HC Deb 17 May 2000 vol 350 cc345-50 4.10 pm
Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the recruitment of persons under the age of eighteen into the regular forces, the regular air forces and the Royal Navy; to prohibit the calling up of members of the reserve forces who are under eighteen years of age; and for connected purposes. It is estimated that, as I speak, at least 300,000 young people under the age of 18 are involved in armed conflict around the globe. In countries such as Uganda and Sierra Leone, children as young as 12 are forced into conscript armies. There is no greater betrayal of the rights of the child than to force that child to carry arms.

That is going on despite the fact that, in November of last year, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. It is why, in January of this year, an intergovernmental working group agreed a draft optional protocol to that convention to deal specifically with the involvement of children in armed conflict. That protocol would prohibit conscription of those under 18 and require Governments to take all feasible measures to end the deployment of those under 18. If and when that optional protocol is ratified, significant steps in the right direction will have been taken.

Under-18s should not be conscripted, and it is right that their conscription should end. Neither should under-18s be deployed in the theatre of war, so it is also right that all feasible measures are taken to avoid such deployment. The most obvious of those feasible measures is simple: to prohibit the recruitment of under-18s at the outset.

That is not a radical idea; it is not even a novel idea. The minimum age of recruitment into the police force is 18 and a half. In August 1914, at the outbreak of the first world war, the minimum age of enlistment into the Regular Army was 18. Even when conscription was introduced in March 1916, the minimum age remained 18.

There were youngsters under that age who reached the front line, but they did so only if they lied about their age—men such as my grandfather, who joined up when he was 16 or 17 and was shot at 18, and my great-uncle, who had lost his leg by the age of 18.

If recruitment into the armed services below the age of 18 were thought neither right nor necessary at a time of such great peril as the first world war, how can it conceivably be thought right or necessary today? Yet, today, there are nearly 7,000 16 and 17-year-olds in the British armed forces. They are too young to vote and to share in the governance of the country; to be tried in an adult court; to drink in a pub; too young even freely to enter into a contract; but they are old enough to kill or be killed on our behalf. This Bill would prohibit their recruitment into armed services.

The first benefit of the Bill would be that it would save some young lives. Since 1982, more than 90 service personnel aged under 18 have died. It is not just in the theatre of war that these young people are at risk; 25 died in training accidents. That should not surprise us. Military exercises are designed, rightly, to simulate the situations that soldiers would expect to face in real military operations. Their training inevitably involves firearms, weapons and explosives; dangerous activities, as the Ministry of Defence rightly and readily acknowledges.

Since 1992, 52 fatalities have occurred in the Army because of firearms. Any one of those could have been a young recruit, because accidents will and do happen, and are more likely to happen with younger recruits. We already know from the road traffic death statistics that young people tend to be less cautious than those who are older. Those young people should not be exposed to training which carries so high and so well-known an element of risk.

The second benefit of the Bill is that it would better protect the fundamental rights of those youngsters while they are alive. It has been recognised for many years that those under 18 require special protection. That is why they were protected by the Factory Acts of the 19th century, and why limitations have been developed upon their capacity to contract. It is why we have specific juvenile courts properly to deal with young offenders in ways appropriate to their age and why European Council directives give them better protection while they are at work. It is why we have the UN convention on the rights of the child.

Those are all measures that comprehend the fact that under-18s need special protection in certain areas. Yet there are inadequate comparable protections for under-18s in the armed forces.

A young adult can make up his mind swiftly and then change it on more mature reflection. That is one of the reasons why we have limits on the capacity to contract. However, once enlisted and after just six months, a young recruit is bound until his 22nd birthday. Although there are discretionary grounds for leaving, there is no discharge as of right. If that young recruit were asked to serve in an area of conflict, there would be no right to refuse. Outside the armed forces, a young person is relatively free to change his mind, but inside, that freedom is necessarily limited.

If that young recruit chose to leave, without permission, the grounds of the military base on which he was based, he would be detained and arrested. Outside the armed services, there are limits on the type of trial to which under-18s can be subjected, but that young recruit would be bound by three service discipline Acts, subject to a separate justice system and, within that system, subject to the same military courts as adults.

I do not believe that that is right. I believe that the best way to resolve the tension that exists between the obvious need for firm discipline within the armed services and the rights of a young person is to prevent that young person from being recruited until he reaches the age of majority. The second benefit of the Bill would therefore be that it would respect the fundamental rights of those under 18 but would not prejudice military discipline.

Indeed, far from prejudicing the armed services, the third benefit of the Bill is that it would positively advantage them. Current UN practice is that troops used for peacekeeping are required to be a minimum of 18, and, ideally, should be over 21. That is because of the skill, experience, patience and discretion needed to do the vital jobs that the armed forces perform on our behalf.

Raising the age of recruitment to 18 would reflect that, bringing the UK into line with the United Nations. Those who are recruited into the armed services in our country would be of the age and maturity necessary properly and better to perform the vital tasks that we ask of them.

I understand that there are those who are concerned about the Bill, and I respect their concerns. The first concern is that a gap might be created for those youngsters who are committed to a career in the armed services from a young age, who want to pursue it as soon as they can and who may benefit from the special opportunities provided. That is why nothing in my Bill would prejudice the Territorial Army, impact upon cadets or prevent the establishment of specialist military colleges for 16 or 17-year-olds outside the regular armed services. That would enable youngsters to join up on reaching the age of majority but with the benefit of appropriately focused training given within a mature military culture. Their choice would be an informed one and their talents would already be developed.

The second concern is that the Bill might overstretch the armed services. I understand that concern but, if there is overstretch, the answer is not to rely on 16 or 17-year-olds but to recruit appropriate numbers of people of the right age and maturity. That is why the Bill would not come into force for two years and why it vests in the Secretary of State all appropriate transitional arrangements.

The Bill would prohibit the recruitment into the armed forces of those below 18. It would ensure that the highest human rights standards are honoured in this country. It would ensure that the United Kingdom can not only ratify the protocol but take a lead in the country and the world. We would then have leverage in places such as Uganda and Sierra Leone to strive for better standards across the globe. However, the Bill would not prejudice the security of this country. It would not prejudice the professionalism of our armed forces or deny the rights of any of our young adults to chose to serve our country as they wish. For all those reasons, I hope that the House will allow me to introduce my Bill.

4.19 pm
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) has made a decent, well-argued and, I am sure, well-intentioned speech. The House may well miss him after the general election. Notwithstanding the good intentions—which, incidentally, pave the road to hell—he is entirely wrong.

This is muddled political correctness. The hon. Gentleman said that training for the Army is dangerous. The first thing that one must understand is that, in the armed forces, one is being trained to go to war, and whatever else it may be, war is extremely unpleasant and dangerous.

Sierra Leone and the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda were mentioned. I am not sure whether the two little boys in Burma were mentioned. British young soldiers, sailors and air crew have absolutely nothing to do with those conflicts. For a start, there is no conscription. All 16 and 17-year-olds—and indeed all other service personnel—are volunteers.

The 16 and 17-year-olds whom I remember were keen and determined. They desperately wanted to be soldiers. When we went to Northern Ireland, we could not let them go out on the streets. They had to remain behind, guarding the barracks. They hated it. They desperately wanted to get out there and do something useful. There are severe limitations on what they can do, and that is right. They are not put on the streets in Northern Ireland and they will not be deployed on United Nations tours.

The hon. Gentleman said that some young people in the forces have been killed, but people are killed in road accidents, too. As he admitted, they are not put in danger if it can be avoided. [Interruption.] There are approximately 6,500 16 and 17-year-olds being trained in the forces, with the vast majority in the Army. They are engaged in training and education. One might regard it as a military college of further education.[Interruption.]

The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who is wittering away over there, might care to go to the Army foundation college in Harrogate, where young men and women are doing foundation courses—studying for national vocational qualifications and the like—and deriving benefit for the future. They give enormous value to the armed forces. Such people serve longer and have a longer return of service, as it is called, so there is a better return on the large investment that is put into training. Much of it is complex, technical training, which many of us would find pretty difficult. The country needs a return on its investment, and that is what it gets from keen young volunteers.

The Army is now shifting the balance of recruitment from adults to juniors, because of the enormous competition for recruits for jobs created by a buoyant economy. There are tremendous demands for people to go into tertiary or further education, and that is competing for young people from 16 to 18. When they reach 18, they are often already in tertiary or further education and are lost to the Army.

What is the purpose of the Bill? The hon. Gentleman said that it was to set a good example. I have seen the photographs of boy soldiers in Sierra Leone and elsewhere. It is disgusting. We will not set a good example to Sierra Leone by not recruiting 16 and 17-year-olds. We will do it by sending out first-class troops to establish some order and help the people there.[Interruption.] I am sorry that I cannot allow the hon. Member for Slough to intervene.

What is the purpose of the armed forces? This is the root of the whole issue. The purpose of the armed forces is to defend the realm—to defend all of us in the House. The hon. Gentleman dismissed overstretch and under-recruitment, but solving those problems is terribly important. We cannot send troops to Sierra Leone or anywhere else if we do not have them. Let the armed forces defend the realm.

We are not breaking the 1989 UN convention on the child, or indeed the protocol that is being introduced this year, which still allows the recruitment of volunteers of 16 and 17. We must ask whether we want excellent, well-recruited armed forces or whether we do not. That is the question.

The armed forces feel much undermined by the politically correct stand of the Government. Labour Members will deny that, but it is true. The authority of military discipline is being undermined. A small point: allowing people to be openly homosexual in the armed forces is undermining military discipline, however much people deny it. The hon. Gentleman referred to special protection for 16 and 17-year-olds. I have not checked the record, but I bet that he voted to remove the special protection for them as regards homosexuality. Homosexual sexual intercourse, whatever else it might do, certainly might harm the people involved. The Bill would prevent them from joining up and doing something useful and honourable. That shows strange priorities.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—

The House divided: Ayes 110, Noes 69

Division No. 199] [4.25 pm
Alexander, Douglas Kumar, Dr Ashok
Allan, Richard Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Ashton, Joe Lawrence, Mrs Jackie
Atkins, Charlotte Lepper, David
Austin, John Linton, Martin
Barnes, Harry McCafferty, Ms Chris
Bennett, Andrew F McDonnell, John
Best, Harold McFall, John
Brand, Dr Peter Mackinlay, Andrew
Butler, Mrs Christine McNamara, Kevin
Cann, Jamie Mactaggart, Fiona
Cawsey, Ian McWalter, Tony
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Mahon, Mrs Alice
Chaytor, David Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Clapham, Michael Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Colman, Tony Maxton, John
Corbett, Robin Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Corbyn, Jeremy Mitchell, Austin
Crausby, David Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Mountford, Kali
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire Norris, Dan
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Davidson, Ian O'Hara, Eddie
Dawson, Hilton Olner, Bill
Dean, Mrs Janet Palmer, Dr Nick
Dismore, Andrew Pike, Peter L
Donohoe, Brian H Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Quinn, Lawrie
Field, Rt Hon Frank Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Flynn, Paul Rooney, Terry
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Sarwar, Mohammad
Gerrard, Neil Savidge, Malcolm
Gibson, Dr Ian Sawford, Phil
Godman, Dr Norman A Sedgemore, Brian
Godsiff, Roger Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Golding, Mrs Llin Shipley, Ms Debra
Gordon, Mrs Eileen Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) Skinner, Dennis
Gunnell, John Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Hinchliffe, David Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Hopkins, Kelvin Steinberg, Gerry
Hurst, Alan Stevenson, George
Iddon, Dr Brian Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Illsley, Eric Stinchcombe, Paul
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead) Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn) Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak) Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Kelly, Ms Ruth Vis, Dr Rudi
Khabra, Piara S White, Brian
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green) Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Wood, Mike Tellers for the Ayes:
Worthington, Tony Ms Julia Drown and
Wyatt, Derek Mr. Marsha Singh.
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Keetch, Paul
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Kennedy, Rt Hon Charles (Ross Skye & Inverness W)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Beith, Rt Hon A J Key, Robert
Bell, Martin (Tatton) King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Bercow, John Kirkwood, Archy
Boswell, Tim Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Brake, Tom Livsey, Richard
Brazier, Julian McIntosh, Miss Anne
Burnett, John McLoughlin, Patrick
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife) Moore, Michael
Moss, Malcolm
Campbell-Savours, Dale Öpik, Lembit
Chope, Christopher Plaskitt, James
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh) Randall, John
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Robathan, Andrew
Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Cormack, Sir Patrick Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Dalyell, Tam Sanders, Adrian
Day, Stephen Shaw, Jonathan
Drew, David Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Duncan Smith, Iain Soames, Nicholas
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Squire, Ms Rachel
Fabricant, Michael Stunell, Andrew
Fallon, Michael Swayne, Desmond
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Tapsell, Sir Peter
George, Andrew (St Ives) Taylor, John M (Solihull)
George, Bruce (Walsall S) Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Harris, Dr Evan Tyler, Paul
Hayes, John Walter, Robert
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Ward, Ms Claire
Hepburn, Stephen Wells, Bowen
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Hoyle, Lindsay
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) Tellers for the Noes:
Hunter, Andrew Mr. David Maclean and
Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Mr. Edward Leigh.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Paul Stinchcombe, Mr. Marsha Singh, Mr. Paul Flynn, Mr. Kerry Pollard, Mr. Michael Jabez Foster, Mr. Fraser Kemp, Ms Oona King, Ms Julie Morgan, Dr. Lynne Jones, Valerie Davey, Ms Julia Drown and Dr. Brian Iddon.