Select Committee on Armed Forces Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 980 - 999)

TUESDAY 6 MARCH 2001 (Morning sitting)


  980. Equal opportunities.
  (Mr Miller) Yes. We are planning, in any case, fairly significant harmonisation over the next few years, and this is undoubtedly one of the areas we will look at.

Mr Key

  981. I can confirm what Mr Miller has told us about what happens in real life to young soldiers, because last Friday I was at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate and I was hugely impressed by the establishment and by the remarkable quality of the leadership from the commanding officer down, including the RSM, platoon commanders and all those involved in training, which is extensive. The library facilities, the IT facilities, the Duke of Edinburgh Award and outdoor activities—it was a hugely impressive place to visit. I specifically pursued this question of discharge. Everything that Mr Miller has told us is correct. Notwithstanding that, I did get the impression that the military would quite like to see a tidying up so that there can be no possible doubt to either the young people joining the service or their parents, or anybody else, of exactly what the procedure is; that when they join at 16 years and one month it is four years from their 18th birthday. There is doubt and it does give rise to unhappiness and family tensions and so on. It also puts quite a burden on the commanding officer who spends a lot of time—I think I recall the commanding officer told me well over 200 cases in the first year—interviewing individual soldiers or their parents. Therefore, once again, I hope the Ministry of Defence will respond to us in requesting that this be looked at, in the same way that our predecessor five years ago asked that this should be looked at and it never was. I would, however, be grateful now if you could just clarify something which I think I got right up there in Harrogate. Unlike the evidence put to us by the At Ease organisation, there is absolutely no relationship between the NVQ training which is provided under contract by a TEC from a college for which the young soldiers must sign on the dotted line (as you would for any TEC project) and, as was suggested, signing away your right to discharge.
  (Mr Miller) I can confirm absolutely that there is no possibility that a soldier, sailor or airman, under the age of 18, would be required to extend his service as a result of a training course which he could have undertaken at that stage. The only exception is university cadetships and bursaries where, for under-18s, the parent is required to sign, agreeing that, if he does not give us the specified return of service, then they will accept a liability to refund payments that have been made, and the youngster is asked to confirm that and take on the obligation himself at the age of 18.

Ms Taylor

  982. I would like to take you back a moment or two and ask you about the quality of counselling. I am concerned to ask you about that, having experience of post-18s having been a teacher at university for quite a number of years and seeing post-18, 19 and 20-year olds feeling lonely and isolated. I have also spoken over a period of time to many of our people in the Armed Forces who say, again, that they are isolated and lonely. So I am concerned to ask you about the quality of counselling and support, because I think it is crucial to maintaining a very young force who are away from their families for the first time, who are living in common with little, if any, privacy. These are serious issues. Their grief or their jubilation has to be very public all the time. This is a serious concern that I have which I shall address at a different time and different point. I want to ask you about positive counselling and positive support. I want to know who is doing this counselling and support and how and in what way it functions, so that young people are made to feel confident that there is always someone there for them.
  (Mr Miller) The main avenues of welfare support are, firstly, the Chaplaincy and, secondly the Services' individual welfare support organisations. The detailed organisation of welfare differs between the three Services but the one feature they all have in common is that they employ fully qualified, professional social workers. Yes, of course, there must be some variation in the standard of counselling given by individuals—that, I am afraid is inevitable—but these people are fully professionally trained and there is a considerable range of counselling courses open to them and, indeed, to others in the organisation who wish to qualify in that sort of way. So this support is there, but I would not deny that, as in any other group of relatively young people, there are problems. That is why we provide the services.

  983. Are parents actually embraced in this counselling? Are parents brought on board?
  (Mr Miller) That, I think, is a matter for the judgment of the individual counsellor. He may suggest, of course, that a child speaks to his or her parents but the child may not want that, and that is something which any counsellor counselling young people has to deal with.

Mr Keetch

  984. Can you remind me, Mr Miller, or Brigadier Cottam, what are the practising laws concerning under-18s going into combat?
  (Mr Miller) The position is that we try to avoid deploying under-18s into combat if we can. For example, although under-18s may serve in Northern Ireland they may not go out on patrol. We do not send under-18s out on UN operations. The reason why we entered the reservations in the UN was because we cannot guarantee that we will not put under-18s into combat. The most likely situation, and as far as I know it has not occurred in recent years, would be an under-18 serving on board a ship which is diverted at short notice, where it would be simply impracticable to take him off. Certainly the intention is to avoid the deployment of under-18s on operations if we can.

  985. A number of under-18s were killed in the Falklands.
  (Mr Miller) That was some years ago, but, yes, two, maybe three.

  986. So it is possible for under-18s to end up in a combat situation.
  (Mr Miller) It is possible but we would do all we could to avoid it.

  987. Have there been instances in recent years of under-18s going into combat, ignoring the Falklands which, as you say, was 20 years ago?
  (Mr Miller) Since we signed the protocol, not to my knowledge.

  988. That is monitored?
  (Mr Miller) In the sense that we would expect to know if it happened, yes.

Mr Watts

  989. You said social workers are involved in the counselling process. Do the social workers, as a profession, produce a report on the major issues and things that they are concerned about on an annual basis?
  (Mr Miller) Again, I can certainly say I have seen reports on general problems by social workers in the Naval Service, and on my left I am being told that the same applies in the Army. I would expect the same is true for the RAF.

Mr Randall

  990. To get back, first of all, to the UN Peacekeeping Mission, is that because we do not send under-18s on them because we choose to, but if we did choose to would we be prohibited from doing so by the UN Convention?
  (Mr Miller) The UN make it very clear that they do not want under-18s deployed on their operations, and it is in order to meet their wishes.

  991. Does that apply to European forces that have been working with NATO allies? Do they have the same rules as we do?
  (Mr Miller) I honestly do not know where our NATO allies stand on this issue.

  992. I was thinking, for example, on a manoeuvres or exercises, or whatever, if we deployed under-18s.
  (Mr Miller) We would expect to deploy under-18s on exercises and so forth—training.

  993. You do not know of any problems that might cause any of our allies?
  (Mr Miller) I certainly am unaware of any problems, and I would not expect deployment on training to cause any problems; it is the operational deployment which is the issue.

  994. I was wondering whether in any of our European allies, for example, they have a rule of 18 and upwards only; they do not have under-18s in their Armed Forces.
  (Brigadier Cottam) If I may, Madam Chairman, there are two points here. Although we may be involved in peace support operations in a coalition that is not specifically a United Nations operation, routinely we apply to ourselves those same under-18 protocols that we have just outlined for you. With regard to the interoperability with other European armies, we have never had a problem and in training, when we have had under-18 members of units deployed, they are really indistinguishable from their 18-year old counterparts. That, also, has not been an issue at any stage that we are aware. Obviously we are very used, if we do not deploy, to leave behind those under-18s who are not suitable for the theatre of operations for whatever reason.

  995. One other point on this: if we did not recruit under-18s, would that be a serious problem for a recruitment later on, because obviously that is a crucial period when people are making their minds up. Would it also have any operational problem, apart from that recruitment side?
  (Mr Miller) I think it would have serious impact on the overall Service numbers. This is the concern. The point is the obvious one, that the school leaving age being 16, the better individuals tend to get settled into an alternative career if you do not recruit them early.

Mr Keetch

  996. From what you say, there are no under-18s serving in Kosovo or Bosnia?
  (Brigadier Cottam) I do not know definitely that there are not, but certainly they would not be deployed for peace-support operations of any kind. Therefore I think I can say confidently there are not.

  997. And certainly they would not have been in Sierra Leone?
  (Brigadier Cottam) I do not know but I would assume not because that operation is in several parts. There is a UN component, to which we contribute, and there are specifically, technically at least, non-UN elements to the force. I have not checked in coming to the Committee, but I am pretty confident that there would be very few, if any, in the theatre.


  998. I do have a recollection that there was somebody who was under 18 serving with the Parachute Regiment in Sierra Leone. I am trying to remember if we heard that from the Parachute Regiment or somewhere else. Whilst I appreciate efforts are made not to engage under-18s in that sort of situation, it can and does still happen.
  (Brigadier Cottam) Madam Chairman, I think if there were, they would have been chosen because they were integrally part of a particular section or team of soldiers which required their presence because of the specific training that they had, without which the team would not be operationally-effective.
  (Mr Miller) I think it is also worth making the point of course that the under-18s in these circumstances deeply resent being kept from their units.

Mr Keetch

  999. Yes, but you either have a policy of not putting under-18s into combat, or you do not. What you are saying is you have a policy of not putting under-18s into combat, but yet you might have some.
  (Mr Miller) Our policy is not to deploy under-18s operationally if we can avoid it. That is the formal policy. There should not have been under-18s in Sierra Leone on that basis, there should not have been under-18s at least in the initial deployment in the Balkans, but I think it would be a very brave man who would be prepared to say it never happens.
  (Brigadier Cottam) If I may, Madam Chairman, when we are talking about under-18s it is perhaps worth the Committee being aware that we are generally talking about men and women of the age of about 17¾. It is very unusual for them to be just 17 because of the nature of the training that they will have to undergo in the units with which they might deploy. So we are only talking about a very small number of months, and I think I can very confidently say that any young Parachute soldiers or others deployed in the Balkans or other theatres would be very close to their 18th birthday. Certainly that has been my experience in a number of commands.

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