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Call for a National Service scheme

A group of former Bermuda Regiment commanders is calling for the introduction of a National Service programme in which every young person would have to take part and give back to the community.

The group argues that if the current policy of conscription is abolished — as promised by the Government — Regiment manpower levels would not be sustained by volunteer recruits and the military outfit would have to disband.

The band of nine former Regiment chiefs agreed that, while conscription should ideally be kept on the books, the current system was unfair because only around 25 percent of eligible young people are called up each year, while all women are exempt.

Under the proposed National Service scheme, all young people would have to volunteer for some kind of service, either with the Regiment, the emergency services, or some other community work.

The group said it supported Government plans to increase the number of volunteer soldiers, but insisted that volunteerism alone would not provide the Regiment with sufficient manpower to remain sustainable.

They claim that the force needs around 130 new recruits to sign up every year if it is to have a fighting strength of 400. Typically all soldiers serve for three years.

In the run-up to the last general election, both political parties announced that they would abolish conscription if elected. National Security Minister Michael Dunkley has since insisted that the One Bermuda Alliance is still committed to that pledge, claiming that “conscription will be removed from our books”

But he has also said the controversial policy cannot be abolished until alternatives are in place to ensure that the Regiment remained up to strength.

In a statement, the group of former military top brass said: “Introducing policies that induce 120-130 people to volunteer annually will be an extraordinary feat.

“It would be a dramatic achievement in one year, but if the Regiment is to move to an all-volunteer system, this extraordinary feat must be achieved year in, year out or the Regiment will be unable to perform.”

The group claimed that a smaller, full-time force would prove more costly than the current arrangement, while cash bonuses for volunteers could also see costs balloon.

“We agree that Government should implement policies to raise the number of volunteers,” the group said.

“We are prepared to help Government to the extent we are able in order to do this.

“But we strongly recommend that Section 4 of the Defence Act — which demands that the ranks of the Regiment be filled first with volunteers, then by conscription if the number of volunteers is not sufficient — should be left as is.

“A long-standing criticism of the present system of conscription is that it allows many to escape service completely, whether for medical reasons, for educational reasons, or by virtue of some other type of unfitness for military service.

“It may seem that a system of National Service, requiring all our young people to take part but allowing them some choice as to what type of service is performed, will be thought a fairer way. The idea has been raised before but it has never been taken beyond the concept phase, because it would be highly complex to set up and administer.

“If a system of National Service is thought to be the best solution to the manning problem, then until the details of how it might be implemented are settled, we are clear that compulsory military service must continue in order to maintain the regiment's ability to do its job for the community.”

Plans for a National Service scheme were first put forward by then-Premier Ewart Brown in 2009. The scheme, which was never taken up, was designed for men and women aged between 24 and 30 and participants in the programme were to complete 16 hours service a month for two years, with possible incentives such as better loan rates and reduced TCD fees.

Yesterday, the group of former COs said it believed the vast majority of Bermudians still supported the need for a Regiment, but acknowledged that many were opposed to conscription.

They said they had met with a number of politicians, including National Security Minister Michael Dunkley and Shadow Minister Michael Scott to discuss different options for keeping the Regiment fully manned, including a National Service programme.

Last night a spokesman for the National Security Ministry refused to be drawn on whether Government was considering introducing a National Service scheme.

“The Minister of National Security has said on numerous occasions — most recently this afternoon in the House — that the end of conscription must be achieved in tandem with maintaining a Regiment that is strong and fit for role,” the spokesman said.

Nine former chiefs of the Bermuda Regiment have called for the Island to introduce a form of National Service, giving young people a choice of working in the community, the emergency services or serving with the Regiment.

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Published March 13, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated March 12, 2014 at 11:59 pm)

Call for a National Service scheme

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