Schools: Cadet Expansion Programme - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:17 pm on 18th June 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative 5:17 pm, 18th June 2019

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lingfield on his excellent speech and on raising this important issue. I am absolutely delighted to join in this debate and completely support the cadet expansion programme, which started some years ago when I was working in the Ministry of Defence.

Shaun Bailey is the Conservative mayoral candidate for London, and he was brought up on a North Kensington council estate by a single mother. His mother made him join the Army Cadet Force at the age of 12, and he has said, “That really rescued me” from the culture of gangs and so on in which he might otherwise have been immersed. When I was working in the MoD, some eight years ago, I was asked by the charming MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, one Joan Walley, whether I would go to visit the air cadets there. I asked a boy of 12 or 13, “Why did you join the air cadets?”, and he said, “It keeps me off the street”. That might of course have been him quoting one of his parents, but it is also true.

This weekend in London, we have had three more murders—stabbings—and there is a knife crime epidemic, I regret to say. I point no fingers at anybody or any political party, but this tends to be among young people with nothing to do. They have no outlet for their energy or exuberance and little hope or aspiration. We need to understand their position: how they are pressured by their peers into joining gangs or even, as we discovered this weekend in Liverpool, paid to go and knife people they do not even know.

Sitting here, we—who are almost exclusively from pretty privileged backgrounds—should understand that there are things we can do to improve the lives of young people who do not have our start in life. I go back to Shaun Bailey and the young man in Stoke. There are of course other organisations. I pay tribute to other youth organisations that are a great help: youth clubs, the Scouts, sporting bodies—boxing, football and canoeing. As the local MP, I used to be president of the Blaby and Whetstone boys’ club—for those concerned, it took girls as well—which did excellent work. However, if the truth be known, the Scouts tend to appeal more to better-off, middle class people; that is not a criticism, it is just my observation. Among the cadet organisations, the Army Cadet Force certainly does not. I was a Scout and then in the Combined Cadet Force at my privileged day school. Both gave me outlets for my energy and introduced me to hillwalking and climbing through adventure training. Every spring, we would go climbing in the highlands of Scotland in the snow. I then joined the Armed Forces for 18 years and I still go hillwalking. Sometimes, I take my children and force them up the hills as well, although they are actually quite keen on doing it themselves.

From a less privileged position, from some of the sink estates in our inner cities, we should be giving them all a taste of the excitement, the adventure and the outdoors. This is not an original thought. When I was working in the Ministry of Defence, it was explained to me that Gordon Brown, when he became Prime Minister, wanted a CCF in every state secondary school, as we are now getting. I did not know that. David Cameron, with his National Citizen Service, was pursuing something not dissimilar in wanting to give everybody a taste of community service and outdoor adventure.

What do young people get from the cadets, be it the Combined Cadet Force, the Army Cadet Force or the others? It gets them off the streets. It gives them a sense of pride, often a sense of pride in their appearance. It gives them rules. It gives them discipline—self-discipline, as my noble friend referred to. It gives them a different, broader outlook on life. Dare I say it, it gives them aspiration, perhaps some action and adventure—things that all young people should have the opportunity to be exposed to but often, sadly, are not.

Of course, cadet organisations are not perfect in all ways, but this cadet expansion programme is giving more young people in state schools the chance that I had, and most will benefit from it, as I did. I never regretted the time that I spent in the CCF, although perhaps some of my peers with longer hair rather laughed at me. I never regretted joining the Army either. I shall digress slightly, because it is a similar case: I remember Sergeant Joe Farrell of the Scots Guards saying to me some 40 years ago that he had been offered a choice by a magistrate in Glasgow between joining the Army and going to jail. Wisely, he took the former course and it gave him the opportunity to get out of the Gorbals as it was then.

I want to touch on two issues, the first perhaps striking a discordant note. I recall watching a parade with the Prince of Wales, who was taking the salute, in the Mall in 2010—I think that it was Cadet 100, but I might have got it wrong. Hundreds of keen young people marched down the Mall with a sense of pride—pride in their uniform and in everything one would want. They were young people straining to use their excess energy—in drill, in sport, in adventure training and in military exercises. I heard what my noble friend said about adult volunteers, but I fear that not all the adult volunteers fulfilled the same position, in that they were straining to get in their uniforms and were not as good role models as they might have been. I am sure that they are all good people, but good adult volunteers to act as role models are essential. I witnessed one ACF adult volunteer trying to climb a rope net in front of his platoon. Frankly, it was embarrassing: his platoon were running up the net and he could not make it.

Secondly, I hope things may have changed and that I am out of date, but I recall being told that the last state school in Scotland to have a CCF had it closed down in about 2008 or 2009 because the head teacher believed it was militaristic and had no place in society. I hope teachers have learnt that a youth organisation such as the cadets is not just about wearing uniform; it is a great deal more than that.

To close, I will share a vignette from my first cadet council—I think that is what it was called—at which the reserve forces’ and cadets’ associations were all present. I had been in my job at the Ministry of Defence for two weeks and my civil servant told me that I was chairing the council, which rather surprised me. There had recently been a tragic death of a young person on adventure training. The senior civil servant who organised the council said to the assembled masses: “You must understand that our first priority is health and safety, our second priority is health and safety and our third priority is health and safety”. Sadly, all those gathered around nodded wisely. I said: “No it is not. Young people do not join the cadets for health and safety. They join for excitement, education, shooting, flying and outdoor activity. This must, and does, include risk”. They will not join if they do not get any of that.

Let us encourage all young people, as far as we can, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to participate in this different side of life, preparing them to be useful members of society. The cadets can offer young people another way. Once again, I cite the example of Shaun Bailey.