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In any event, it should not have needed the horrors that we all read about and debated following Deepcut to make the Government face up to their responsibilities in this area. On 24 July 2003, the United Kingdom ratified the UN optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. This protocol says in Article 1:
The Minister wrote to me on 24 October. I, too, pay tribute to the ceaseless work that both he and the staff have done in briefing us and keeping us aware. The problem is that there is always no change; and there are always explanations of why there is no intent to modernise in this Bill, but merely to bring together ancient law. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us which other European nations take the view that under-18s can be put into combat. His letter tells me that the proposals by Blake and ourselves regarding combat areas ignore,
That means that the MoD is in breach of its obligations under the protocol. It should not place under-18s in a position where it knows that this may happen. It is not terribly difficult to keep them in the training area if there are going to be under-18s in the armed services. If the MoD is to hold to its position where the United Kingdom is internationally criticised for its policy and will not put in place these most basic safeguards, we shall subsequently need to examine carefully whether recruiting under-18s into the military should continue in this country. I beg to move.
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, we cannot support the amendment. I believe that it would be inappropriate and unnecessarily restrictive to put such a provision in statutory form, worthy though some of the motives behind doing so may be.
There are long-established and important procedures relating to under-18s, some of which the noble Lord referred to in Committee. These are designed to protect the safety of juvenile service personnel and to control their exposure to dangerous situations. Such guidance will undoubtedly be further updated following the Deepcut inquiry. There is no need to tie the hands of the Armed Forces by having these restrictions in statutory form. That could compromise the efforts of our services in certain limited situations. There are already safeguards in place and severe recriminations when guidelines are not followed.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, I oppose the amendment. First, new subsection (1) does not have sufficient flexibility to implement the UN protocol. For instance, as drafted, it would mean that service personnel under 18 could not deploy on overseas exercises or shipscertainly not overseas exercises outside NATO or EU states. A good example was the exercise Saif Sareea in 2001 in Oman, which partially morphed into operations.
Secondly, subsection (2) is still ambiguously drafted. Is a live weapon one with live rounds in it, or one that works? Either way, I believe that it is morally and doctrinally wrong to put on guard a service person with an impotent firearm.
Thirdly, if under-18s cannot undertake armed guard duty, will that not lead to some installations not being provided with an armed guard at all because it is unfair to overload over-18s with armed guard duty? The military provost guard service is not a free service; it is not even cheap.
Finally, under-18s could have been in uniform for 12 months and they will not thank noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches, because the advantage that they sought by starting their service careers early will be to some extent lost and they will be made into second-tier servicepersons unable to perform all military tasks. Possibly even worse, the Armed Forces Pay Review Board might have to look at their already meagre pay.
Lord Lyell: My Lords, I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Garden, presenting and explaining his amendment. When I looked at it before he spoke, it seemed like a multiple independent military vehicle. First, it says clearly in subsection (1):
I apologise for taking your Lordships back to 1957 when I served for two years under the National Service Act, and three members of my squad celebrated their 18th birthdays during the first three weeks of our training. I know that circumstances have changed. I hope that the Minister will not dally unduly with my sundry thoughts. Perhaps he will cover my queries in writing; I am not asking for a reply this afternoon. I am interested to know that it would be possible for young men, and possibly young women, under the age of 18 to serve in combat areas. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Garden, explained that detailing who will or will not be in their 19th year in a ships company when the ship might be called into action would be extraordinarily difficult. Such a provision would be extraordinarily hard for all three services, especially as they are now.
I have great sympathy with subsection (2) and understand it, thanks to the tragic events at Deepcut. But how would that subsection mix with what we understand from subsection (1), and with what my noble friend saidthat young men and women may start their training at the age of 17? If they are permitted to serve in a combat area or are deemed safe to use live weapons, why should they be proscribed from carrying out guard duty with live weapons under the watershed age of 18? I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about subsection (3) which says:
Viscount Slim: My Lords, I may be corrected, but while going around the apprentice college at Harrogate and the subsequent training facility at Catterick, I have observed that one can be a trained soldier at 17 just as well as at 18. They have the same responsibilities. One cannot base something on a terrible scene in one area, which none of us liked and which had nothing to do with people being 17. There were other reasons for those problems. If we start to create second-class soldiers, as one or two noble Lords have said, we will have grave problems.
I have looked hard at the apprentice school in Harrogate and the subsequent training at Catterick, as I have had the great privilege of spending some time there. I do not see much difference between what comes out of either pile. In the last world war, young men of 17 and 16 in the Home Guard carried loaded weapons and were prepared to fire them if the enemy landed. Many 17 year-olds joined up saying they were
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Lord Drayson: My Lords, before turning to Amendment No. 6, I want to say that during our most useful debate in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Garden, mentioned that I may have been mistaken in referring to recruits under the age of 18 at Harrogate. Of course, he was quite correct in believing that the training facilities at Harrogate were exclusively for those under 17 rather than under 18. While he graciously conceded that that was a minor point, my use of the generic term under 18 was clearly not right in that context. I gladly now put the record straight by emphasising that the training facilities at Harrogate are, indeed, for under-17s.
The noble Lord, Lord Garden, expressed the view that he was disappointed with our response to Nicholas Blake in the Deepcut review, specifically in relation to our duty of care towards service personnel under the age of 18. I can assure noble Lords that the Ministry of Defence welcomed Mr Blakes report. Many of the recommendations were accepted and some have already been acted upon.
On the accommodation of those under the age of 17, I can only repeat and re-emphasise what I have said previously. We fully appreciate the specific requirements of those under the age of 18. Therefore, although the Army has some training facilities exclusively for recruits under the age of 17 at Harrogate and Bassingbourn, with some under-17s also being trained at other training establishments, we do not believe that accommodating under-17s separately from their colleagues is an appropriate approach to adopt across the whole of the Armed Forces. We are instead concentrating on improving accommodation for all recruits. Improvements to the training environment will continue to be taken forward through the defence training review.
As I told noble Lords, an important aspect of a servicepersons training and of service life is the ability and confidence to handle live weapons. A fully trained and qualified service man or woman must be able to bear arms in legitimate pursuit of the operational imperative, and we would not want to rule out the possibility of suitably qualified personnel aged 17 or over having been judged by their commanding officer to have the maturity and appropriate attitude to take personal responsibility for a firearm with live rounds being able to do so.
As I have made it clear, under-17s entrusted to do that are accompanied by an appropriately trained and qualified serviceperson when they undertake armed patrolling duties. Those supervising, and indeed all in the chain of command, fully appreciate the weight of those responsibilities and take appropriate measures in relation to the safety and well-being of those young people. In relation to the use of under-18s in operations, the United Kingdom position is the result of a historical anomaly. It is based on a relatively recent assessment of the requirements of the services
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The decision to remove a serviceperson under the age of 18 from a ship or unit before deploying will be taken whenever possible, but that decision must be balanced against the effect that it might have on the ability to successfully achieve the military aim. For example, if a rapid deployment is essential and that deployment is mounted from other than the home base, it might not be possible to remove someone under 18 to safety. We can no longer rely on the relatively static disposition of our forces on the European mainland. We must accept that if units, particularly ships but also other detached unitsas is increasingly common these daysare already deployed and an emergency arises, while every practical step will be taken to remove or land under-18s, that simply might not be possible.
In recent years, HMS Illustrious was deployed with no notice from exercises in the Bay of Biscay to support operations in Sierra Leone. The tragic events of 9/11 occurred while significant numbers of UK forces were transiting to or deployed in Oman. The recent evacuation of civilians from the Lebanon was conducted in large part by ships already in the area. Noble Lords will know that events can turn as quickly as this and that our forces must be prepared to deal with them when and where they arise. We fully recognise our responsibility towards under-18s. That is why in almost every case under-18s will not face hostilities. That said, we must not underestimate the importance to the services of the fact that under-18s who have completed their training can be employed immediately in front-line ships and units. It is true that in exceptional circumstances that might expose them to hostilities, but as I have demonstrated, the likelihood is extremely low.
The UKs declaration on signing the UN protocol makes it clear that we do all we can and we could not be more aware of our obligations in that area. We believe that our policies on under-18s are robust and compliant with national and international law, but we continue to keep them under review.
Let me be clear about our position on service personnel under the age of 18 serving in combat zones. Of course we would prefer to be able to offer a cast-iron guarantee that this situation would never arise, but while every precaution is taken to avoid the potential for that to happen, a small risk remains, even with the most careful thought and planning. I attach the utmost importance to our duty of care for all our service personnel. We need to consider carefully how we may best achieve that by balancing our obligations towards those aged under 18, reflecting their particular needs and at the same time avoiding the risk of causing barriers between them and their older colleagues. I remain confident that the needs of service personnel under the age of 18 are being properly addressed and that there is no need to introduce primary legislation to enforce special provision for these young service men and women.
The noble Lord, Lord Garden, asked me which other European nations put under-18s into combat, and the answer is none. However, many of those countries have systems of national service and conscription and operate in a non-expeditionary role, which is quite different from us. It is therefore not a fair comparison.
Lord Garden: My Lords, the Minister will be unsurprised that I have not been reassured by his reiteration of the Governments position. Various noble Lords explained why it is difficult to do the things that this amendment requires. It is certainly difficult, but there is an international perspective that 18 is the make-or-break age for whether someone should be in combat wearing a uniform. That can be seen in the UN protocol, in the definition of child soldiers and in the way the rest of Europe acts. I am most grateful to the Minister for confirmingI thought it would be better coming from himthat no other European nation has under-18s. To say that they do not deploy is not correct; just look at Afghanistan at the moment. It was an extraordinary statement. The argument used by some noble Lords about soldiers being very good at 17 works just as well if they are 13. Why do we take a particular age? We take it because there is an international standard of 18.
Then there is Deepcut. Over a prolonged period, noble Lords showed their horror at what happened there. It is a separate matter, a subset of this under-18 question. We questioned how it could happen and, after so much angst, we welcomed a proper inquiry into it by a respected QC. When we read his report, some of us thought that he did not go far enough in some of his recommendations. Nevertheless, it was an objective assessment. He made some simple recommendations, and I remind noble Lords that when he said that he was prepared to accept the continuation of under-18s in the Armed Forces as servicemen, he did so not on the grounds of recruitment, which is the argument normally made by the Ministry of Defence, but on the grounds of education; he felt they got a better education if they were in the services than they might get in the state system between the ages of 16 and 18. That was why he justified it, but he did so with the caveat that his recommendations should be implemented.
We all know that the MoD will not agree to under-17s having special areas because of the resources question. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, says that subsection (2) in the amendment is impractical because there are insufficient resources. We are talking about budgetary concerns, when there is an international standard for under-18s. While I accept that there will be some exercises in which under-18s will not be able to participate, that is a relatively small price to pay to raise ourselves to normal, international, civilised standards. I wish to test the opinion of the House.
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