What is the Tory plan for national service and would there be exemptions?

UK

If the Conservatives win the general election, teenagers will be expected to take part in national service when they turn 18. 

Exactly how the scheme would work has not yet been hammered out. The Tories have said they would set up a royal commission – a type of public inquiry – to come up with the details.

But here is what we know so far about what teenagers could be doing, who might be exempt and what would happen to those who refuse to take part.

How would national service work?

Under the Conservatives’ new plan for national service, 18-year-olds would take part in one of two streams:

Community volunteering: The vast majority of teenagers would take this pathway.

It would require them to spend one weekend a month volunteering, for one year – 25 days in total.

The voluntary placements would be in the local community, with organisations such as the police, the fire service, the NHS, or charities that work with older isolated people.

Conservative MPs have given various examples of the kinds of volunteering teenagers could do, including delivering prescriptions or food to infirm people, being a lifeguard, supporting communities during storms and working with search and rescue.

Military training: 30,000 teenagers would be able to take up places to spend a year full-time in the armed forces.

Young adults would need to apply for the programme and tests would be used to select the best candidates.

This pathway would not involve combat. Rather, young people would “learn and take part in logistics, cyber security, procurement or civil response operations”, the Tories said.

Talking to Sky News’s Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips, Home Secretary James Cleverly said those who choose the military option “will be motivated to join the military” after the year-long placement.

A volunteer at a foodbank during COVID. Pic: Reuters
Image:
Most teenagers would volunteer in their community under the national service scheme. Pic: Reuters

Who will be exempt?

The Conservatives have not announced details about who would be exempt from national service – but they have confirmed that royal children would be expected to take part.

When national service was in place after the Second World War, it covered “able-bodied men” and excluded blind people and men with a mental illness.

It is not clear whether similar rules would apply under the new proposal. Disabled people may not be automatically excluded as they were in the past given voluntary placements are likely to be suited to a wide range of people.

In other countries that have national service, exemptions are mostly granted on medical grounds.

Where national or military service is a full-time requirement, people may be able to get an exemption if they are a university student, only son, single parent or professional athlete.

Would women have to do it too?

Yes, the plan involves all 18-year-olds regardless of gender.

Women were first included in national service during the Second World War, but after 1945 they were no longer included despite the scheme continuing for men.

How is national service different from conscription?

Conscription legally requires people to join the Armed Forces for a certain period.

The Tories’ plan for national service is different in that it does not compel people to serve with the military.

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 the enemy 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.
Image:
Swedish conscripts in 2023. Pic: Reuters

Would there be punishments for not taking part?

People who refused to take part would not end up in jail.

“There’s going to be no criminal sanctions,” Home Secretary James Cleverly told Sky News’s Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips.

“Nobody will be compelled to do the military element,” he added.

It remains unclear how it will be made compulsory.

Speaking to Times Radio, Foreign Office minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan compared the compulsory nature of the proposed national service to young people having to attend school until they are 18.

She did not rule out the possibility of parents being fined if their children do not take part, but said the details of how the scheme would be made mandatory would be established by the royal commission.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday, the Mr Sunak said: “To those who complain that making it mandatory is unreasonable, I say: citizenship brings with it obligations as well as rights. Being British is about more than just the queue you join at passport control.”

Will people be paid?

Mr Cleverly said those who do the military element will be paid – while those who choose to volunteer will not be paid.

How would it be funded?

The Conservatives said the national service programme would cost £2.5bn a year and would be funded by cash previously used for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund and cracking down on tax avoidance and evasion.

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Has national service been pitched before?

At the start of this year, top military officials touted the idea of conscription as they discussed what could happen if NATO went to war with Russia.

The head of the British Army said UK citizens should be “trained and equipped” to fight in a potential war, while Britain’s former top NATO commander said it was time to get over the “cultural hang-ups” around conscription.

Downing Street ruled out any move towards conscription, saying army service would remain voluntary.

But a similar model to the Tories’ national service scheme has been pitched recently.

Last year, centre-right thinktank Onward proposed a “Great British National Service” scheme.

Like the Conservatives’ current proposal, it focused on volunteering and suggested 16-year-olds should have to complete a certain number of volunteering hours.

A key difference was that it was not mandatory – it proposed a system where 16-year-olds were automatically enrolled, but could opt out.

Research commissioned by Onward showed 57% of British people supported national service and 19% opposed it.

It found the most popular model included civil and military activities, with 53% more likely to support a mixed programme.

The ideas won the support of the leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt, and former Tory minister Rory Stewart.

What has the reaction been?

Critics from across the political divide have dismissed the Tories’ plan as unserious, while leading military figures are sceptical over how it would work.

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Sky’s military analyst Sean Bell assesses national service plan

Sir Keir Starmer called the national service policy “a sort of teenage Dad’s Army“, while Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Liz Kendall accused the policy of being “yet another unfunded spending commitment”.

She told Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips: “That UK Prosperity Fund is supposed to be used to tackle economic inactivity and helping people get back into work so that really undermines another one of their arguments.

“This is an unfunded commitment, a headline-grabbing gimmick.”

Mr Cleverly said the main point of the policy was to make sure “people mix with people outside their bubble” for “community cohesion”.

He said: “We want to build a society where people mix with people outside their own communities, mix with people from different backgrounds, different religions, different income levels.

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