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Sunak says national service plan is ‘right thing to do’ amid backlash

27 May 2024 5 minute read
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during his visit to Chesham United Football Club, while on the General Election campaign trail. Photo Aaron Chown/PA Wire

Rishi Sunak defended his “bold” plan to bring back a form of compulsory national service amid a ministerial backlash and Tory confusion about the policy.

The Prime Minister said the policy, which will see 18-year-olds forced to either sign up to the military or cyber defence force or undertake community volunteering work, would make society “more cohesive” and strengthen the UK’s defence.

But a serving minister complained he was not consulted on the £2.5 billion policy and senior Tories faced questions over whether parents would be liable for fines if their adult children refused to take part.

Under the Tory plan, due to be fully in place by 2029-30 if Mr Sunak wins the election, all 18-year-olds will be legally required to take up either a 12-month placement in the armed forces or cyber defence or give up the equivalent of one weekend a month to volunteer in their communities.

Military placements

Around 30,000 full-time military placements will be on offer, with the vast majority of 18-year-olds expected to do the compulsory community roles instead, working with organisations such as charities, the NHS, police or fire services.

Mr Sunak told reporters on a campaign visit in Buckinghamshire: “This modern form of national service will mean that young people get the skills and the opportunities that they need which is going to serve them very well in life.

“It’s going to foster a culture of service which is going to be incredibly powerful for making our society more cohesive and in a more uncertain and dangerous world it’s going to strengthen our country’s security and resilience.

“For all these reasons I think this is absolutely the right thing to do. Yes, it is bold, but that’s the kind of leadership I offer.”

Criticised

But Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker publicly criticised the way the policy had been “sprung” on Tory candidates.

He suggested had it been a government policy rather than a Tory proposal, he would have had a say because of the particular sensitives around military service in Northern Ireland.

“But this proposal was developed by a political adviser or advisers and sprung on candidates, some of whom are relevant ministers,” he said.

In a sign of wider unease at the policy, he added: “History has proven time and time again that liberty under law – not compulsion and planning – is the surest road to peace and prosperity.”

Royal commission

Broadcast interviews by senior Tories also demonstrated that key points of the policy were yet to be worked out, with a royal commission promised to develop the details.

Ministers compared it to the requirement for children to be in education or training up until the age of 18, which can leave parents liable for fines if their children do not show up to school.

Foreign Office minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan did not rule out the possibility of parents facing prosecution if their children refused to take part in the scheme.

Asked on Times Radio whether parents would face prosecution if their – legally adult – 18-year-olds refuse to sign up for the military or volunteering activity, she said: “I’m not going to write the detailed policy now. That’s what a royal commission programme of works will be for.”

‘Responsibility’

Tory deputy chairman James Daly said Ms Trevelyan “certainly doesn’t have responsibility for this area” and asked: “Why would you think that a parent of an 18-uyear-old would go to jail because of the actions of an 18-year-old?”

Tory peer Lord Goldsmith, an ally of former prime minister Boris Johnson, hit out at Mr Sunak and indicated he believed the Conservatives were on course for an electoral disaster.

“I understand the anger towards Sunak who has damaged the party almost beyond repair and all but guaranteed the majority of his MPs will lose their job next month,” the former minister said.

“But it’s hard to muster much sympathy given that none of this would have happened without the complicity of a majority of the party and what is now unfolding was entirely predictable – indeed predicted.

“The hope is that when Sunak disappears off to California in a few weeks there are at least some decent MPs left around which to rebuild.”

Labour stepped up attacks on the national service plan, with Sir Keir Starmer calling it a “teenage Dad’s Army”.

Shadow paymaster general Jonathan Ashworth said: “Tory MPs are arguing among themselves about whether they are going to arrest parents, whether it will apply to Northern Ireland and how much it will cost. It is a shambles, total chaos, and the country deserves so much better.”


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Alwyn
Alwyn
26 days ago

Why is it that only after the annoincement of tbe election do we hear any mention of this crazy scheme from
the Conservatives?
Because they only thought of it this week!

Shows the depths they’ll dredge for someting original (and uncosted) – which will actually WORSEN the position of the armed forces, as the remaining 73,000 ( down since David Cameron’s 100,000) will need to train the x 0000’s of unwilling 18-year-olds for a year each!

Valerie Matthews
Valerie Matthews
26 days ago

As I have said elsewhere! Bereft of ideas. out of touch. more interested in War than Peace, Why not spend our money on recruiting Doctors, Nurses, Carers. Plumbers, Electricians, Builders , I could go on! Use resources to Better our Country, keep our noses out of other people’s ‘Wars’ , concentrate n bettering life for young people by giving them a real future; whish does NOT involve them becoming ‘Cannon Fodder’!

Fi yn unig
Fi yn unig
26 days ago

How dare the architects of the shareholder tyranny, that being the organised overpricing cash extraction scam for the benefit of the few through dividends necessitating every hour spare to be worked for actual money to shore up the shortfall, come up with a scheme to compel 18 year olds or anyone to attend an unpaid weekend JUST when they need to be working?

Rhddwen y Sais
Rhddwen y Sais
26 days ago
Reply to  Fi yn unig

At least they did not give our gold away.

Karl
Karl
26 days ago

“Right thing to do”, says useless PM with no imagination or ability to take us to a better place. Instead brexit tactics of banging on about a war or 2 and playing to some awful people who are gagging for argument and war.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
26 days ago

Why can’t his minders position GI Joe’s arms and legs in a lifelike way…

Richard Davies
Richard Davies
26 days ago

School should be where young people learn the skills and gain the opportunities for whatever may come in terms of life. Why should the parent(s) face punishment if their 18 year-old offspring refuse to go along with this conscription? Tories are far too keen on charities taking on services that should be provided by government. (Reminds me of the joke from the German comedian, Henning Wehn, saying “We don’t do charity in Germany because we have good government.”) I would prefer to have adequately paid staff employed by the NHS, police, fire & rescue services, etc. instead of volunteers that… Read more »

Ap Kenneth
Ap Kenneth
25 days ago

Thousands of youth clubs have closed in these years of imposed un-necessary austerity. If he really has £2.5 billion hanging around (he does not it is another unfunded gimmick) re-open the closed youth club opportunities for young people and give them free bus travel to access education, part-time jobs and fun.

Steve A Duggan
Steve A Duggan
25 days ago

This policy just shows us all how out of touch they are with the real issues facing us these days. The quicker we eject them from office the better for all of us.

Jeff
Jeff
25 days ago

He is wanting to staff up the services he has denuded, for free, this is forced labour in the area’s they have trashed and keep the gbeebies watchers and daily heil readers happy.

Rob
Rob
25 days ago

National Service is only necessary in extreme circumstances particularly in self-defense, for example during the second world war, or an invasion like Ukraine. These elderly right wing gammons who say bring back national service never experience the horrors of WW2 and probably never even served their country themselves. If WW3 broke out tomorrow they would be sending their children and grandchildren on the next plane to a neutral country. In other words: Bring Back National Service, just not for my kids!!

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