A report by a committee of MPs has rejected proposals to raise the minimum age of military recruitment to 18. But Forces Watch, an NGO working on ethical issues around the armed forces, has suggested that the wording of the report reveals a lack of clarity over the law in this area, even among MPs and senior officers.
The MPs on the Committee on the Armed Forces Bill disagreed with each other over raising the minimum age of enlistment from 16 to 18, in line with international standards. In the end, the majority were opposed to an increase and they recommended no change.
The Committee reported that they have "raised concerns with the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff, Lt Gen. Sir William Rollo, who clarified the MoD’s position regarding the discharge of unhappy minors".
But Forces Watch, who submitted evidence to the Committee, has suggested that William Rollo's evidence was itself unclear. He said that there is a " a window at 18, for a further three months, where they can apply to leave".
It is unclear which provision this refers to. In law, a Discharge As Of Right (DAOR) applies to recruits under 18 for only the first six months of service.
It is thought Rollo may have been referring to the “unhappy minors” provision. This allows personnel aged under 18 years and three months to ask to leave if they are "genuinely unhappy". But this is at the discretion of their commanding officer. They have no legal right to leave if their request is refused.
"Given that the Committee has rejected international opinion on the recruitment of minors, it is alarming that their conclusions seem to be based on unclear evidence,” said Emma Sangster of Forces Watch.
She added, “They quote William Rollo, Deputy Chief of Defence Staff, but his own evidence to the Committee appears to refer to a voluntary provision as if it were a legal entitlement.”
Now that the report has been published, the Armed Forces Bill will be discussed by the whole House of Commons. Sangster said, “It is vital that MPs scrutinise the way in which the Committee reached its conclusions”.
Forces Watch is one of a number of NGOs to call for an increase in the minimum recruitment age to 18. Others include the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers and the Children’s Society. Their call is backed by the Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and Parliament’s own Joint Human Rights Committee have also called for the age to be raised to 18.
"The UK is one of only twenty countries in the world to routinely recruit 16-year-olds into the armed forces,” said Emma Sangster, “The others include North Korea, Iran and Zimbabwe”.
Forces Watch is also encouraging MPs to address other concerns neglected by the Committee.
The NGO wants to see a greater concentration on the human rights of forces personnel, including a clearer and stronger right to conscientious objection for serving members of the forces, improvements in the terms of service and an inquiry into personnel's civil and political rights.