The British Army should review its policies on recruiting cadets under the age of 18, a new report submitted to the Ministry of Defence has recommended.
The report, produced by the pressure group ForcesWatch, states that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has not acted on recommendations regarding the recruitment and care duties provided to under-18s, 10 years after they were made by the defence select committee.
It also highlights concerns over the mental health of young recruits in the army, stating that "educational attainment standards and criteria regarding self-harming are being breached."
Additionally, the report raises concerns that younger recruits are more vulnerable to abuse during their time in the military.
"Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely than others to enlist before they turn 18, more likely to join the infantry where exposure to the trauma of warfare is greatest, and more likely to struggle when they leave the forces," the report says, adding that they are also more likely to "drink heavily, behave violently, self-harm, and experience mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder."
ForcesWatch recommends that more information should be provided to potential cadets regarding the "rights, responsibilities, and commitments involved in a career in the army" as well as easier pathways to leaving army training establishments. Currently, according to ForcesWatch, new cadets wishing to leave the army have to wait for up to three months before they are formally discharged.
According to figures published last year by Child Soldiers International, the British armed forces recruit around 2,000 16- and 17-year-olds each year, most of whom enlist directly to join the infantry.
The campaign group says that the UK is one of just 20 countries, and the only member of NATO, to allow soldiers under the age of 18 to join the army.
Since 2013, soldiers under the age of 18 have not been permitted to participate in combat operations. But last year it was revealed that at least 20 soldiers under the age of 17 did fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, due to errors made by the MoD.
The report also says the army has not reversed its policy on cadets under 18 years old being made to stand on guard duty outside army barracks.
In 2005, the defence select committee published a report into the duty of care provided at British Army barracks, following the deaths of four young soldiers on guard duty at the Deepcut barracks in Surrey between 1995 and 2002.
Though the deaths were considered to be self-inflicted, the committee recommended improvements that needed to be made across British Army barracks, including better instructions, greater levels of supervision, and greater attention to the welfare of young recruits. Additionally, the committee recommended that the MoD "must ensure that under-18-year-olds do not undertake armed guard duty".
Despite the recommendation, however, the MoD confirmed earlier this year that under-18s still routinely participate in guard duties.
The report states: "The Duty of Care report emphasised that the youngest recruits, particularly those under the age of 18 – who are legally children – present the greatest concern in relation to duty of care."
A British Army spokesperson responding to the report said that recruits had to pass basic training and assessment before carrying out guard duty.
"Service personnel chosen for guarding duty must be at least 17 years old and must have completed normal basic training and judgmental assessment," the spokesperson said. "Trainees are supervised when undertaking armed guarding duties and must operate in pairs as a minimum."
Additionally, the MoD defended recruiting cadets under 18 years old, claiming that the army provides "challenging and constructive education, training, and employment opportunities for young people".
"We continue to actively recruit across all age groups and as part of our duty of care to our recruits, no one under the age of 18 years may join our Armed Forces without the formal written consent of their parent or guardian."
Hussein Kesvani is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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