Alex Cunningham MP: Stop armed forces recruiting children


Central Lobby

Ahead of his debate today, Labour MP Alex Cunningham argues that the UK’s “routine” practice of recruiting 16 year olds into the armed forces has to stop.

Ahead of his debate today, Labour MP Alex Cunningham argues that the UK’s “routine” practice of recruiting 16 year olds into the armed forces has to stop.

It strikes me as amazing that in the 21st century we have 16 year olds making a decision to sign up for the armed forces and in time, combat roles, on behalf of the UK when the vast majority of nations across the globe have ended recruiting children.

It is correct that they do not take part in armed conflict until they are 18 – but 16 year olds are expected to serve until they are at least 22 years old and have little prospect of leaving before that age so time in a war zone is almost inevitable.

It is for that reason that I have asked to debate the issues in the hope that the Minister will carry out a full and proper feasibility study into an all-adult military and in time end child recruitment.

The debate to argue for such a military is well timed as the Ministry of Defence announces plans to recruit more service people at the same time as making others redundant. I would argue that we should retain the experienced service people we have and stop recruiting children who should not be expected to make a decision to go to war at such a tender age.

The UK is the only country in Europe to routinely recruit children. All of our European Union partners recruit at a higher age than ours. So, too, does every other permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

The image of a child soldier is usually one we associate with the developing world. But here in the United Kingdom, a 16 year old can be recruited on a contract which is legally binding for up to six years.

This hasn’t escaped the notice of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, who asked the Government to “reconsider its active policy of recruitment of children into the armed forces and ensure that it does not occur in a manner which specifically targets ethnic minorities and children of low-income families”. I had not realised that I lived in a country about which such language could be used.

Although secondary to the question of the rightness of child recruitment, there is also a cost issue. It costs an estimated minimum of £88,985 to recruit and train each new soldier aged 16-17½, compared with £42,818 for each adult recruit. The taxpayer would have saved an estimated £81.5 million – £94 million had the Armed Services recruited only adults.

Another argument raised is the job prospects of child soldiers in the military – the opportunity to learn skills. Well those skills are extremely limited for many people leaving the military perhaps one of the reasons we find so many homeless, jobless and sometimes in prison.

See more: recruitment age,