Liz Saville Roberts, Leader of Plaid Cymru at Westminster
Rachel Taylor, director of programmes at human rights organisation Child Soldiers International
Today Armed Forces Day (AFD) rolls into Llandudno, with flypasses, parades, tanks, combat displays and live music set to entertain an estimated 250,000 people.
But what the Ministry of Defence (MoD) doesn’t say on its website promoting the family-friendly day, is that AFD is also used as another promotional vehicle to persuade impressionable teenagers to join the army.
Over the past five years, more than 350 16 and 17-year-olds living in Wales have joined the Armed Forces.
They are among around 1,300 teenagers yearly who enlist at the army’s training college in Harrogate, the only military base in Europe to prepare 16-year-olds for warfare.
AFD, described by the MoD ‘as a chance to show your support’ for the armed forces, does serve to recognise the service of military personnel, but the day’s objectives go far beyond appreciation.
The British Army is more than 4,000 short of its trained strength target of 82,000, and has admitted that recruiting under-18s mitigates ‘shortfalls in the infantry’.
The armed forces spent £3m in 2017 on a series of slick adverts championing army life and adventure, specifically aimed at 16-24-year-old ‘C2DEs’ – marketing speak for those in the lowest socio-economic backgrounds.
The UK-wide adverts were boosted to working-class communities: Cardiff as well as Sheffield, Doncaster and Manchester.
Convincing teenagers to sign-up – often for its most dangerous roles – also extends online.
Data obtained through a parliamentary question showed the British Army spent £1.7m on social media content between 2015 and 2017, with adverts aimed at teenagers in towns and cities across Wales.
What’s wrong with that? Isn’t the MoD providing a chance to kids who’ve otherwise been failed by society?
If early enlistment is as great an opportunity as the MoD claims, why aren’t they advertising it to young people across a whole range of social backgrounds? Why aren’t candidates queueing up to enlist?
Instead, advertising is targeted at those with fewer options on the table. There is a huge difference between being a ‘great opportunity’ and being ‘the only opportunity’.
The percentage of young people not in education, employment or training (NEET) in Wales, although decreasing since 2013, is still higher than the UK. At the end of 2017, 11.2% of 16-24 year-olds in the UK were NEET, whereas this was 13.7% across the north of Wales and 15.7% in the south west.
Young people in the north of Wales face particular challenges finding post-GCSE career options. 2,395 16-24 year-olds started apprenticeships during 2016/17 – 52% fewer than in the south east.
Given this bleak outlook for many young people in the country, joining the army at 16 or 17 suddenly appears an attractive option.
If deprived teenagers enlisting at 16 were channelled into the best army jobs, leading to high level qualifications, with long term job security, at minimal personal risk, this certainly might be considered ‘a great opportunity’. But this is simply not the case.
Those who enlist under 18, the majority recruited for the infantry, are not eligible for any commissioned officer roles and therefore are permanently excluded from any of the highest-ranking positions.
Child Soldiers International’s 2016 research found that British soldiers who had joined under 18 were twice as likely to die in Afghanistan compared to adult recruits. This was directly linked to the fact they were disproportionately deployed in infantry roles.
Medical research shows that military training itself – not only deployment – can have serious, long term adverse mental health consequences on recruits.
Adolescents are significantly more susceptible to these effects, to the extent that their psychological development can be permanently impeded by the stress of the military environment.
This is particularly the case for those who have already experienced trauma in childhood.
New data obtained by Plaid Cymru in June shows that the number of armed forces veterans in Wales receiving mental healthcare has almost doubled since 2012 with more than 600 veterans referred to Veterans NHS Wales in 2016/17.
Mental health issues are not limited by age at recruitment but evidence shows that the youngest recruits can be at greater risk in later life. By enticing teenagers to join the military, our Armed Forces are putting them at risk both during and after service.
Those who support enlisting from 16 need to be clear that the policy exists for the convenience of the MoD’s recruiting branch, not for the benefit of disadvantaged young people.
If the MoD truly have their best interests at heart, the better solution is not to promote military life to youngsters through AFD or misleading adverts.
Rather, some of the £358m spent annually on training underage soldiers should be dedicated instead to improving educational, social and mental health services for at-risk teenagers.
Diverting children into the armed forces because of a failure to provide adequate post-16 opportunities in training or education is a clear example of the state putting its interests over and above the interests of our young people.
The UK Government must abandon the practices it shares with Iran and North Korea. It is time to start protecting and stop recruiting children.