Despite the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) policy of not keeping under 18-year-old recruits against their will, Britain’s child soldiers are being held in a military detention centre for going AWOL.
At any one time last year, there were up to five so-called ‘young recruits’ detained at The Military Corrective Training Centre (MCTC) in Colchester for going AWOL.
Britain is the only country in the European Union and one of around only 20 in the world which recruits 16-year-old Armed Forces personnel, with applications submitted as early as 15 years and nine months. The number of 16-year olds currently serving in the Armed Forces is 580, the number of 17-year-olds is 1,970.
What are the rules?
Current legislation prevents recruits between 16 and 18 from leaving of their own accord - with the exception of a six month window at the start of their training - and once parents have given their permission they can not withdraw that permission at a later date. The MoD has said it has never refused to let an unhappy young recruit to leave, but Channel 4 News has spoken to the father of a 17-year-old recruit desperate to return home, but who is being reproached by his commanding officer for attempting to leave, and says he has been made to scrub toilets every day since filing for discharge. And Channel 4 News has also spoken to the mother of Daniel Farr, the Army recruit who died while in training shortly after his 18th birthday in 1997. She says he went absent without leave just days before his death and had begged to be allowed to leave training six months earlier.
Although Under 18s are, by law, not allowed to take part in hostilities, they are often posted to barracks abroad. At present, under 18s do not have an absolute right to leave service. Instead, they can only leave during their first six months, having completed 28 days service and giving 14 days notice.
Or they can apply to leave under the ‘unhappy minors’ provision up until three months after their 18th birthday; where the choice to send home a recruit is down to the discretion of the commanding officer. 260 personnel left the Army under the unhappy minors’ provision in 2009-10.
Campaigners are lobbying the Government to either raise the minimum age of recruitment from 16 to 18 or to make absolute the right of a young recruit to leave training. Several groups told Channel 4 News that the incarceration of minors in a de facto military prison is “immoral”, flouts UN convention and contradicts MoD policy.
The MoD has long insisted it is counterproductive to retain young recruits who wish to leave, arguing that to do so would create a disruptive effect on fellow recruits. And in January, Andrew Robathan MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the MoD, reiterated that position. Addressing the House of Commons, he said: “Any service person who makes it clear before their 18th birthday that they are unhappy with military life can request permission to leave the armed forces up to three months after their 18th birthday. The policy is to treat all such cases with great sympathy, because nobody wants unwilling soldiers in a volunteer Army. They are actually a nuisance, because they stir up trouble.” Simon Reevell, MP for Dewsbury and a barrister who has represented several Armed Forces recruits under the age of 18 when they have appeared before a court martial for going AWOL, told Channel 4 News usually those that went missing without permission were attempting to leave for good.
He said: “Mostly, there is a genuine desire to leave, that the Armed Forces is not for them. Of course, there are examples of those who want to see their girlfriends, aren’t allowed and take a runner. When it goes as far as sending a soldier to a detention centre, it is usually for a serious case of AWOL, and that is often because they run away with the intention of not coming back.”
Mr Reevell suggested that pressure on commanding officers to avoid drop-out rates amongst young recruits – 27 per cent amongst under-18s – was one of the contributing causes. “Officers are compelled to see their recruits through to service, so they do their upmost to keep drop-out rates low,” he said.
Mr Reevell has petitioned Mr Robathan to either amend the Armed Forces Bill to give Under 18s’ an absolute right to leave service or to make the change under Queen’s rules.
Mr Robathan said in January that the MoD is “aware of no cases where those under 18 who had expressed a wish to leave the services were unable to do so.” Yet he also admitted that records are not kept on refused discharge requests so these statements cannot be verified.
Channel 4 News spoke to Andrew Nutall, the father of 17-year-old Leon, who enlisted with 6th Scots Battalion as a private at Catterick in Yorkshire in February, who is now in the process of leaving the forces. Mr Nutall said his son had requested to leave less than a month after joining. He said that when Leon first put in a discharge request, he was told by his commanding officer that “the Army was the only place for him.”
“They told him there’s nothing out there for you in civvy street, the job market is poor, and you won’t get a job. You could end up in jail,” Mr Nutall said.
Leon has been “beasted” – made to perform hard and menial tasks – since the day he handed in his request, said Mr Nuttal, who trained at Catterick himself, 20 years ago.
“He has been scrubbing the toilet at 6.30am every day since he asked to leave.”
Mr Nuttall said that Leon has asked to be discharged “several times,” but it was only when Mr Nuttall rang the barracks on his son’s behalf and demanded he be allowed to leave, that he was allowed to file the relevant papers.
Leon then asked him not to call again, “for fear of recrimination.”
He has been scrubbing the toilet at 6.30am every day since he asked to leave. Andrew Nutall
“If the Army is saying that 16 and 17-year-olds are mature enough to sign up in the first place, they should pay them the same courtesy when they make the decision to leave. I’m disgusted by the way my boy has been treated.”
Leon is expected to be released on 24 March.
Lynn Farr, whose son Daniel died under suspicious circumstances shortly after his 18th birthday in 1997, told Channel 4 News that six months before he died, he had told his commanding officer he wanted to leave, but was “pressured to stay”.
Mrs Farr said: “The captain called me and said he wanted Daniel wanted to leave but that he wanted him to stay. I have come to regret not doing more to get him out while he was unhappy.”
The week before he died, Daniel went AWOL from Catterick, and called Mrs Farr to say he was trying to make his way home.
She said: “He said he wanted to talk to me and asked me to go on my own to pick him up. He refused to talk to me and I took him back to camp and he took a bag of my shopping with him so the guards would think he had just been down to the shops.”
Rachel Taylor, a project manager at the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (CSUCS), said current legislation does not sufficiently protect the minors in service.
I have come to regret not doing more to get him out while he was unhappy. Lynn Farr
She told Channel 4 News: “The question must arise why young recruits decide to go AWOL if the MoD repeatedly says that they will not be forced to stay. There are two logical explanations: recruits are not properly informed about this ‘unhappy soldier’ clause, and/or it is not quite as easy to leave as the MoD makes out.”
Ms Taylor said that while her organisation was sceptical about the prospect of the minimum age of recruiting being upped from 16 to 18, she believed there was a strong argument for amending legislation to give under 18s an absolute right to leave, rather than the current discretionary policy. She added: “I think there is evidence to suggest that part of the problem may be that commanding officers are making it difficult for recruits to leave, so they can meet quotas of retaining recruits.”
In its report submitted to the Select Committee for the Armed Forces bill, CSUCS refers to a 2009 Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps report on suicidal behaviour among young recruits.
The report gives a description of the typical recruit in training who presents suicidal behaviour. It reads: “A young, probably male, soldier who realized soon after enlisting that he had made a mistake, was unhappy, expressed that unhappiness but was frustrated in his attempts to leave. Continued to be unhappy, continued to be reassured that he would settle into it, that things would improve and then eventually became so desperate that that was the only thing he could think of to express his unhappiness further.”
A community psychiatric nurse notes: “We were told that some incidents of suicidal behaviour were a ‘last resort’ used to influence the chain of command to allow them to leave the Army.” The nurse recommends a “change soldier’s terms of service – to make it easier for those who are set on leaving the Army to leave.”
But this appears unlikely at present. The Select committee published a report on 8 March in which it said it did not advocate any change to existing policy in relation to the recruitment of under-18s.
And although Mr Robathan admitted, “I see an anomaly…I can see that it is slightly untidy that we let people go but do not give them the right to go” he added: “but I am not minded at the moment to change the policy.”
He later said: “It has been considered that it would be wrong to give that as a right.”
It looks even less likely that the minimum age of recruitment will be increased, despite pressure from the United Nations.
Raising the age has little support within the Armed Forces. Several servicemen who joined the army at 16 and went on to have successful careers, wrote to Channel 4 News saying that regardless of whether an amendment to the right to leave of U18s goes through, government should not increase the minimum age of recruitment.
One of the men, Brian Mackay, who joined who joined the Royal Air Force at 16 and left at 30, said: “I do not understand why people would object to this, it is a system that has worked very well for years. I had a troubled childhood and spent some time in care, the military gave me a home, a job and a sense of discipline, as well as self belief and a can do positive attitude that has powered me through my life. I was a very young man when I joined up, it was the best thing I could have done in hindsight.”
I do not understand why people would object to this, it is a system that has worked very well for years. Former RAF pilot Brian MacKay
One 16-year-old who is joining training in September, voiced their support for retaining the recruitment age.
They said: “16 year olds should have the right to go in with parents consent because it gives them somewhere to go and make something of themselves.”
A 2008 UN Committee on the Rights of the Child report said it was concerned about the recruitment of under 18s. It read: “The report expresses concern at recruitment practices relating to under-18s in the UK and called for the minimum recruitment age to be raised to 18.”
I see an anomaly…I can see that it is slightly untidy that we let people go but do not give them the right to go” he added: “but I am not minded at the moment to change the policy. Andrew Robathan MP, Defence Minister
Britain signed an optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict to the Convention that came into force in 2002 stipulates. It state that parties “shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons below the age of 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities and that they are not compulsorily recruited into their armed forces.”
But a recent answer to a parliamentary question suggests that the MoD does not keep a close eye on the ages of those it sends to Aghanistan and Iraw. The document shows that five 17-year-olds have been deployed to those countries in the past four years. Although of the soldiers two were close to reaching their 18th birthdays and did not see combat until then, and another two were sent back to the UK after officials discovered they were under 18, “the fifth individual was not identified until after turning 18.”
An MoD spokesperson said: “There are currently no plans to revisit the Government’s recruitment policy for Under-18s which is fully compliant with United Nations Conventions. Under-18s are not deployable .The duty of care of all recruits and in particular those aged under 18 is of the utmost importance to us. To this end parents or guardians of all younger personnel, as well as the applicants themselves, are given comprehensive guidance on the terms and conditions of service and the rights of discharge.”
“Personnel go AWOL for a variety of reasons and we try to mitigate this by having in place good Service conditions and welfare support for personnel and their families.”