The Armed Forces Bill


AFB 06

Written evidence from David Gee ( and

I welcome the opportunity to submit this memorandum to your inquiry and would be pleased to give evidence in person if this would be helpful.

I am author of the report, Informed Choice: Armed Forces Recruitment Practice in the United Kingdom (2008) and founder of the independent information service for young people considering armed forces careers.

The Informed Choice report, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, concluded that elements of armed forces recruitment policy and practice put the rights of young people at unwarranted risk. I hope the committee’s inquiry will raise such issues with the MoD and make recommendations accordingly.

Recruitment of minors

1. In the context of a growing international consensus that under-18s should not be recruited for military purposes, the UK is increasingly isolated in continuing to do so. This practice is also inconsistent with how the age of adult responsibility is recognised in law. It is inconsistent that minors are expected to accept the risks and legal obligations of enlistment from age 16, while the laws deems them not yet sufficiently mature to vote in a General Election, sign a legally binding contract, join the civil emergency services or buy cigarettes.

2. The UK is the only state in the European Union, Council of Europe and UN Permanent Five to recruit 16 year-olds into the armed forces and one of only 20 such states worldwide. Given that the UK fields Armed Forces of a similar size to most European states, it ought to be possible to do so without recruiting at this age.

3. The Joint Committee on Human Rights and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child have called on the UK to raise the minimum recruitment age. The MoD has never evidenced its repeated claim that such a change would not be feasible.

4. It could be possible to phase out the recruitment of under-18s while continuing to meet the trained strength requirement, in a staged process; for example, the minimum recruitment age could be raised in six-monthly increments over a fixed period of years.

5. Recommendation: Recruitment of under-18s is at odds with the legal age of responsibility and with international norms. Under-18s should not be expected to enter a legally binding agreement with such far-reaching obligations and risks as enlistment in the Armed Forces. This applies a fortiori to 16 year-olds. The MoD or an independent body should carry out a feasibility study into sustainably phasing out the recruitment of under-18s into the Armed Forces.

Terms and Conditions of Service

6. Once six months have passed after enlistment, a soldier enlisted on his or her 16th birthday has no legal right to leave the Army until his or her 22nd birthday. Terms of service for the RAF and Naval Service differ but entail similarly lengthy periods of service under legal obligation. By forcing unhappy personnel to remain in the Armed Forces against their will for a period of up to six years, the current terms of service offend the natural rights of the person and risk undermining operational effectiveness.

7. Over-18s in the army must serve 3¾ years once their period for Discharge as of Right has elapsed, whereas under-18s must serve up to 5½ years, such that enlistment imposes more onerous legal obligations on minors than it does on adults. The MoD argues that this is necessary in order to assure four years’ deployable service from age 18, but the policy is unfair and calls into question the department’s own rationale for recruiting under-18s.

8. The ‘unhappy minors’ provision gives Commanding Officers the discretion to discharge under-18s if they so request and if the CO deems them to be ‘genuinely unhappy’. This provision is not published in recruitment materials for recruits or their parents. The MoD argues that almost all requests are granted, in which case it should be recognised in law as a right of discharge. However, as of 1 December 2010, five under-18s were detained in the Military Corrective Training Centre, Colchester for Absence Without Leave. [1] A sentence of detention for AWOL is normally reserved for a serious problem of prolonged or persistent absence, which strongly suggests that these under-18s, and possibly many others, are not being allowed to leave or are not aware that they can ask permission to do so.

9. Recommendation: Under-18s should not be without the legal right to leave the Armed Forces. Given the ambiguous situation of dissatisfied under-18s in the Armed Forces, the MoD should make the right of discharge for this age group a legal right. Given that under-18s are currently in detention for AWOL, the MoD should also evidence its claim that the ‘unhappy minors’ provision is currently an adequate safeguard for under-18s who are dissatisfied.

10. Recommendation: The terms of service should be clear, consistent, fair, and supported with a clear rationale; they are currently opaque, inconsistent, unduly onerous and lack a well-supported rationale. The MoD should harmonise and simplify the terms of service across the Armed Forces. The legal obligations of under-18 recruits should not be more onerous than those of adults.

Parental Consent

11. Parental/guardian consent is required for under-18s to apply for, and later enlist in, the Armed Forces. However, recruiting staff are not required to contact parents by phone or in person to ensure that they and their child fully understand the complex and far-reaching legal obligations of a forces career. The army literature offered to parents is designed to persuade them that their child will be happy in the forces, rather than to brief them as fully as possible, alongside the potential benefits, on the risks, difficulties of legal obligations of enlistment. The application and enlistment consent forms are normally signed at home, away from the recruitment office. A senior recruiter told me in 2007 that most army recruits’ parents never meet face-to-face with recruiters before their child enlists. [1]

12. Recommendation: While recruitment of under-18s continues, potential recruits’ parents/guardians should be as fully aware as possible of the commitment their child is making and of its potential consequences. The MoD should require recruiters for all branches of the Armed Forces to attempt to make personal contact with parents or legal guardians of applicants under 18 years of age; records of successful contact should be kept, with targets set accordingly.

David Gee,
February 2011

[1] Information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Ministry of Defence, 31 January 2011.

[1] Senior recruiter, personal communication, 2007.