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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.