Liz Saville Roberts, Leader of Plaid Cymru at Westminster
Rachel Taylor, director of programmes at the human rights organisation Child Soldiers International
Young people in Wales have the right to choose their own futures. And they have the right to be informed about the options available to them.
The myth that the army is the best place for disadvantaged and disaffected children must be challenged.
Welsh and UK governments have a duty to equip them with the skills and provide them with a future that safeguards their welfare.
Just as the law restrains 18-year-olds from buying fireworks or playing violent computer games, so young people’s welfare should also enter the 21st century when it comes to the age of recruitment to British armed forces.
13% of 16 to 24-year-olds are unemployed (it is almost 16% in the South West), those in post-16 education and training schemes – excluding higher education– was 172,460 in 2016, a 12% drop from 2014/15, and youth initiatives continue to be scaled back.
Welsh Government cuts to local government budgets have led to an alarming decline in non-statutory youth services and the closure of more than 100 youth clubs in recent times.
Meanwhile, the cuts to their flagship job creation scheme, Jobs Growth Wales, have stifled much-needed opportunities for young people. More youth clubs are set to close in the next round of council cuts.
In contrast, an area where funds are routinely spent with children in mind is by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
Between 2015 and September 2017, the British Army spent more than £18m on recruitment advertising.
As money for vital employment and social services is diluted, the army ramps up its marketing efforts – spending £10m in 2017 to entice people to enlist.
The UK is the only European state which still enlists 16-year-olds.
In the most recent recruiting years for which data is available, more than 20% of new Army recruits were under 18.
This archaic practice continues because the MoD sees school-aged children as ‘an opportunity to mitigate shortfalls’ in adult recruitment for the army’s least popular roles.
Recruitment campaigns target socioeconomically disadvantaged children who are subsequently far more likely than adults to be channelled into the most dangerous infantry roles.
The Army spent £3m on its 2017 This Is Belonging advertising campaign, a series of slick films which presented army life as adventurous and exotic.
In order to fill its ranks, the Army purposefully aims advertising at young people and makes a particular effort to target children from poorer backgrounds.
It was revealed in July that the This Is Belonging campaign was designed to target 16-24 year-old ‘C2DEs’ – individuals in the three lowest social and economic groups.
It is a shameless act by the Westminster Government to prey on the most vulnerable young people in our society.
According to the most recent available statistics, 10.4% of 16 to 18-year-olds in Wales are not in education, employment or training, while opportunities are even bleaker (18.5%) for those aged 19-24.
The MoD is also extending its reach into our schools. In 2017, the Westminster Government unveiled plans to introduce 150 new ‘cadet units’ in state schools across the UK.
Cardiff’s Fitzalan High School became the first Welsh school to introduce the model in October.
This is not a new tactic from Westminster. A 2015 report by the National Assembly critiqued military visits at schools and found that ‘the armed forces disproportionately visit schools in areas of relatively high deprivation.’
Instead of rebuilding our communities, and creating economic opportunities for young people, the Westminster Government is taking advantage of their own failures, and those of the Welsh Government, to enlist new soldiers.
The Labour Welsh Government must put an end to what are ostensibly informal recruitment events taking place in Welsh schools.
Time for change
It is clear to see why some young people are funneled into the armed forces when they see little support coming their way and army careers are marketed as glamorous social activities.
The government are targeting young people who want to belong and whose experience of formal education has often been unhappy.
But the Army is no place for 16 and 17-year-olds and the MoD’s blatant targeting of Welsh teenagers is unacceptable.
We all want every child to have the platform they need to succeed. Joining the army at 16 is unequivocally not the answer.
Our young people must be respected and supported, given access to tangible employment options and the support mechanisms allowing them to thrive.
They should be encouraged and enabled to develop their skills and qualifications in workplaces and non-militarised learning environments up to age of 18, when they cease in law to be minors.
The myth that the armed forces are best placed to provide such a learning environment for disadvantaged and disaffected young people needs to be seen for what it is: a cynical ploy to solve the recruitment crisis.
More than 70% of Welsh citizens believe the recruitment age should rise to 18 or above, and so the existing policy is evidently at odds with much of our country.
It is time all parties took a stand and recognised the need to ring-fence more educational and employment support for children and put an end to the MoD’s targeting of our teenagers.