United Kingdom

United Kingdom

Conscription: No (since 1960).

Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict: Signed (7 Sep 2000). Ratified (24 Jun 2003).
Voluntary recruitment age: 16.
Conscientious objection recognised for professional soldiers: Yes.
Military expenditure: 2.7% of GDP (data 2009).

1) The voluntary recruitment age is less than 18. Actually there is no statutory minimum age for recruitment. The Armed Forces Act of November 2006, while providing for the drawing up of regulations regarding enlistment and terms and conditions of enlistment and service by the Defence Council, failed to include a statutory minimum age for enlistment. In practice, enlistment for “non-officers” was not permitted until the age of 16, although application could be made up to five months previously in the case of the army and up to three months previously for the navy and the air force. Officers could be recruited into the navy from the age of 17, into the air force from 17 and a half, and into the army from 17 years and 9 months. The minimum enlistment age to the army’s Brigade of Gurkhas was 17 and a half on 31 January of the year following enlistment. Entry into the Territorial Army, which operated on a part-time basis, was from age 17 for both soldiers and officers. All three services required parental or guardian consent for those enlisting below the age of 18. In ratifying the Optional Protocol, the government stated that safeguards to protect under-18s were maintained by informing the potential recruit about the nature of military duties, ensuring that the decision to enlist was voluntary, and obtaining free and informed parental consent. Doubts about the effectiveness of some of these safeguards were expressed, particularly in relation to the army. Reports by the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) on armed services training published in 2005 and 2007 spoke of recruitment practices being “overzealous” and contributing to a “very high drop-out rate” and of recruitment procedures and materials which “sometimes mislead”, with some recruits reporting that they had been steered into trades for which they were unsuited or had little interest, but where shortages existed. In the case of all three services, recruits, regardless of age, were not permitted to leave during the first 28 days of duty. They could then exercise “discharge as of right” and leave within the first six months. After the expiration of the “discharge as of right” period, under-18 recruits to the army had no legal right to be transferred to the reserve until the age of 22, for which 12 months’ notice had to be given.

The normal procedure was for all new recruits to enlist for a 22-year “open engagement”. Those ending their (regular) service before the completion of this period were required to serve in the army reserve for the balance of the 22 years or for a period of six years, whichever was less. Armed forces personnel under the age of 18 years and 3 months could also apply for discretionary permission to leave before their eighteenth birthday if they were “genuinely unhappy”. The government itself acknowledged that this did not offer “discharge as of right”. Terms of service for all three services were complicated and potentially confusing for new recruits, especially those under 18 with low educational attainment. Those undertaking specialist employment training in all three services were required to waive their right to give 12 months’ notice to terminate their contracts after the minimum required period of service, which could mean the deferment of their ability to transfer to the reserve. Set against this, recruitment literature aimed at school leavers stressed opportunities for gaining educational and vocational qualifications without referring explicitly to the resulting obligation to remain in the services for longer periods. In concluding that recruitment to the army should remain open to 16- and 17-year-olds, the Deepcut Review highlighted the benefits to some young people of training opportunities offered by the armed forces, commenting on the lack of opportunity for less educationally inclined 16-year-olds in the UK. In 2005 ALI commented that the “early drop-out is very high, varying from about 15 per cent for the Royal Air Force to 47 per cent in the Royal Marines”, with more than a third of all entrants dropping out during the initial training period in the army. The primary target group for the armed forces’ promotional activity was children and adolescents. A National Audit Office report published in November 2006 noted that the services were “developing their youth strategies in order to raise awareness at an earlier age to secure similar levels of recruitment from a smaller target population”. There were concerns that those non-officer recruits who were of low educational attainment and from poor communities were joining as a last resort and for other negative reasons, including the lack of civilian career options in their particular communities. The Ministry of Defence Armed Forces Youth Policy, aiming to promote the reputation of the armed forces and improve recruitment, had a particular focus on young people at risk of social exclusion. The MoD and the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales in late 2004 launched a joint pilot program of courses which did not involve military training, but offered challenging outdoor activities and development of teamwork, leadership and self-esteem. Those successfully completing the program were to be referred to local cadet forces, which were not part of the armed forces but were sponsored by the MoD and said to be at the core of the Youth Policy. Boys and girls aged between ten and 18 could join either the combined cadet force (CCF) units based in schools or cadet forces for the separate services linked to an establishment of one of the regular or reserve armed forces. The most recent Army Continuous Attitude Survey showed that 22 per cent of serving soldiers and 50 per cent of serving officers had been part of a cadet organization.

2) In the case of the army, most 16-year-olds were enlisted through “junior entry” and then underwent phase 1 training of between 14 weeks and a year for a general introduction to military life, including drill. They were then sent to phase 2 establishments, where they were trained and lived alongside older trainees for technical and professional training. Phase 2 training could last between a few weeks and up to a year for more specialist training. Those recruited at 17, but also some aged 16 (all generally referred to as “single entry” recruits), were trained by the Army Training Regiment alongside adult recruits at a number of other establishments. Recruits to the army with specific qualifications could also enlist as apprentices in the Technical Corps between the ages of 16 and 17, training in a range of trades over a period of a year or more. Enlistment as an apprentice was on the same terms as for ordinary recruits, with a commitment to serve a minimum of four years from the age of 18. Students were paid during training. Periods of training for under-18s in the navy and air force varied according to chosen career paths. There were no schools operated by or under the control of the armed forces, but the Defence Sixth Form College in Leicestershire, specifically aimed at recruiting and training engineers for the armed forces, was established by the MoD and was overseen by the Defence Academy. While there was no legal obligation to join the armed forces on completing their studies, parents of students who did not do so were required to repay a contribution towards teaching costs.

3) No legal provisions govern the release of professional members of the armed forces on grounds of conscientious objection, but separate regulations within the three services (Army, Navy, and Air Force) govern the procedures which may allow a conscientious objector to be discharged on compassionate grounds. If the application is rejected within the service, there is a right of appeal to the Secretary of State for Defence through the independent Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objection (ACCO). The procedures are swathed in mystery: the regulations themselves are not a public document and statistics on applications are not routinely made public. However following a “Freedom of Information” request in January 2011, the Ministry of Defence stated that there had in total been nine CO applications between 2001 and 2010, of which six were successful. ACCO itself was convened for the first time this century in December 2010, to adjudicate on the case of 24-year-old LMA (Leading Medical Assistant) Michael Lyons. In the summer of 2010 Lyons, who had hitherto served in the submarine branch, although mainly on shore, had been detailed for posting to Afghanistan. During pre-posting briefings he had been disturbed to learn, as he explained to ACCO, “that even going out as a medic with all good intention, if you're at a patrol base or forward operating base, it's likely you'll have to use your weapon and will have to turn civilians away who are in need of medical aid." This had led him to do some further research as a result of which he came to the conclusion in Afghanistan he would be obliged to do things which were contrary to his conscience and that he therefore had no choice but to apply for release from the Navy as a conscientious objector. His Commanding Officer supported his application, expressing the view that he was “immature and naive” but there was no doubt that his conscientious objection was genuine. A chaplain however expressed the view that the objections as stated were political in nature, and it appears that this view was accepted first by the Navy authorities then by ACCO. In mid September 2010, he was notified that his application for conscientious objection had been rejected. He prepared an appeal to the Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objection (ACCO), but meanwhile he was sent to an advanced rifle training course, again in preparation for his deployment to Afghanistan. At the earliest opportunity, however, Lyons has meanwhile applied for early release through normal channels, giving the minimum twelve months notice.

Quite apart from the nature of the rejection, a particularly disturbing aspect of this case is that while his appeal to the ACCO was pending, Lyons was, as part of pre-mission training, detailed to a range for firearms training. He attended, but asked in view of his pending conscientious objection appeal to be excused participation. After some hours of consultation the decision was taken to order him to proceed to the armoury, take a weapon and proceed to the range. When he refused, he was arrested and charged with “wilful disobedience of a lawful order”. At a preliminary hearing on 20 May 2011, his counsel argued that the case should be stayed, the order in the circumstances not having been lawful. Lyons argued that the order to commence weapon training had been unlawful, as he was still appealing the rejection of his conscientious objection application, and he should have been assigned to non-combatant duties. A military court in Portsmouth, however, found him guilty of disobeying a lawful order and sentenced him to seven months' detention on 5 July 2011, following a two-day trial. In December 2010, the Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objection heard Michael Lyons appeal, and decided to advice Minister of Defence Liam Fox to uphold the original decision, and to reject Lyons claim of conscientious objection. Until today - more than six months later - Michael Lyons has not officially been informed of the decision.

British Afghanistan war resister Joe Glenton, 28 years old, was sentenced to nine months imprisonment on charges of absence without leave (AWOL) on 5 March 2010. Lance Corporal Joe Glenton left his unit in 2007, traumatised by a seven month deployment to Afghanistan. While still in the military, he had asked for medical attention because of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from his deployment to Afghanistan, but his request had been refused brusquely. He had no choice but to leave his unit and was discovered to be absent on 11 June 2007, when he was due to return to Dalton Barracks in Abingdon. He handed himself in on 16 June 2009, two years and six days later, after speaking at an anti-war rally in London. Based on his own experience in Afghanistan, Joe Glenton wrote a letter to the British Defence Minister: “The war in Afghanistan is not reducing the terrorist risk. Far from improving Afghan lives it is bringing death and devastation to their country. Britain has no business there.” He was among the first Afghanistan refuseniks to go public. The military responded harshly to his public statements, threatening him with up to ten years’ imprisonment. In November 2009, he was arrested and charged with five counts of "disobeying a lawful order" for speaking at the anti-war demonstration in London on 24 October 2009, and for expressing his opposition to the war in Afghanistan to the media. In December 2009 he was released on bail, under the condition that he would not speak in public. At a preliminary court hearing in February 2010 the charge of disobeying lawful orders was dropped, and the desertion charge was reduced to absence without leave. On March 5, 2010 Joe Glenton was sentenced to nine months imprisonment regardless of having been diagnosed with PTSD acquired by his tour of duty in Afghanistan. In April 2010 the High Court in London refused the appeal that he lodged and confirmed the sentence of nine months for having gone AWOL. On 11 July 2010 Joe Glenton was released.

1) Stop the voluntary recruitment of persons aged under 18.
2) Stop military training and abolish military schools for persons aged under 18.
3) Stop prosecuting and imprisoning conscientious objectors.