The Church of Scotland and the Bishops of the Church in Wales are among the signatories of an open letter to the Ministry of Defence this week calling for an end to the recruitment of under-18s.
The signatories, which also include the Unitarian Church, Quakers, Catholic, Baptist, and Methodist groups, call on the MoD to raise the recruitment age as a “fitting memorial” to the thousands of young soldiers killed in World War One.
The letter has been made public on the same day that Child Soldiers International released new analysis of MoD figures which demonstrates plummeting enlistment levels among 16-year-olds and rising drop-out rates from training. The research finds that:
- Last year just 880 16-year-olds enlisted in the Army, 40 per cent fewer than the year before (1,470) and just a quarter of the number enlisted a decade earlier (3,600).
- The dramatic fall in intake has been matched by rising drop-out rates. Of all the 16-year-olds recruited by the Army last year, figures just released show that nearly half (410) left during training.
- The number of 17-year-olds has also fallen steadily, with about a third as many joining the forces last year (1,550) as were enlisted a decade earlier (5,035)
- Non-officer armed forces recruits enlisting in Scotland and Wales in the year 2011/2012 were, on average, six months younger than those enlisting in England. Secondary schools and colleges in Scotland and Wales also received disproportionately high numbers of visits from armed forces compared to their equivalents in England.
Despite publicly denying any plans to review the recruitment age policy, the MoD’s recent response to the Defence Committee’s inquiry on the Education of Service Personnel revealed that it has instructed the Army to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of its recruitment of minors. This study could lead to the end of a practice which leaves the UK with the joint lowest legal recruitment age in the world.
Former Minister for the Armed Forces Nick Harvey welcomed the review, but expressed reservations about its scope. “I am pleased that the MoD has agreed to conduct a review of this policy but it must be independent, transparent and thorough. The time is right to look at under-18 recruitment again. It should not be limited to just the financial costs of training and recruitment, but must seriously examine the personal costs borne by recruits who enlist at this age – including in relation to their long term welfare and employability” he said.
Richard Clarke, Director of Child Soldiers International, said “It’s time for the MoD to recognise what more and more young people and their parents are realising – that enlisting at 16 is not in their best interests. Army training does not give young people what they need to succeed in today’s economy, especially in terms of qualifications. During the First World War the minimum age for recruitment and conscription was 18, with deployment at 19. To be recruiting 16-year-olds a century later makes no sense at all.”
The longer duration of training for minors and their greater likelihood of dropping out makes recruiting them extremely costly to the taxpayer. In 2010-11 the annual cost was approximately £90 million more than if only adults were recruited; the latest drop-out figures will have driven this excess cost upwards.