Employment in the armed forces is unique in placing severe restrictions on rights and freedoms that are available to the rest of the UK population. The armed forces are also the only employers in the UK who legally require their employees to commit themselves for several years, with the risk of a criminal conviction if they try to leave sooner.
This situation is all the more worrying given that the majority of recruits are very young. There is also evidence that many personnel are unclear about the length of their commitment and their rights to leave and that the information they receive can be misleading.
ForcesWatch are campaigning to improve terms of service and increase awareness amongst recruits of what they are signing up for. See more here.
CAMPAIGN UPDATE: On 19 June 2011, the government announced that it would give teenage soldiers the right to leave the armed forces up until age 18 if they are unhappy. With other organisations, ForcesWatch has been campaigning for under-18s to have the right to leave the forces, and we welcome this development - see more. This is a significant improvement on the current situation which gives under 18s the right to leave only between the 2nd and 6th month of service. Additionally, the legislation allows for a possible reduction in the notice period of 12 months for those aged over 18. These changes came into force in July 2011 - read more here. We will continue to monitor whether recruits are made aware of these new rights.
The information below reflects these recent changes.
- the minimum length of service is at least 4 years, and up to 6 years for those joining before they are 18
- the notice period for leaving the forces is very long - a year in the army or navy and 18 months in the RAF. NEW - new regulations since 2011 allow adults the possibility of having their 12 month notice period reduced by up to 6 months at the discretion of their commanding officer. See more here.
- recruits may be required to serve for longer than the usual period if they undertake education or training other than their initial training
- on leaving full time service personnel are transferred into the reserves which usually lasts for six years. The army has the right to call up reservists for any reason for up to sixteen days in the year. All three forces may call up reserves for longer periods during emergencies, or when the Defence Secretary judges there is a national need.
- recruits have a discharge as of right (DAOR) at certain points in their early days in the forces which allows them to leave by giving fourteen days' notice. For those joining the army aged over 18, they can leave after 28 days' service, but before three months' service. For those joining before they are 18, they can leave after 28 days' service but before six months' service. NEW - new regulations since 2011 give under 18 year olds the right to give 3 months' notice to leave any time before their 18th birthday. By mutual consent the 3 months' notice may be reduced. See more here.
- for most recruits, their entitlement to DAOR elapses during the period of training and preparation and before they have had any experience of the frontline.
The army’s six-year trap for under-18s’
- You are NOT allowed to leave during the first month of service.
- You may then give 14 days’ notice and leave – but only between the second and sixth month of service.
- You do not have a right to buy yourself out.
- Your right to leave after 14 days' notice in writing expires six months after your first day in the Army.
- After six months service, and before your 18th birthday, you can give 3 months notice in writing. If you do not leave then, you must remain in the army full time until you are 22 years old.
- If you leave full time Army service when you are 22 or older, you will be in the Reserves for another six years. During that time you may be recalled for Army service or training.
- If you go absent without leave you will be liable for punishment by detention. The length of time absent may then be added to the release date after age 22.
- You may not be free to leave, even when you are over 22, if you go on an education or training course.
Confusion about rights
Evidence suggests that many recruits are unaware of the exact committment that they are signing up to and the procedures for leaving. The recruitment literature does not mention many of the legal obligations and the Notice Paper, which recruits sign on joining the forces, sets out their terms and conditions in language that is often unclear and technical.The right to conscientious objection is not mentioned.
There is particular confusion over discharge as of right for under 18s and the discharge of 'unhappy minors' from the services. New legislation from 2011 allows under 18s to leave the forces as a right if they are unhappy (see more here) but it is not yet known if young people in the armed forces are being informed of this.
Members of the armed forces face considerable restrictions on political freedoms that are taken for granted by most of the population. They are not permitted to join a trade union or a political organisation, to speak to the media or in public without permission or to stand for elected office.