British army criticised for recruiting young soldiers


A report claims the British army is failing to prepare young recruits for later in life, writes MARK HENNESSY, London Editor

TELEVISION ADVERTS for the British army tend to emphasise the training on offer.

In each, potential recruits are told they can be an engineer or information technology expert, or learn a range of mechanical skills that will be useful ever after.

However, it is a false promise, in the words of Child Soldiers International (CSI), which has long complained about the army’s recruitment of 16-year-olds – often from some of the most deprived districts in Britain and Northern Ireland.

Apprenticeships are too tightly focused on military skills and of little use in the world outside, said CSI, pointing out that British Legion figures show veterans are twice as likely to be unemployed than those who have never served.

The UK is the only European Union country that permits 16-year-old soldiers, despite pleas from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and MPs. In June, the Irish Government decided to raise the recruiting age by a year to 18.

“The UK is lagging behind a growing international consensus in support of the ‘straight-18’ position endorsed by several international and national expert bodies,” says Richard Clarke, head of Child Soldiers International and a former British diplomat once based in Dublin.

Forced to defend its position, the Ministry of Defence has said it needs to recruit minors “in order to compete in an increasingly competitive employment market” and said some potential soldiers would be “lost to the services” if it had to wait until the age of 18.

CSI rejects this argument, however. In 2009, only 6 per cent of employers recruited 16-year-olds, including apprentices: “It is with schools and colleges, not other employers, that the Ministry of Defence directly competes,” CSI declared.

Given that the British army’s size is to fall to 80,000, underage recruitment should now end, particularly since the recruits – regarded as “child soldiers” by international agencies – cannot be deployed on the front-line.

Basic training at Harrogate and Winchester focuses on “weapon handling, fieldcraft, camouflage, survival . . . [how to] handle and shoot the SA80 rifle . . . drill . . . march and parade”, rather than skills that have “a clear transferable value”, said CSI.

Under-18s are not allowed the opportunity to study for GCSEs, A-Levels, or other recognised second-level qualification, while a “significant minority” of those newly in uniform are working “below their academic potential”.

In the past, it said, a military life offered a path for minors drawn from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds, but “no longer, since the training offered fails to meet modern standards. As a result, it narrows rather than broadens their future opportunities, and compounds rather than alleviates long-term disadvantage,” according to the report released today, Mind the Gap: Education for Minors in the British Armed Forces.