. That was given in 1996. It was worthless.

  We ask Members of this Select Committee to act as your predecessors failed to act. We ask you to ensure that this time there is an actual change in the law. We ask you, as elected representatives of a democracy, to take responsibility for exerting parliamentary control over the military administration.

  We ask you to acknowledge and defend the human rights, including the right to freedom of employment, of Members of the Armed Forces.

February 2001

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