HL Deb 09 November 1999 vol 606 cc1249-52

2.44 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they envisage any change of policy regarding restrictions on the employment and duties of members of the Armed Forces aged 16 and 17.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, no. UK recruitment and deployment policies accord with international standards laid down in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and International Labour Organisation Convention No. 182. The UK has played, and will continue to play, a full and active role in negotiations on this matter. We recruit only volunteers with parental consent if the volunteer is under 18, and ensure that all recruits understand fully their military obligations prior to enlistment. However, we keep our policies under review.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reassuring reply. As the British Army consists of volunteers, in contrast with some other NATO armies, does she agree that a 17 year-old should be enabled to be part of a combat unit if that is what he wants to do? As regards younger teenagers, are they not suitably placed in cadet forces at present, where training and discipline can do them only good and also possibly prepare them for later military service, including the Territorial Army?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord has hit exactly the right point. Ours is not a conscript army; it is a volunteer army. If young people of the age of 17 want to take part in combat, they can do so under the current deployment policies of the Armed Forces in the UK provided that they are fully trained—that is a very important point—and fully understand the obligations placed upon them. The noble Lord makes a most apposite point about 16 year-olds. Extensive training is given, not only within the Armed Forces but in vocational issues; for example, the opportunity to obtain a Level 2 NVQ. Therefore, proper pastoral care is given to those young people.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, will the Minister look again at one part of her otherwise very satisfactory reply: that which relates to young people between the ages of 16 and 18 being engaged in combat? She will be aware that the United Nations is making great efforts to bring about an international agreement that no young person under the age of 18 will be put into combat. In particular, I am thinking of the dreadful civil wars raging in Africa. Will she consider again whether the United Kingdom might help to give a lead in this matter, which might then be followed by many other countries?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am aware of the discussions taking place in the United Nations. My answer to the noble Baroness is that the real point of worry is the use of very much younger child soldiers in conscript armies. I do not believe that there is a comparison between some of the child conscripts that we have seen, for example, in Sierra Leone or Uganda where children as young as 12 are forced into conscript armies, and the way that the United Kingdom Armed Forces operate. Of course, the noble Baroness will know that there has been discussion on the optional protocol. That is due to resume in January next year and the United Kingdom will play a full part in those negotiations.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, will the noble Baroness agree that many of us approve of the proposal to allow young offenders to volunteer? Does she agree that they would benefit greatly from the discipline and organisation which they would encounter?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am very pleased to hear such an unequivocal endorsement of the Government's position on this matter. In that way, the noble Lord distinguishes himself from some of his colleagues in another place who have been a little less than welcoming of the initiative. It is important to remember that the young people concerned will be those who have received short sentences and have not been found guilty of racial crimes, crimes of sexual abuse or child abuse. It is right and appropriate that those young people are offered a second chance.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, I accept the comments of my noble friend. There is a real difference between deploying child labour in the Armed Forces in some countries of the world and our use of 17 year-olds. Nevertheless, is she not aware and has the Question not demonstrated that our deploying 17 year-olds in armed conflict is a controversial subject? When the United Nations protocols are reviewed in January, will she bear in mind the very real concern about the use of 17 year-olds in this situation?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am well aware of the controversial nature of these points. Perhaps I should say to my noble friend that we have canvassed the views of the senior officers in the Armed Forces. It is their view that not to deploy trained 17 year-olds might well cause difficulties for deployment of the Armed Forces in certain circumstances.

In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, I made clear that this issue will be discussed again. A working party in the Ministry of Defence is discussing recruitment and employment of under 18 year-olds. The MoD is, therefore, already considering the issue. In January, discussions will be re-opened on the optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I undertake to bear in mind not only the points raised by the noble Baroness but those made by a number of other organisations to the MoD on this matter.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I refer to the announcement concerning recruitment in prisons. Presumably only those who have committed minor crimes would be approached. Is not service in a cadet force before someone reaches mid-teenage most likely to reduce later lapses into crime?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a valid point. It is also worth noting that at present a little over 40 per cent of all Army recruits are aged under 18 years. The statistic for the naval service is 32 per cent and for the RAF, 20 per cent. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, is correct. The training they receive in the cadet forces is, indeed, a good training for future life. It is also worth noting that those aged under 18 years of age generally stay in the services longer and are more successful than their older peers.