No one would be jailed for refusing new UK national service, says Tory minister, as Labour dismisses ‘gimmick’

In advance of British general election, Rishi Sunak pledges to get 18-year-olds to either join the military for 12 months or do ‘volunteer’ work one weekend a month for a year

Teenagers in the United Kingdom would not be sent to jail for defying the Conservative Party’s proposed “mandatory” national service, the UK home secretary James Cleverly has said, as Labour dismissed the policy as a “gimmick”.

The plans were aimed at getting young people “out of their bubble” and would not involve the threat of criminal sanctions for those who refuse to comply, said Mr Cleverly.

In the first major policy announcement in advance of July’s British general election, Rishi Sunak pledged to get 18-year-olds to either join the military for 12 months or do “volunteer” work one weekend a month for a year.

The prime minister said the policy would help unite society in an “increasingly uncertain world” and give young people a “shared sense of purpose”.


In an apparent pitch to older voters and those who may turn to Reform UK, the Tories said volunteering could include helping local fire, police and NHS services, as well as charities tackling loneliness and supporting elderly people.

Opposition critics have dismissed the plans as unserious, with Labour saying the pledge would never come to fruition and amounted to “another unfunded commitment”.

Touring broadcast studios on Sunday, Mr Cleverly said the Tories would ensure the scheme “fits with different people’s attitudes and aspirations” after questions arose over whether teenagers would be punished for not taking part.

“There’s going to be no criminal sanction. There’s no one going to jail over this,” he told Sky News’s Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips programme.

“This is about dealing with what we know to be the case, which is social fragmentation.

“Too many young people live in a bubble within their own communities. They don’t mix with people of different religions, they don’t mix with different viewpoints.”

Shadow work and pensions secretary Liz Kendall said: “This is an unfunded commitment, a headline-grabbing gimmick, it is not a proper plan to deliver it, it doesn’t deal with the big challenges facing young people who are desperate to get the skills and qualifications they need to get good jobs, to have a home they can call their own.”

The prime minister is seeking to draw a dividing line with Labour on global security following his pledge to raise defence spending to 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product by 2030.

Heightening his attack on Saturday, Mr Sunak said voters would be left “at risk” with the Labour leader Keir Starmer because Britain’s enemies would notice that he “doesn’t have a plan”.

As part of the national service proposals, teenagers who choose to sign up for a placement in the forces would “learn and take part in logistics, cybersecurity, procurement or civil response operations”, the Tories said.

The Conservatives said they would establish a royal commission bringing in expertise from across the military and civil society to establish the details of what they described as the “bold” national service programme.

The party said this commission would be tasked with bringing forward a proposal for how to ensure the first pilot is open for applications in September 2025.

After that, it would seek to introduce a new “National Service Act” to make the measures compulsory by the end of the next , the party said.

It estimates the programme will cost £2.5 billion (€2.9 billion) a year by the end of the decade and plans to fund £1 billion through plans to “crack down on tax avoidance and evasion”.

The remaining £1.5 billion will be paid for with money previously used for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), a key part of the Levelling Up agenda which supports local charities and community groups, the Tories said.

Mr Sunak said: “This is a great country but generations of young people have not had the opportunities or experience they deserve and there are forces trying to divide our society in this increasingly uncertain world.

“I have a clear plan to address this and secure our future. I will bring in a new model of national service to create a shared sense of purpose among our young people and a renewed sense of pride in our country.

“This new, mandatory national service will provide life-changing opportunities for our young people, offering them the chance to learn real world skills, do new things and contribute to their community and our country.”

Earlier on Saturday, the prime minister suggested a government led by Mr Starmer would be marked by uncertainty and a “more dangerous world.”

“The consequences of uncertainty are clear. No plan means a more dangerous world. You, your family and our country are all at risk if Labour win,” he said.

Mr Starmer’s party pointed out that David Cameron introduced a similar scheme – the National Citizen Service – when he was prime minister.

Mr Cameron’s announcement had no military component to it, instead encouraging young people to take part in activities such as outdoor education-style courses as part of his “Big Society” initiative.

A Labour spokesperson said: “This is not a plan – it’s a review which could cost billions and is only needed because the Tories hollowed out the armed forces to their smallest size since Napoleon.

“Britain has had enough of the Conservatives, who are bankrupt of ideas, and have no plans to end 14 years of chaos. It’s time to turn the page and rebuild Britain with Labour.”

Liberal Democrat defence spokesperson Richard Foord said: “If the Conservatives were serious about defence, they would reverse their damaging cuts to our world class professional armed forces, instead of decimating them, with swingeing cuts to the number of our regular service personnel.

“Our armed forces were once the envy of the world. This Conservative government has cut troop numbers and is planning more cuts to the size of the Army.

“This would be far better spent reversing Conservative cuts to troop numbers.”

Mr Sunak’s pledge marks the first major policy announcement from either side in advance of the July 4th general election that he called in a rain-soaked statement outside Downing Street earlier this week.

The prime minister has said he is “pumped up” and enjoying himself on the campaign trail despite a difficult start that saw him encounter several hiccups on a whistle-stop two-day tour of the UK.

His trip included a visit to the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, which invited undesirable “sinking ship” comparisons with his party’s fortunes, as well as a brewery in Wales where he made a footballing gaffe about the Euros.

Mr Sunak spent Saturday meeting local veterans in his North Yorkshire constituency of Richmond before joining activists on the doorstep in southwest London. – PA