Human rights campaigners have welcomed an MP's attempt to raise the minimum age of enlistment in the UK armed forces to eighteen. Labour MP Alex Cunningham has proposed an amendment to the Armed Forces Bill currently going through the House of Commons.
The UK is the only country in Europe to routinely recruit people aged under 18 into the armed forces, and one of only 20 countries in the world to recruit 16-year-olds. Recruits cannot serve on the frontline until they reach 18. But after the initial six months, they are unable to leave the forces voluntarily until they turn 22.
Cunningham's amendment would give existing troops aged 16 or 17 the chance of "discharge as of right", while phasing in a higher minimum age.
The coalition government opposes any increase in the minimum recruitment age. But the Armed Forces Minister, Adam Harvey, has agreed to look at the possibility of a discharge as of right for personnel under 18.
An increase in the minimum recruitment age has been backed by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and Parliament's own Joint Human Rights Committee. Other supporters include the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, the Children's Society and Forces Watch.
Cunningham's amendment was described as "a good first step" by Michael Bartlet, parliamentary liaison secretary for Britain's Quakers.
He told the independent weekly Quaker magazine The Friend that he hopes "all those committed to human rights will continue to press their MPs for a discharge as of right for all under-18-year-olds".
The government has been accused of failing to propose any significant changes in the Armed Forces Bill which it has introduced to Parliament. Forces Watch, an NGO concerned with ethical issues around the forces, has called for a reduction in the minimum length of service, a clearer right to conscientious objection for serving personnel and improved recognition of the human rights of forces personnel.
Parliament passes an Armed Forces Act every five years, as since the 17th century it has been illegal for the monarch to maintain an army without the permission of Parliament.