Campaigners Child Soldiers International (CSI) are taking legal action against the Ministry of Defence to demand that soldiers who joined the Army Foundation College at 16 or 17 years of age "are not forced into serving longer than adult recruits".
Their argument is that those who join the AFC at 16 or 17, and do not exercise their right of discharge before they reach 18, then have to serve the same minimum four years adult service as everybody else. So if their AFC service is included, their total service obligation is longer than someone who joins at 18 or over. CSI describe this as "Catch 22".
CSI have been campaigning for some time against 16 and 17 year olds being allowed to join on AFC/apprentice type engagements. BAFF does not agree with CSI on that general principle.
Child Soldiers International is a respected organisation. We agree with their campaign against the conscription and employment of minors in military conflict roles anywhere in the world. We have been grateful for opportunities for dialogue with CSI. However, as long as under-18 recruitment remains an effective use of resources we would not wish to see the withdrawal of AFC/apprentice opportunities from young people subject to the maximum safeguards.
BAFF has direct experience of supporting an individual wishing to leave and we were satisfied with the Army's handling of the situation.
British Armed Forces Federation (BAFF) has continued to speak on this issue since 2011, when it was included in our written evidence to the House of Commons Armed Forces Bill Committee in 2011. Thereafter the Discharge as of Right (DAOR) rules were somewhat improved, partly in response to representations from BAFF and others.
RECRUITMENT OF YOUNG PEOPLE
13. We note the evidence submitted by Mr David Gee and others about the recruitment of under 18 years olds into the armed forces. We would not wish suitable 16 and 17 year-olds to be deprived of the educational and training opportunities afforded by the two Army Colleges. We would not, therefore, support the raising of the minimum recruitment age to 18.
14. We agree with other witnesses, however, that there is an issue about 16 and 17 year olds entering into binding commitments, enforceable by criminal sanctions under Service law, to continue serving for at least four years in adult service.
15. The present "unhappy minors" provision rightly allows a Service person under the age of 18 years to leave after completing 28 days of Service and having given the required 14 days' notice. Between their 18th birthday and attaining the age of 18 years three months, they can request permission to leave provided they have already registered, before their 18th birthday, their "clear unhappiness" at their choice of career. This procedure does not adequately provide informed consent as an adult. We were also surprised to learn that permission has been withheld from any individuals applying to leave at that stage.
16. It would be better to have a positive requirement for a Service person who enlisted at 16 or 17 to reaffirm their commitment at or shortly after their 18th birthday, but still be able to request permission to leave before they attain the age of 18 years three months.
17. An adjustment along the above lines would in our view deal with valid human rights and child protection objections to the present system. It would also be much fairer to parents for the Service person to be required to make a positive informed decision as an adult, rather than leave parents with the continuing moral burden of having committed their under-age child to four years adult Service.
We retain a focus on these issues and are considering the implications of the CSI application for judicial review.
Legal note. The armed forces are exempt from age discrimination claims to an employment tribunal, but CSI claim that the the Army Terms of Service Regulations 2007 (as amended) are in conflict with the Equal Treatment Directive 2000/78/EC.
Finally, a related clip from British Forces News - Legal Challenge Launched on Young Soldier Regulations 08.10.14: