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Child Soldiers Global Report 2004 - United Kingdom

Publisher Child Soldiers International
Publication Date 2004
Cite as Child Soldiers International, Child Soldiers Global Report 2004 - United Kingdom, 2004, available at: [accessed 15 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Covers the period from April 2001 to March 2004.

Population: 59.1 million (13.3 million under 18)
Government armed forces: 212,600
Compulsory recruitment age: no conscription
Voluntary recruitment age: 16
Voting age: 18
Optional Protocol: ratified 24 June 2003
Other treaties ratified (see glossary): CRC, GC AP I and II, ICC, ILO 138, ILO 182

The minimum voluntary recruitment age for the armed forces is 16. Between six and seven thousand under-18s were serving in the armed forces. The government said it would no longer deploy under-18s in hostilities although it reserved the right to do so in some circumstances. Army recruits under the age of 18 who enlist for a 22-year term of service could be required to serve for a minimum of almost six years. The families of two 17 year olds who died in shooting incidents at a military barracks continued to express concern over flawed investigations and failure to establish the cause of death.


At the end of 2003 fourteen foreign nationals who could not be deported continued to be held in high security detention under severely restricted regimes without charge or trial. They were held under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act (ATCSA), which was introduced in December 2001 following the 11 September 2001 attacks in the USA.1 The United Kingdom (UK) had sizeable contingents of armed forces serving in overseas operations, including in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Cyprus, Kosovo and Iraq, and on duty in Northern Ireland.


National recruitment legislation and practice

There is no conscription in the UK. The minimum age for recruitment to the armed forces is 16 years, although this is not explicitly stated in primary legislation. On ratifying the Optional Protocol in June 2003 the government declared that the recruitment age reflected the minimum school-leaving age. It also stated that safeguards 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.2

Application procedures, which include presentation of written parental consent, may begin from the age of 15 years and nine months.3 To go straight into the army as soldiers, recruits must have reached the age of 16 years and nine months.4 Under-18s are classed as members of the armed forces upon completing their military training, which can last between 11 and 42 weeks.5 Individuals may also join the Territorial Army, which operates on a part-time basis, from the age of 17.6

The normal procedure is for all new recruits to enlist for a 22-year "open engagement".7 There is a provision for recruits below 20 years of age to choose a shorter term of service of one or two years,8 although it was possible that this option had been discontinued in practice. Recruits who enlist for a 22-year term and who give 12 months' notice have the right to transfer to the reserve or to terminate their service after serving only a four-year term.9 However, time served before the age of 18 is not included in the 22-year term or the four-year term.10 This means that 16-year-old army recruits who wish to exercise the right to leave or transfer after four years must serve until at least the age of 22. In the navy and the air force notice to serve shorter terms of enlistment (three-and-a-half years in the navy and three years in the air force) may be given after six months of basic training, regardless of the age of enlistment.11 New recruits who enlist for 22 years' army service also have the right to terminate their service on 14 days' notice within their first three months of service or, for those who enlist before they are 18, within the first six months.12 However, new recruits in the Brigade of Gurkhas, which comprises recruits from Nepal, who wish to terminate their service in the early months may do so only within the first three months, irrespective of their age, and must pay an amount of money equivalent to seven days' pay.13 Recruits who leave the armed forces without authorization are liable to arrest and trial by court martial.14

On signing the Optional Protocol in September 2000 the government declared that it "will take all feasible measures to ensure that members of its armed forces who have not attained the age of 18 years do not take a direct part in hostilities". However, it reserved the right to deploy under-18s. It confirmed that declaration on ratifying the protocol.15 In February 2003 the government stated that "It has been decided that the army will no longer routinely deploy soldiers under the age of 18 on any operations outside the UK, except where the operation is of a purely humanitarian nature and where no hostile forces are involved". Procedures were adopted to ensure that the "few service personnel" under 18 years in all armed services would be removed from situations their commanders deemed to present a "greater than low risk of direct involvement in hostilities". However, the government said that some units, particularly naval forces, may find themselves diverted at very short notice from normal peacetime duties to operations in which there is a "genuine risk of direct involvement in hostilities. In these cases, it might not always be feasible to remove or replace personnel" without undermining operational effectiveness. The government also stated that, in line with UN policy, under-18s would not be deployed on UN peacekeeping operations.16

A parliamentary committee in 2001 favoured retaining 16 as the minimum voluntary recruitment age, and believed "it continues to be important to recruit young people straight from school, including at the age of 16; if they are not caught at this point, they are likely to take up other careers and be permanently lost to the Armed Forces".17

Military training and military schools

There are four junior entry routes into the army, three of which train 16 year olds for the infantry and other branches of the armed forces. The Army Foundation College (Harrogate) trains school leavers aged between 16 and 17 years old as combat soldiers. They receive 42 weeks' training after which they are posted to their units and classed as members of the armed forces.18 Two courses for 16 year olds are offered by the Army Training Regiment (Bassingbourn) which provide around 11 weeks' basic training for all branches of the services (except the Parachute Regiment, Royal Artillery and Royal Armoured Corps), followed by more specialized training.

Recruits can also attend Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College from 16 years old in order to finish their secondary education whilst participating in "regular military training activities". The curriculum is science and technology-based in order to prepare students for related degrees which then lead them on to careers as officers in the technical branches of the forces.19

The UK Cadet Corps is not part of the armed forces. Boys and girls aged 13 to 18 may join Combined Cadet Force units based in schools and cadet forces for the separate services. The minimum entry age is 12 for the Sea Cadet Corps, and some units have junior sections for ten to twelve year olds.20


On 1 April 2004 there were 1,640 members of the regular forces aged 16 and 5,050 aged 17. Of those 6,690 under-18s in the UK armed forces, 665 were female.21 Over 1,500 Fijian soldiers had been recruited into UK forces between 1998 and 2003.22 The army Brigade of Gurkhas comprised almost 4,000 in March 2004.23 It was not known whether either of these groups included under-18s. Under-18s were not deployed in Iraq in 20032004 or in Afghanistan in 2002, although one 17-year-old girl was known to have been aboard a ship sent to the Afghanistan war zone.24


Deaths of recruits

The deaths by shooting of two 17-year-old soldiers in 2001 and 2002 caused widespread public disquiet. Both were on guard duty alone at Deepcut Barracks, Surrey, UK. An open verdict was returned at the inquest into the 2001 death; an inquest into the 2002 death had not been held by mid-2004.25 Surrey police and the army were repeatedly criticized by the dead soldiers' families for seriously flawed initial investigations into their deaths and the deaths of two other young soldiers at Deepcut, and for excessive secrecy throughout the inquiries.26 The families continued to dispute the army's conclusions that their children had committed suicide and repeatedly pressed for an independent inquiry despite the Defence and the Armed Forces ministers ruling out any such inquiry.27 The fifth and final police inquiry into Deepcut expressed concern over the incidence of bullying and called for more effective supervision of new recruits. The investigation found that 59 incidents of self-harm by recruits were recorded at Deepcut between 1996 and 2001, and estimated that about the same number were unrecorded. The police recommended a wider inquiry into intimidation and harassment that may have contributed to suicides.28 In March 2004 the parliamentary Defence Committee initiated an inquiry into the armed forces' duty of care in all its training establishments.29

1 Amnesty International Reports 2002, 2003 and 2004,

2 Declarations and reservations to the Optional Protocol, (subscription required).

3 Her Majesty's Armed Forces Enquiry Questionnaire, AFCO Form 2, January 2000.

4 British Army, (Units, Training, AFC, Joining).

5 Experience life as a soldier: Career opportunities for 16 to 26 year olds, December 2001; Information from Army Recruitment Sergeant, July 2004.

6 Territorial Army,

7 British Army, op. cit. (Serving soldier, Terms of Service – soldiers).

8 Regulation 4 of Army Terms of Service Regulations 1992 (Statutory Instrument 1992 No. 1365) as amended by Army Terms of Service (Amendment) Regulations 1996 (Statutory Instrument 1996 No. 2973), Army Terms of Service (Amendment) Regulations 1999 (Statutory Instrument 1999 No. 1610), and Army Terms of Service (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 1999 (Statutory Instrument 1999 No. 2764),

9 Army Terms of Service Regulations, op. cit., Regulations 5, 10.

10 Army Terms of Service Regulations, op. cit., Regulations 3(2) read with 2(3), 5(4), 10(2).

11 Royal Navy Terms of Service (Ratings) Regulations 1982 as amended by Statutory Instrument 2001 No. 1521; Royal Air Force Terms of Service Regulations 1985, as amended by Statutory Instrument 2001 No. 542, uk.

12 Army Terms of Service Regulations, op. cit., Regulation 7.

13 Army Terms of Service Regulations, op. cit., Regulation 9.

14 Army Act 1955 (Articles 37, 38), http://www.

15 Declaration on signature, in Declarations and reservations to the Optional Protocol,; Confirmed by declaration on ratification, (subscription required).

16 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Explanatory Memorandum on the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Command Paper 5759, 1 February 2003,

17 Report of Select Committee on Armed Forces Bill 2001, 15 March 2001, http://www.publications.

18 Experience life as a soldier, op. cit.; Information from Army Recruitment Sergeant, op. cit.

19 Experience Life as a Soldier, op. cit.; British Army, op. cit.; Welbeck: The Defence Sixth Form College, Prospectus 2005/2006.


21 Defence Analytical Services Agency, National Statistics, (TSP 08 – Age Distribution).

22 House of Commons (Parliament), Hansard Written Answers, 20 October 2003,

23 Defence Analytical Services Agency, op. cit. (TSP 03 – UK Armed Forces Strengths and Trained Requirements).

24 Communication from Ministry of Defence to Amnesty International (AI), 25 October 2002; Information from Quaker UN Office, June 2004.

25 Brian Cathcart, "What really happened at Deepcut Barracks?", The Independent Review, 29 July 2004,

26 Brian Cathcart, op. cit.; Amnesty International, United Kingdom: Army barracks deaths – Families demand justice, 18 June 2003, http://web.

27 Brian Cathcart, op. cit.; BBC, "Timeline: Deaths at Deepcut", 20 May 2004,

28 Surrey Police, Deepcut Investigation Final Report, 4 March 2004,

29 Parliamentary Defence Committee, Duty of Care Inquiry – Terms of Reference, 9 March 2004, (Committees, Defence Committee, 2003-2004 press notices).

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