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Quakers have been central to a campaign that resulted in a change to government policy last week, as a minister announced that teenage soldiers will be given the right to discharge at any time before turning eighteen.
The news was warmly welcomed by Michael Bartlet, parliamentary liaison secretary for Quaker Peace & Social Witness (QPSW), a department of Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM), the formal organisation of British Quakers.
Michael Bartlet has long campaigned on issues affecting young people in the armed forces. He described the change as a ‘significant step’ towards the goal of raising the minimum enlistment age from sixteen to eighteen.
After their first six months in the forces, sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds currently have no right to discharge until they turn twenty-two. They can be discharged if ‘genuinely unhappy’, but only at the discretion of their commanding officer.
The UK is the only country in Europe to routinely recruit minors to the forces.
QPSW lobbied ministers over the issue earlier this year, along with other groups including the Unitarians and the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. The pressure grew as Liberal Democrat backbencher Julian Huppert proposed an amendment to the Armed Forces Bill to give under-eighteens a right to discharge.
Andrew Robathan, minister for defence personnel, backed down on 19 May. He wrote: ‘For those under the age of eighteen, the ability to be discharged will in future be a right up to the age of eighteen, subject to an appropriate period of consideration or cooling off’.
Michael Bartlet described the government’s new position as ‘a practical policy that Quakers, compelled by our commitment to equality and peace, have been pressing for.’
Campaigners are now waiting for the details of the policy to be published. There are concerns over how long the notice period will be and whether the forces will ensure that teenage soldiers are aware of their rights. The Quaker researcher David Gee found in 2007 that many recruits who consider leaving in their first six months are pressured to ‘soldier on’ and stay in the forces.
Emma Sangster, co-ordinator of Forces Watch, a network concerned with ethical issues around the armed forces, said she was ‘delighted’ by the news. But she warned that Forces Watch will be ‘watching closely to ensure that this change is brought in as quickly as possible’. She added, ‘We believe more needs to be done to address concerns about under-eighteens in the armed forces.’