Schools: Cadet Expansion Programme - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:35 pm on 18th June 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 5:35 pm, 18th June 2019

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, for introducing this debate on cadets and the great opportunities they provide for young people.

My late husband started the RAF section of the cadets at his school’s CCF, then gained a gliding licence and a pilot’s licence before he passed his driving test. For him, this was the precursor to a meteoric RAF career and he continued to be a very active champion of cadets all his life. He was president of the London and South East Region Air Training Corps for the last 10 years of his life and spent three years as president of all the CCF. The Army viewed this with great misgiving—it was not at all convinced that an airman was competent—but actually he coped extremely well.

I have followed this by being on the council of the Air League, which sets up scholarships and support for young people interested in the air. I also host an annual Youth in Aviation event here, which brings together a wide range of youth organisations connected in some way with aeroplanes, helicopters, gliders and all the engineering and support services that go with the air. Your Lordships are all invited to meet these young people at the event and see their enthusiasm and commitment. It is particularly heartening to see the disability programmes, with people in wheelchairs and with other mobility difficulties being given the opportunity to fly. One year we had a young man with muscular dystrophy and communication problems who explained through his difficulties the sheer exhilaration of being given the controls during a flight.

When I was master of my livery company, I set up a partnership with a south London air cadet unit from a deprived part of the city. The initial commanding officer set up the annual presentation of my award at a formal dinner at the RAF Club, where these amazing youngsters, many from very disadvantaged homes, host, read, speak and make conversation during the formalities of an RAF mess dinner, to which he adds traditions of the City such as a “loving cup”—all quite challenging and intimidating. They cope brilliantly, having had their confidence boosted by the challenges of cadet life, which also equips them with the social skills for events way outside the comfort zone of their home backgrounds. I have to say, they come very heavily briefed beforehand as well. The City traditions are highly relevant, as the lord mayor and the livery companies always support cadets; they feature in the lord mayor’s parade and they are on duty at formal Mansion House dinners.

It can be even more of an eye opener for their families, most of whom will have had no contact with the military, to see their sons and daughters develop skills and knowledge which they have not come across. They can be taken entirely by surprise to find a sudden passion for polishing shoes and pressing uniforms, which may not have been the activities of choice of their teenagers previously. The proud parents are often a real joy to behold.

As the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, set out, the Cadet Expansion Programme was launched in June 2012 during the coalition Government, when I, like the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, was also an MoD Whip and Minister. They were happy days. The aim was to deliver, as we have heard, 100 new cadet units in English state-funded schools by September 2015, with a commitment for an extra £50 million from Libor fines to further increase the number of cadet units across the UK to 500 by 2020. However, I entirely endorse the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, that this will still touch only a fraction of the state schools where young people could benefit so enormously from exposure to cadet units.

The programme is part of the Government’s aim of promoting a military ethos in schools, instilling values to help cadets gain new skills and commitment to their communities and country. This means pupils developing qualities such as self-discipline, loyalty, respect, strong leadership, teamwork, resilience and self-confidence, which will help them achieve excellence and shape their future.

Combined Cadet Force units give pupils from state schools the chance to experience the life-enriching activities of military cadets, which have long been a part of many independent schools. All of this enhances their employability as well as increasing their value as good citizens. The cadet units are always adamant that they are not primarily recruiting agencies. Of course, some cadets will be attracted to the military life, but many more will appreciate the skills it provides while moving into civilian work. With such a reduced military as we have now, it is of great benefit that more citizens understand what the military stands for and what its work entails. As youngsters get involved, so parents and families increase their awareness of the military.

As the Minister has already been asked, what plans do the Government have to continue to expand the cadet programme, and what steps are they taking to ensure that there are enough suitably qualified adults so that all those young people who want to be cadets have access to a unit? The cadet forces owe so much to the dedication and sheer hard work of the adult volunteers, who deserve huge credit. The unit I am involved with now has a full-time police officer as its commanding officer. He is prepared to give up his time and expertise to serve the young cadets. Such people are like gold dust and deserve as much community support as we can muster. It is a hugely rewarding activity—but my goodness it requires dedication. You can see the pride in adults when they watch these young people grow, blossom and develop confidence and skills for future life.

When we watch the Trooping of the Colour or witness other events of national significance, whether military or on parade, we all feel a sense of immense pride that we have such hard-working and dedicated professional military personnel. These days, many if not most of them will have medals on their chest to bear witness to the active military service they have seen, where they have put their professionalism ahead of personal safety and been actively tested in the skills instilled in cadet forces. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, that health and safety should not be the primary concern of cadet forces. Make no mistake, many of those on parade will have started on their careers through the cadets.

I hope that this debate will demonstrate the support of your Lordships for the cadet forces and our appreciation of those who train and guide our young people into becoming the community-spirited citizens whom the country really needs.