What is National Service and how would it work as Rishi Sunak announces mandatory scheme

What exactly are the Tories proposing and could teenagers be arrested for refusing call-up?

Andy Gregory
Thursday 01 January 1970 01:00 BST
Rishi Sunak justifies introducing National Service: 'Democratic values are under threat'

Rishi Sunak has announced that 18-year-olds would be made to do national service if the Tories win the general election.

It marked the Conservatives’ first major policy proposal since Mr Sunak hastily announced the general election in the pouring rain on Wednesday afternoon, with his party now scrambling to find some 190 candidates amid a post-war record exodus of Tory MPs.

The prime minister insisted on that his plans for mandatory national service would help unite society in an “increasingly uncertain world” and give young people a “shared sense of purpose”.

In an apparent pitch to older voters, Mr Sunak said that volunteering could include helping local fire, police and NHS services, as well as charities tackling loneliness and supporting elderly and isolated people.

Here’s a look at what we know about the plans so far:

How would Rishi Sunak’s National Service scheme work?

Much of the detail remains unclear, with the Tories saying they would set up a royal commission bringing in expertise from across the military and civil society to establish how the scheme would work in practice.

This commission would be tasked with bringing forward a proposal for how to ensure the first pilot is open for applications in September 2025, and the Tories would then seek to introduce a new “National Service Act” to make the measures compulsory by the end of the next parliament.

But broadly, the party said that young people would be given a choice between a full-time placement in the armed forces for 12 months or spending one weekend a month for a year “volunteering,” in their community.

Teenagers who choose to sign up for a placement in the forces would “learn and take part in logistics, cyber security, procurement or civil response operations”, the Tories said.

Rishi Sunak met with veterans at a community breakfast during a party campaign event on Saturday
Rishi Sunak met with veterans at a community breakfast during a party campaign event on Saturday (AFP or licensors)

How has National Service worked before?

David Cameron introduced a similar scheme dubbed the National Citizen Service when he was prime minister. That scheme had no military component to it, instead encouraging youngsters to take part in activities such as outdoor education-style courses as part of his “Big Society” initiative.

However its budget was slashed by two-thirds in a 2022 review of government youth funding when Rishi Sunak was chancellor, after an investigation in The Independent found the scheme had consistently failed to meet government targets or deliver value for money, with one former board member calling it little more than “a holiday camp for mostly middle-class kids”.

David Cameron pictured in 2012 speaking to people on the National Citizen Service scheme
David Cameron pictured in 2012 speaking to people on the National Citizen Service scheme (PA)

Prior to that, Britain enforced mandatory 24-month national service in one of the armed forces for all physically fit males between the ages of 17 and 21, in a post-war scheme which ran from 1949 to 1960.

They then remained on the reserve list for another four years, during which time they were liable to be called to serve with their units but on no more than three occasions, for a maximum of 20 days. Over that decade, national servicemen took part in military operations in Malaya, Korea, Cyprus and Kenya.

Students and apprentices were allowed to defer their national service until they completed studies or training, while conscientious objectors were subjected to the same tribunal tests as in wartime.

What other countries have National Service?

Sweden, Denmark and Norway are among the other nations that have a form of national service.

In Sweden for example, teenagers service in the military for between nine and 15 months provided they pass the required physical and mental tests. Around 8,000 boys and girls take part every year.

In Denmark, men are required to enlist in the military for four months, but can postpone service until after they have completed their education. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Denmark plans to increase the required service time to 11 months, and to make conscription mandatory rather than voluntary for women.

Norway’s scheme is highly selective, with less than 10,000 people accepted in 2023, which is said by experts to make it a competitive process for the prestigious slots.

Is it the same as conscription?

Yes, conscription is defined as compulsory enlistment for a form of service to the state, typically into the armed forces.

Would I go to prison if I refused to do it?

In short, no. Teenagers would not be sent to jail for defying the Tories’ proposed national service scheme, home secretary James Cleverly said on Sunday.

Mr Cleverly said the Tories would ensure the scheme “fits with different people’s attitudes and aspirations” after questions arose over whether teenagers would be punished for not taking part.

“There’s going to be no criminal sanction. There’s no-one going to jail over this,” he told Sky News’s Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips programme.

“This is about dealing with what we know to be the case, which is social fragmentation. Too many young people live in a bubble within their own communities. They don’t mix with people of different religions, they don’t mix with different viewpoints.”

Prisons are also dangerously full, forcing the government this week to release prisoners up to 70 days early, ask magistrates courts to delay processing cases and urge police to consider halting “non-priority arrests”.

Nobody will go to jail for defying the Tories’ national service plans, James Cleverly said
Nobody will go to jail for defying the Tories’ national service plans, James Cleverly said (PA)

How much would it cost?

Mr Sunak claims the programme will cost £2.5bn a year by the end of the decade and plans to fund £1bn through plans to “crack down on tax avoidance and evasion”.

The remaining £1.5bn will be paid for with money previously used for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF).

Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Liz Kendall noted to Sky News that the fund “is supposed to be used to tackle economic inactivity and helping people get back into work”.

And the SNP warned that the fund served as a replacement for EU structural funds, warning that the Tories’ plans would “slash Scotland’s EU replacement funding by millions of pounds”.

What has the reaction been so far?

There are many outstanding questions about the details of the scheme, though these would potentially be addressed by Mr Sunak’s proposed commission.

Labour frontbencher Liz Kendall accused the Conservatives of merely “asking young people to solve the problems in the NHS, the police and the armed services that the Tories themselves have created”.

Nigel Farage noted that, under the plans, there would be only 30,000 full-time military placements for around 700,000 school leavers, tellingSky News: “National service on any scale is literally impossible unless you build up the size of the Army, and you need another 20,000 people to be trainers if you were doing it seriously.”

And Lib Dem defence spokesperson Richard Foord MP said: “If the Conservatives were serious about defence, they would reverse their damaging cuts to our world class professional armed forces, instead of decimating them, with swingeing cuts to the number of our regular service personnel.”

Justin Crump, a defence expert and veteran of 25 years, told Sky News the plans were “ill-thought through” and would be an “enormous potential burden” on Britain’s military, adding: “It’s certainly not the solution to the military’s problems and I think everyone I’ve spoken to this morning still has their head in their hands.”

Additional reporting by PA

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in