Sunak says national service plan is ‘right thing to do’ amid backlash

Sunak says national service plan is ‘right thing to do’ amid backlash

Rishi Sunak defended his “bold” plan to bring back a form of compulsory national service amid a ministerial backlash and Tory confusion about the policy.

The Prime Minister said the policy, which will see 18-year-olds forced to either sign up to the military or cyber defence force or undertake community volunteering work, would make society “more cohesive” and strengthen the UK’s defence.

But a serving minister complained he was not consulted on the £2.5 billion policy and senior Tories faced questions over whether parents would be liable for fines if their adult children refused to take part.

Under the Tory plan, due to be fully in place by 2029-30 if Mr Sunak wins the election, all 18-year-olds will be legally required to take up either a 12-month placement in the armed forces or cyber defence or give up the equivalent of one weekend a month to volunteer in their communities.

Around 30,000 full-time military placements will be on offer, with the vast majority of 18-year-olds expected to do the compulsory community roles instead, working with organisations such as charities, the NHS, police or fire services.

Mr Sunak told reporters on a campaign visit in Buckinghamshire: “This modern form of national service will mean that young people get the skills and the opportunities that they need which is going to serve them very well in life.

“It’s going to foster a culture of service which is going to be incredibly powerful for making our society more cohesive and in a more uncertain and dangerous world it’s going to strengthen our country’s security and resilience.

“For all these reasons I think this is absolutely the right thing to do. Yes, it is bold, but that’s the kind of leadership I offer.”

But Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker publicly criticised the way the policy had been “sprung” on Tory candidates.

He suggested had it been a government policy rather than a Tory proposal, he would have had a say because of the particular sensitives around military service in Northern Ireland.

“But this proposal was developed by a political adviser or advisers and sprung on candidates, some of whom are relevant ministers,” he said.

In a sign of wider unease at the policy, he added: “History has proven time and time again that liberty under law – not compulsion and planning – is the surest road to peace and prosperity.”

Broadcast interviews by senior Tories also demonstrated that key points of the policy were yet to be worked out, with a royal commission promised to develop the details.

Ministers compared it to the requirement for children to be in education or training up until the age of 18, which can leave parents liable for fines if their children do not show up to school.

Foreign Office minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan did not rule out the possibility of parents facing prosecution if their children refused to take part in the scheme.

Asked on Times Radio whether parents would face prosecution if their – legally adult – 18-year-olds refuse to sign up for the military or volunteering activity, she said: “I’m not going to write the detailed policy now. That’s what a royal commission programme of works will be for.”

Tory deputy chairman James Daly said Ms Trevelyan “certainly doesn’t have responsibility for this area” and asked: “Why would you think that a parent of an 18-uyear-old would go to jail because of the actions of an 18-year-old?”

Tory peer Lord Goldsmith, an ally of former prime minister Boris Johnson, hit out at Mr Sunak and indicated he believed the Conservatives were on course for an electoral disaster.

“I understand the anger towards Sunak who has damaged the party almost beyond repair and all but guaranteed the majority of his MPs will lose their job next month,” the former minister said.

“But it’s hard to muster much sympathy given that none of this would have happened without the complicity of a majority of the party and what is now unfolding was entirely predictable – indeed predicted.

“The hope is that when Sunak disappears off to California in a few weeks there are at least some decent MPs left around which to rebuild.”

Labour stepped up attacks on the national service plan, with Sir Keir Starmer calling it a “teenage Dad’s Army”.

Shadow paymaster general Jonathan Ashworth said: “Tory MPs are arguing among themselves about whether they are going to arrest parents, whether it will apply to Northern Ireland and how much it will cost. It is a shambles, total chaos, and the country deserves so much better.”