HL Deb 21 April 1998

2.48 p.m.

Baroness Lockwood

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, having ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, they will support the optional protocol prescribing 18 as the minimum age of participation in hostilities and recruitment into the Armed Forces.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert)

My Lords, the UK has played, and will continue to play, an active role in the negotiations on the optional protocol. We have indicated in the past that we would prefer to retain our current policies the better  to ensure full manning of the Armed Forces and their continued operational effectiveness. However, the text of the protocol has yet to be finalised and any decision on UK ratification will be made only once the text has been agreed.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is my noble friend aware that according to a report published in 1996, over 33 countries had young people under the age of 18 involved in armed conflicts, including the United Kingdom, which, again according to reports, employed about 200 in the Gulf area during the Gulf War? Is the Minister further aware that discussions on the protocol have continued since 1993? Therefore, would it not be a good idea for the UK Government to give a firm lead by stating publicly their support for the protocol, which surely would be in keeping with our ethical foreign policy?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, as regards progress on the protocol, the chairman of the working group is hoping to bring forward some proposals by the end of this year; and the working group will meet early next year to consider taking things further forward.

The practice of Her Majesty's Armed Forces varies from service to service. I understand that the Royal Air Force tries to ensure that none of its recruits under the age of 17½ years is exposed to operational situations. In the Army, the limit is 17¼. At the moment, there are 55 under 18 year-olds in the Army in Northern Ireland and 11 in the former Yugoslavia. However, in Northern Ireland recruits are confined to barracks until they are aged 18. As regards the Navy, exceptionally a few personnel may be deployed in Her Majesty's ships and as members of Royal Marine units which are located away from the United Kingdom and redeployed without returning to base. I have asked for this matter to be reviewed.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, will the Minister consider carefully the impact of the United Kingdom position on that of other nations now discussing the protocol? The noble Lord will be aware that in the spring of 1997 under the previous administration the United Kingdom raised a number of objections to the protocol. In view of the fact that today children as young as 12 and 10 are being recruited into armies, some of them non-governmental armies, will the noble Lord consider Britain taking a much stronger lead on such a matter which involves great suffering in many parts of the world?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I take seriously everything the noble Baroness says about what happens in other parts of the world which are outside the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government. To a large extent, our policies are driven by the school leaving age in this country. If one loses the opportunity to recruit school leavers at the age of 16, one may never get them. That is part of the problem. There are two separate questions. The first is the recruitment age, and the second is the age at which one exposes young people to armed service in situations of conflict.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, is the heart of this difficulty the fact that the present text of the protocol does not distinguish between recruitment for training in the armed services and enlistment for active service? As this country has excellent training institutions for young servicemen—I think in particular of the Royal Navy at Dartmouth and the former HMS "Ganges"—would it not be in our interest to persuade those negotiating the protocol to make that distinction? Have the Government sought that endeavour? I speak as a former chairman of UNICEF, United Kingdom. I shall be attending a UNICEF conference in Switzerland in a few weeks' time. If it were of interest to the noble Lord, I could make some inquiries on this matter.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, the noble Lord makes exactly the same distinction as I initially made between recruitment for training and exposing young people to hostilities. I shall certainly be happy to avail myself of his very kind suggestion. I spent 12 happy months on HMS "Ganges" many years ago. I did not climb the mast, I am glad to say. I am fully seized of the excellent training that the services give to young people. That is something that we shall not lightly throw away.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, I accept the Minister's distinction between recruitment and engagement in hostilities, but does my noble friend recollect that ILO Convention 138 precludes the employment of the under-18s in any work which is liable to endanger their health or safety? While that convention does not apply to armed forces, do the Government agree that it would be curious to protect the under-18s from dangerous employment but actually to send them into battle?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am not sure of the date of the ILO convention to which my noble and learned friend refers. However, it is a situation which has been ongoing for many years. To confirm what I said in reply to my noble friend Lady Lockwood, I have asked for the situation of 16 year-olds serving in Her Majesty's ships to be reviewed.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I am sorry to hear what the Minister has to say. I can easily visualise him as a button boy on HMS "Ganges". To what extent do the Government differentiate between a minimum age for serving in the Armed Forces, for voting and for engaging in sexual activities?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, that takes us a little wide of the original Question. Only those who have had the pleasure of serving on HMS "Ganges" know that the noble Lord's reference to a "button boy" was in no way improper.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I cannot cap that! If my noble friend intends to persist in his present policies, how does he explain the logic, not to mention the morality, of denying the under-18s the right to vote on policies yet expecting them to fight, and if necessary to die, for those policies?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am the last one to stand at the Dispatch Box in your Lordships' House and discourse upon matters of morality. However, I merely point out to my noble friend that all these young people are in Her Majesty's services as volunteers, of their own free will.