National service: What’s the actual Tory plan and would there be exemptions? | UK News

If the Conservatives win the general election, teenagers will be expected to take part in national service at the age of 18. The precise mechanics of the scheme have not yet been finalized. The Tories have announced they would establish a royal commission—a type of public inquiry—to determine the specifics.
Here’s what we know so far about what teenagers might be required to do, who could be exempt, and what would happen to those who refuse participation. How would national service operate? Under the Conservatives’ new national service scheme, 18-year-olds would participate in one of two tracks:

Community volunteering: The vast majority of teenagers would follow this path. They would need to dedicate one weekend a month to volunteering for a year—totaling 25 days. The placements would be within the local community, engaging with organizations such as the police, fire service, NHS, or charities that assist isolated elderly individuals. Various examples provided by Conservative MPs include delivering medications or food to housebound individuals, acting as lifeguards, supporting communities during storms, and aiding in search and rescue operations.

Military training: 30,000 teenagers would have the opportunity to spend a year full-time with the armed forces. Young adults would need to apply, and tests would be conducted to select the best candidates. This track would not involve combat. Instead, young people would learn and participate in logistics, cybersecurity, procurement, or civil response operations, according to the Tories. Speaking on Sky News’s Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips, Home Secretary James Cleverly mentioned that those opting for the military route “will be motivated to join the military” after the year-long placement.

Most teenagers would volunteer in their community under the national service scheme. Pic: Reuters

Who will be exempt? The Conservatives have not disclosed specifics about who would be exempt from national service, but they have affirmed that royal children will be expected to participate. When national service was implemented after the Second World War, it applied to “able-bodied men” but excluded blind individuals and men with mental illnesses. It is uncertain if similar rules would apply under the new proposal. Disabled individuals may not be automatically excluded as they were previously, given that voluntary placements are likely to be suitable for a variety of people. In other nations with national service, exemptions are typically granted on medical grounds. Where national or military service is mandatory full-time, individuals may receive exemptions if they are university students, the only son, single parents, or professional athletes. Would women have to participate too? Yes, the plan encompasses all 18-year-olds regardless of gender. Women were first included in national service during the Second World War, but after 1945 they were excluded even though the scheme continued for men. How does national service differ from conscription? Conscription legally obliges individuals to join the Armed Forces for a set duration. The Tories’ national service plan differs in that it does not mandate military service.

Swedish conscript soldiers take part in the Aurora 23 military exercise at the Rinkaby firing range outside Kristianstad, Sweden May 6, 2023. Swedish, Polish, American, Finnish and Danish troops were on site to beat back enemy forces who had taken over the harbor area around the harbor in Ahus. TT News Agency/ Johan Nilsson via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. SWEDEN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SWEDEN.
Swedish conscripts in 2023. Pic: Reuters

Would there be penalties for non-participation? Individuals who refuse to participate would not face imprisonment. “There will be no criminal penalties,” Home Secretary James Cleverly told Sky News’s Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips. “No one will be forced to do the military component,” he added. It remains uncertain how the scheme will be enforced. Speaking to Times Radio, Foreign Office minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan compared the mandatory nature of the proposed national service to the requirement for young people to attend school until they are 18. She did not dismiss the possibility of parents being fined if their children do not participate but stated that the details of how the scheme would be made obligatory would be decided by the royal commission. Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Mr. Sunak said: “To those who argue that making it mandatory is unjust, I say: citizenship comes with responsibilities as well as rights. Being British is about more than just the queue you join at passport control.” Will participants be paid? Mr. Cleverly said those undertaking the military component will be compensated, whereas those who opt for volunteering will not be paid. How would it be financed? The Conservatives said the national service program would cost £2.5 billion annually and would be funded by resources previously allocated to the UK Shared Prosperity Fund and efforts to combat tax evasion and avoidance. Read more from Sky News: Your ultimate guide to the general election Who will win? Check our poll tracker

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Has national service been proposed before? At the beginning of this year, top military officials discussed the idea of conscription in scenarios where NATO might go to war with Russia. The head of the British Army expressed that UK citizens should be “trained and equipped” to participate in a potential conflict, while Britain’s former top NATO commander suggested it was time to move past the societal aversions to conscription. Downing Street ruled out any move towards conscription, emphasizing that army service would remain voluntary. But a similar concept to the Tories’ national service plan has been proposed recently. Last year, the center-right think tank Onward suggested…Great British National Service initiative. Similar to the Conservatives’ existing suggestion, it emphasized volunteering and recommended that teens aged 16 be required to fulfill a specified number of volunteer hours. A significant distinction was its non-mandatory nature – it proposed an automatic enrollment for 16-year-olds, with an opt-out option. Research conducted by Onward revealed that 57% of British citizens supported national service while 19% opposed it. The most favored model encompassed both civil and military components, with 53% more inclined to back a mixed program. The concepts garnered backing from the leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt, and former Tory minister Rory Stewart.

How has this been received? Critics from various political spectrums have criticized the Tories’ proposal as unserious, while prominent military figures are doubtful about its implementation.

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Sky's military analyst Sean Bell

Sky’s defense analyst Sean Bell evaluates the national service proposal.

Sir Keir Starmer described the national service policy as “a sort of teenage Dad’s Army,” while Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Liz Kendall criticized the plan as “yet another unfunded spending commitment.” She mentioned on Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips, “That UK Prosperity Fund is meant to address economic inactivity and help people return to work, thus undermining another of their arguments. This is an unfunded pledge, a headline-grabbing gimmick.”

Mr. Cleverly asserted that the primary aim of the policy was to ensure that “people mix with individuals outside their bubble” for “community cohesion.” He stated, “We aim to foster a society where individuals interact with those from outside their own communities, from diverse backgrounds, different religions, and varying income levels.”

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