The Armed Forces Bill - Armed Forces Committee Contents

Written evidence from the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches

1.  I am writing on behalf of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches to express our concerns regarding the recruitment into the Armed Forces of under 18 year olds. The General Assembly has a long-standing commitment to peace and disarmament along with a recognition of the rights of children and young people. We consider that the current position regarding the recruitment of 16 year olds into the armed forces should be reviewed.

2.  We wish in particular to draw the attention of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces to the following:

3.  Eighteen is currently the legal age of adult responsibility in the UK, yet the UK continues to recruit into the armed forces at 16. Britain is currently the only country in Europe to recruit 16 year olds into its regular armed forces. The UK Government has been active in pressing for an end to the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers abroad, particularly in conflict zones such as the Congo. While the UK uses an entirely professional army and does not deploy prior the age of 18, present recruitment practice nevertheless makes it harder to argue with consistency against the iniquity of the use of "child soldiers".

4.  After an initial period of six months, UK 16 to 18 year old recruits "have no discharge as of right". After this period, they may only leave at the discretion of their commanding officer. These arrangements do not adequately ensure that all minors serving in the armed forces are doing so after a mature consideration that one of the armed forces is the right career for them and that the decision is made with an informed adult conscience.

5.  The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires the UK government to have regard to the best interests of the Child but there is no independent oversight of the army in this regard. For the purposes of the Convention, any one under the age of 18 is considered as a child. If young people are to develop into mature and responsible adults it is vital that young people are able to make provisional decisions and to be able to learn from their mistakes. As long as enlistment takes place at the age of 16, young people should be given the opportunity of reconsidering a provisional decision to join the army and be allowed discharge as of right at all times up until their 18th birthday.

6.  Article 2 of ILO Convention 29 on Forced Labour provides that each member of the International Labour Organisation which ratifies this Convention undertakes effective measures to secure the immediate and complete abolition of forced or compulsory labour. Where a young person is prevented from leaving the career army in peacetime, restricting the right to withdraw from a statutory obligation to work undermines a free employment relationship. This is particularly serious where 16-year old recruits may not have fully understood the nature or extent of their obligations on recruitment. Failure of recruiting officers to ensure informed consent could amount to young soldiers being indentured for an extended period of service against their will.


For these reasons and in this context we would ask the committee to amend the bill to provide as follows:

  1. (i)  that the age of enlistment should be raised to 18.

Failing that:

  1. (ii)  that provision should be made for the unqualified and unrestricted right of discharge for all recruits under the age of 18; and
  2. (iii)  for there to be a requirement that those who have enlisted under the age of 18 are required to consent in writing that they wish to renew their enlistment at the age of 18, or to exercise their right to resign.

7 February 2011

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