Impact of Strict Military Tattoo Policies on Recruitment


MPs have heard that strict medical tests for joining the Army mean it can take 150 days for would-be recruits to join up

MPs were recently told that strict medical tests slowed the process for recruits to join, adversely affecting military recruitment targets.

Recruitment firm Capita told the Defence Select Committee that many young people had to wait 150 days to join the Army because of the medical assessments recruits must undertake due to the MOD’s rules.

Capita managing director Richard Holroyd told the committee that soldiers are not allowed tattoos above the collar or on the hands, and recruiters must send photographic evidence to a military judgment panel.

He added that people with asthma, hay fever, dental problems and dermatitis can also be turned away, as can those who have broken bones in childhood. Those with a high BMI are also ruled out.

Mr Holroyd said that the rules on broken bones and BMI meant that some members of the England rugby team would not be able to join if they tried to sign up today.

What does the Royal Navy have to say about tattoos?

The Royal Navy’s website says, “Most tattoos and piercings won’t prevent you from joining the Royal Navy”, providing any tattoos are not visible on a front-view passport-style photograph.

However, tattoos on the face, throat area or in front of your ears are prohibited.

The Royal Navy’s latest policy states that in recent years, an increasing number of RN personnel have ineligible tattoos on visible areas, especially on hands. However, these are already allowed in the Royal Marines.

It says easing the restrictions on tattoos for potential recruits and serving personnel while maintaining professional standards is consistent with Diversity and inclusion policies and reflects the society that the Royal Navy lives in and protects.

Would-be recruits are told that any offensive or obscene tattoos are not allowed, and these include those depicting a sexual act, extreme pornographic behaviour, violence of any kind, drugs, racism or political views.

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Tattoos in the military are a global issue, and last year, the US Air Force also relaxed its rules on hand and neck tattoos to boost recruitment (Picture: US Department of Defense)

Any piercings which cannot be removed are a barrier to entry, including flesh tunnels such as stretched earlobes.

The Navy also states that hand tattoos are acceptable if they follow the abovementioned guidelines.

When recruits apply to join the Navy, they must fill out a form describing their tattoos and show them during the selection medical process.

The senior service says that a commanding or recruiting officer will have the final say on what is considered offensive.

What are the British Army’s rules on tattoos?

According to the British Army’s website, tattoos which are offensive, obscene or racist will stop you from joining.

Small, non-offensive tattoos are generally not a problem, depending on where they are on your body and how visible they are.

The Army says that if a recruit’s tattoo is visible on a passport photo, it will be deemed unacceptable and prevent them from joining.

It adds: “Tattoos that are offensive or obscene, i.e. those that depict sex acts, violence or illegal drugs, for example, are a no-no.”

The latest policy allows tattoos on the hand and the back of the neck. However, most soldiers keep their saluting hands clean out of respect.

It also says that tattoos on the head and face are unacceptable, and if recruits are unsure, they should “pop along to your nearest Army Careers Centre and show them”.

Some body piercings, including those that “change the way you look, like a 4mm flesh tunnel or larger ones, ” will stop recruits from joining or veterans from re-joining.

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Candidates with a recorded history of asthma in the past four years will usually be deemed unfit (Picture: MOD)

What are the Royal Air Force’s rules on tattoos?

In 2019, the Royal Air Force changed its tattoo policy, meaning personnel can display more body art while serving. The RAF’s rules are stricter than those of the Army and Navy.

The latest RAF policy permits personnel to have tattoos on their eyebrows, neck and hands.

However, tattoos on the neck are only allowed if they are not visible from the front in particular uniforms and do not extend beyond the natural hairline.

Single tattoos on hands are allowed if a ring can cover them, while eyebrow tattoos must still fall within colour limitations.

A spokesman at the time explained: “The RAF has revised our tattoo policy to ensure that we can continue to attract the right people for a career in the RAF and also promote inclusivity, ensuring that the RAF continues to be representative of the modern-day society we serve.”

Rules on joining the Armed Forces with HIV

UK Armed Forces personnel with HIV are to be declared fully fit and be deployable overseas under the latest rules from the Ministry of Defence.

The latest MOD policy, introduced in June 2022, also means anyone with HIV but no detectable virus can join the military, removing the final barrier to service.

What are the military’s rules on BMI?

The MOD’s guidance to recruiters says its Body Mass Index (BMI) requirements are based on research into the risk of military training injuries. Health is generally considered an issue when the BMI is beyond the range of 18-30.

MOD policy says that for those already in service, an adverse BMI score alone should not be a reason for discharge but should be used as part of a comprehensive functional assessment to determine suitability for employment.

Can those with allergies join the Armed Forces?

The MOD’s Joint Service Manual of Medical Fitness states that any would-be recruit with a history of anaphylaxis is deemed unfit to join the Armed Forces.

Potential recruits with a history of severe allergic reactions, regardless of the trigger, or who require treatment with adrenaline or hospitalisation are also unable to join.

Recruits with a food or nut allergy and their reliance on medication is absent/low, or the deliberate avoidance of the allergen is not required, may be assessed as fit to join.

The same policy applies to Seasonal Allergic Rhinitis (hay fever) patients.

The policy says that in the case of food allergy, the allergic response could be assessed by serum or skin tests followed by a sequential challenge test, such as eating up to 10 peanuts. No reaction to the tests would equate to the same risk as an individual without a history of food allergy, and candidates may be assessed as fit and able to join.

Those allergic to wasp and bee stings/venom (previous anaphylaxis) are deemed unable to join unless they have undergone desensitisation treatment.

This typically requires weekly visits to a specialist hospital for up to three years, exposure trigger (injected with wasp or bee venom), and gradual dosage increase in her anaphylaxis.

The policy says that each allergy case should be looked at individually. A potential recruit’s GP should refer them to a lead consultant at an approved British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology hospital for opinion.

Joining the Armed Forces with asthma

The latest policy says that candidates with a recorded history of asthma, including those who have experienced symptoms or been prescribed any form of treatment within the previous four years, will usually be deemed unfit.

The policy goes on to say that potential recruits who have required more than one course of oral steroids, more than one nebulisation since the age of five or had a single admission to intensive care or multiple admissions to hospital are unable to join.

Capita and the MOD

In December 2020, Capita announced it had been awarded a two-year £140m contract extension with the MOD to continue delivering the British Army recruitment service.

Despite outsourcing its recruitment process to Capita, the MOD owns the recruitment policy, entry criteria, and assessment standards.

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