Cross-party call to overhaul rules on citizens from UK Overseas Territories joining the Armed Forces
Citizens from the British Overseas Territories currently have to reside in the UK for five years before they can join the Armed Forces. It’s time to lift this barrier – and show we value our strong and lasting relationship, write Labour’s Luke Pollard and Conservative Andrew Bowie
The size, strength and capability of the UK’s armed forces are hot political topics. But while debates rage in Westminster over funding and equipment, it is worth remembering that the backbone of our military isn’t the tanks, aircraft, artillery or ships – it is our people.
Recruitment into the forces remains a challenge and the recent recruitment campaign attracted quite a number of critics – but modernising the process to appeal to Millennials and citizens of 21st Century Britain is a sensible thing to do and, it is hoped, will attract a more diverse and representative body of men and women into the three services. However, there is one group of people whom we are still unlikely to find serving except in the rarest of examples: people from British Overseas Territories.
The 14 UK Overseas Territories are British; they are British by choice and their residents are British subjects who hold British passports. Unfortunately, being a loyal, passport-holding subject of Her Majesty is not enough to qualify you as eligible to join up to serve - unless you’ve resided on the UK mainland for a full five years beforehand.
To put that into perspective, that means if an 18-year-old Falkland Islander wanted to serve in the British Army, the Royal Navy or the RAF they’d have to move, live and presumably earn money here in Britain until they were 23 before they would be eligible.
At a time when recruitment is difficult we are missing a trick and that is why, together, we have launched a cross-party campaign to remove these residency requirements for citizens of the Overseas Territories.
Sadly, however, it’s all too common for our 14 Overseas Territories to be excluded from legislation for no good reason.
Of course, more often than not, it’s unfortunately a case of simply being forgotten or overlooked - or as in this case lumped in with Commonwealth countries, despite the fact that the constitutional relationship between Britain and Kenya for example is evidently quite different than those between Bermuda or Gibraltar and the UK.
We do not believe there is an ideological or partisan rationale for the qualification period being applied to the Overseas Territories. Instead, it was probably a drafting oversight when the rules around overseas recruitment were changed many years ago.
We believe it is now time to correct that error and allow British subjects living in British Overseas Territories to join the British armed forces as any British passport holder in the UK can.
Given the historic contribution of our Overseas Territories to our nation, removing these residency requirements for citizens of the Overseas Territories would be one further step in underlining our strong and lasting relationship with them.
In World War I, 76 men from the Falkland Islands volunteered for the armed forces; 20 of whom were killed. Likewise, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands and Montserrat all have citizens who fought to defend the UK in the killing fields of the First World War. The bravery and sacrifice of citizens from the Overseas Territories in the First and Second World Wars must be recognised.
We believe that young people in the Overseas Territories should see a career in the Army, RAF, Royal Navy or Royal Marines as a possibility without a restrictive and difficult five-year residency qualification.
There is precedent for this campaign. Citizens of the Overseas Territories paid ‘overseas’ fees at UK universities until 2007, despite their status as British citizens. In 2006, Bill Rammell, then the Minister for Higher Education, brought tuition fees for the Overseas Territories in line with ‘home fees’ on the UK mainland. The Overseas Territories did not have their own higher education institutions and this change allowed students from the Falkland Islands, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands for example, to study in British universities paying the same as UK students.
We believe this precedent should be used to convince the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence to amend these regulations. The right of citizens in the Overseas Territories to study in the UK was granted, but this must be extended to their right to serve in the armed forces as British citizens without any restrictions. The clever civil service mandarins wanting to maintain the five-year threshold may wish to count residency in a British Overseas Territory as part of this period. There’s a number of ways of doing it but the outcome should be the same.
This campaign may not solve the UK armed force’s recruitment problems, but it might help a little, and with it lift a barrier that should never have been put in place dividing the UK from the Overseas Territories.
In a post-Brexit Britain, it will become more important to forge stronger ties with Britain’s Overseas Territories and show that Britain is truly global. This will help a little and every little bit helps.
Luke Pollard is Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport. Andrew Bowie is Conservative MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine