Select Committee on Defence Written Evidence

Memorandum from David Gee

  1.  I am the author of Informed Choice: Armed Forces Recruitment Practice in the United Kingdom, which was produced with financial assistance from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and released on 7 January 2008. The report assesses whether recruiters and recruitment materials enable potential enlistees to make an informed choice about whether a forces career will suit them well. This is in view of the significant risks, difficulties and legal obligations entailed in a forces career, as well as the many potential benefits that it can bring.

  2.  The terms of reference for the Defence Committee's inquiry focus on the significant practical difficulties of achieving recruitment and retention targets. I hope the committee will also consider the ethical questions involved, which are not only important in their own right but also have implications for the forces' recruitment and retention goals.

  3.  The Informed Choice report shows that new forces recruits assume legal obligations, accept risks and face ethical challenges that are unfamiliar in civilian careers. The report asserts that the state has a duty of care to potential recruits that is not fulfilled as it should be: many recruits and their parents are not made aware of the risks, difficulties and legal obligations before enlistment, for example.

  4.  Most forces personnel report being satisfied with their careers (although satisfaction rates are not as high as in civilian life—see Informed Choice, pp.85-87). Dissatisfied personnel comprise approximately 17% of soldiers, 21% of airmen/women and 22% of navy ratings, according to the most recently published MoD Continuous Attitude Surveys (late 2006). The debilitating effects of job dissatisfaction are compounded by the legal obligations that debar personnel from leaving for four years or more from the date they enlisted. Informed Choice concludes that this long minimum term of service is the most serious ethical deficiency in armed forces recruitment and retention policy; it amounts to the forcible retention of personnel and would be unlawful in any other career.

  5.  Besides its ethical shortcomings, the minimum term of service may also be counter-productive. This is for two reasons. First, the minimum term may put off many good, potential recruits from enlisting. At the least, they may wonder why restrictive terms of service are necessary for a career that recruitment literature describes as uniquely rewarding. Second, forcibly retained, dissatisfied recruits may adversely affect morale and operational effectiveness while they wait to leave (the most recent MoD continuous attitude surveys found that 21% of soldiers and 24% of navy ratings wanted to leave; no equivalent data are available for the air force). Your predecessor committee's Duty of Care report of 2005 agreed, criticising recruits' legal obligations as "unnecessarily restrictive" and "counter productive". (Duty of Care, pp.53, 54).

  6.  Besides the restrictive terms of service, Informed Choice identified four further ethical deficiencies in armed forces recruitment practice in the UK, any one of which amounts to negligence in the state's duty of care to potential recruits. Recruitment literature and the application process:

    a.  largely fail to inform potential recruits of the serious personal risks that are peculiar to a forces career;

    b.  often fail to explain clearly to potential recruits the complex terms of service, and fail to inform recruits of certain further rights, privileges and restrictions, including the right of conscientious objection to military service, the privilege of discretionary discharge for under-18s, and the restrictions of civil liberties entailed in military law.

    c.  depend on large numbers of the socially and economically vulnerable joining as a last resort; and

    d.  capitalise on the impressionability of adolescents in order to attract large numbers of minors to a forces career, especially in the army.

  7.  In its 2005 Duty of Care report (p.40), your predecessor committee called on the MoD to improve information for potential recruits to ensure that they are aware of the commitment required of them. The MoD accepted this in its formal response (p.4) but no significant changes appear to have been made. For example, the Infantry Soldier brochure does not mention the terms of service at all and nowhere in any army recruitment literature (as of 2007) are the terms of service properly spelt out. The literature's occasional, partial explanations of the terms of service often include inaccuracies (detailed in Informed Choice pp.36-37, 52-55). The Notice Paper for the army sets out the terms of service in more detail but this is not given to recruits until late in the recruitment process and is extremely complicated and difficult to understand.

  8.  Forces recruitment literature describes itself as briefing potential recruits about what life in the forces is really like. The Infantry Soldier brochure, for example, "[tries] to give you as much information as possible on a career in the Infantry...". However, army recruitment literature: does not describe military operations realistically; avoids the words "risk" and "kill"; does not warn of the step-change from civilian life to the military training regime; and does not explain the difficulties of forces life such as long periods of separation from family and friends. This finding is supported by the Adult Learning Inspectorate's reviews of all forces training establishments in 2005 and 2007, which found that recruitment materials "sometimes mislead" and do not portray forces life accurately (see Adult Learning Inspectorate, Safer Training (2005) and Better Training (2007) reports). Recruiters are understandably concerned that information about the "down-sides" of a forces career could put young people off enlisting. However, if this information were included in the briefing materials, the forces would recruit better-prepared personnel, while those unsuitable for a forces career would not join (only to leave during training or find themselves forcibly retained by their obligations). This change could benefit recruitment and retention targets, better protect the moral rights of potential recruits, and build public trust in the recruitment process.

  9.  Data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the army discharged 2,775 soldiers (non-officers) for "Service No Longer Required" (SNLR) in 2006; this means that more soldiers are being discharged for SNLR than are being recruited at age 16 (2,005 16-year-old soldier recruits in the same year). In 2006, the navy and air force each discharged only 75 non-officer personnel for SNLR. Officers in Army Recruiting Group explained to me that the army discharges personnel who do not progress up the ranks because personnel in their thirties are deemed unfit for front-line service (eg as an infantry rifleman). Senior officers in the MoD contradicted this, claiming that the large SNLR figure is due to the many types of discharge that SNLR includes (eg discharge for drug abuse, discretionary discharge etc.). The MoD's reasoning does not explain why similar numbers are not discharged from the navy and air force, however. It seems possible that fit and motivated soldiers are being forcibly and needlessly discharged from the army. This would evidently be detrimental to retention targets, add pressure to recruiters, and put personnel at unnecessary risk of job insecurity.

  10.  The UK's ratification of the Optional Protocol (OP) to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict has significantly improved protection for minors entering a forces career; however, recruitment of under-18s continues to put minors at risk. The policy is at odds with the national age of majority, and notably at odds with minimum recruitment ages for the police, ambulance and fire services (all set at 18 years). Minors recruited into the armed forces accept far-reaching legal obligations and face significant ethical choices while deemed by the state to be insufficiently mature as persons to vote, consume alcohol or nicotine, sign a contract or watch adult films. The armed forces' dependence on under-18 recruitment cuts against the grain of a growing international consensus that minors should not be recruited into the armed forces. This emerging consensus is reflected in the general EU trend of increasing the minimum age of recruitment to 17 and 18 and phasing out conscription; the UK is the only EU state to recruit 16 year-olds. Army recruiters have told me that they usually do not meet or phone the parents of applicants to the armed forces, often because applicants do not want their parents involved; it is difficult to see how parents who sign their child's consent form but do not meet with recruiters can be granting consent that is properly informed of the nature of military service and its legal obligations. The Informed Choice report notes your predecessor committee's recommendation to the MoD, made in the Duty of Care report, to "examine the potential impact of raising the recruitment age for all three Services to 18" (Duty of Care, p.7). In its formal response (p.1), the MoD claimed that this was not a practical option but it had not apparently conducted a study to support this position. The Informed Choice report indicates that the sustainable, phasing-out of under-18 recruitment may be possible and suggests how it might be achieved (see pp.25-26), beginning with measures to phase out 16-year old recruitment. The report recommends that the MoD or a body such as the National Audit Office conduct a full feasibility study into this in accordance with Duty of Care's recommendation.

  11.  Finally, Informed Choice proposes a new Armed Forces Recruitment Charter, which would set out recruiters' responsibilities to potential recruits (eg to give honest and balanced information about forces careers; to attempt to involve parents directly in the recruitment process where possible etc.). This would codify best practice; it would improve public trust in the recruitment process, thereby benefiting recruitment; it would better protect the position of potential recruits; it would help to ensure that new recruits were as aware as possible of the nature of a forces career and so reduce early drop-outs; and it would help to enhance the accountability of recruiters and the forces' recruitment organisations. Minister for the Armed Forces Bob Ainsworth MP, as well as senior officers in the MoD, have indicated an interest in this proposal.

6 May 2008

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