UK armed forces accused of 'conscription by the back door'

By staff writers
October 17, 2010

British Quakers have accused the UK government of military “conscription by the back door”, because adult soldiers are held to commitments they made before turning eighteen. People who join the army while aged sixteen or seventeen are obliged to remain until they turn twenty-two.

The UK is the only country in the European Union which routinely recruits people aged under eighteen into the armed forces. The last week has seen a number of MPs call for the age limit to be raised, following a campaign pioneered by Quakers and Unitarians.

The Quakers' Parliamentary Liaison Secretary, Michael Bartlett, made the “conscription” accusation in an interview with The Friend, an independent weekly Quaker magazine.

“Decisions made as a child have their consequences in a requirement to serve in the frontline as an adult,” he said, “A decision made without informed consent can at its worst, amount to conscription by the back door”.

He urged those who shared his view to lobby their MPs to sign Early Day Motion 781, which calls for the recruitment age to be changed to eighteen. An Early Day Motion (EDM) is effectively a parliamentary petition, allowing MPs to express their agreement with a particular view.

The EDM was tabled by Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert and Green MP Caroline Lucas. It has since been signed by Labour, Plaid Cymru and SDLP MPs.

But the government and armed forces have so far resisted attempts to raise the minimum age, despite being urged to do so by Parliament’s own Joint Committee on Human Rights. People aged under eighteen account for over a quarter of those joining the army.

After a six-month “cooling off” period, they have no automatic right to leave. While members of the armed forces technically have a right to leave at any age if they develop a conscientious objection to war, the researcher David Gee found in 2007 that many are unaware of this right.

Concern about youth recruitment has been increased in recent years by army research that suggests that fifty per cent of recruits have literacy or numeracy levels at or below those of an eleven-year-old.

“We should not be recruiting people so young into the armed forces,” insisted Caroline Lucas, “It’s entirely inappropriate that a young person should be bound by a commitment made while they were a minor”.


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