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Reserve Forces and Cadets’ Associations - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 27th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley Conservative 5:45 pm, 27th January 2020

My Lords, I start by declaring my interest as president of the Council of Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Associations. The forerunners of today’s Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Associations were established by Haldane in 1908 as County Territorial Associations. Through a series of Acts of Parliament they acquired a tri-service role, and in 1967 moved to their current regional structure, establishing a national council. In 1996 they gained their current name and in 2014 they were given the role of setting up an external scrutiny team to provide an annual independent report to Parliament on the state of the reserves. Today, the RFCAs also maintain and develop most reserve and cadet properties, other than those on regular bases, and sea cadet sites, which are charitably owned.

The RFCAs provide a voice for and a range of services to the Reserve Forces, the cadet movement and, more recently, wider defence. They are voluntary organisations, run by 13 regional committees representing their members, who are mostly unpaid volunteers from a wide range of backgrounds, including business, legal, education, local and national government, agriculture, banking, accountancy, property and military, both ex-regular and reserve. Collectively, they willingly give their time to further the interests of the reserves, the cadets and wider defence, and have considerable local influence networks. Each regional RFCA has a paid staff headed by a chief executive, appointed by its committee and reporting to it. The regional chairs sit on the national council, which is supported by its own chief executive and small staff. Because of their membership, RFCAs have critical links to business through regional business groups. They also have a range of equally important links to civic society through their membership and through 13 lords-lieutenant, who are their presidents.

As I mentioned earlier, the RFCAs maintain and develop most reserve and cadet properties—about 5,000 of them around the whole of the United Kingdom—and provide administrative support to the Army cadets. Recently, defence has given the RFCAs an additional, important role to deliver wider engagement with society and to encourage businesses and civic institutions to sign up to the Armed Forces covenant. This recognises that the RFCAs enjoy a degree of immersion in the civilian world which the MoD and Armed Forces lack. They do all this with an annual budget of about £112 million.

Perhaps partly because they are apolitical, the RFCAs have been especially successful in working with the devolved Administrations, managing to maintain consensus on matters where direct approach from the MoD could easily lead to friction. The RFCAs are currently unclassified, arm’s-length bodies, and Cabinet Office guidelines stipulate that it is good practice to apply a tailored review process to such bodies.

Accordingly, the RFCAs have undergone such a process. This review, the report of which is currently in draft, concludes that the RFCAs offer excellent value for money—a striking point, given the persistent weaknesses in the MoD’s own track record in managing property. It makes a number of detailed recommendations, many of which I accept, on matters such as updating service level agreements with the single services, the proper safeguarding of cadets, and so on. Its main concern appears to be the proper safeguarding of taxpayers’ money, something I also think is extremely important.

However, the report points out that the structure of the RFCAs, with no statutory basis for the council, is anomalous and—to tick the right boxes—suggests a fairly dramatic upheaval. Despite conceding the success of the RFCAs across their roles, the RFCA review proposes to put in place an arrangement under which an executive committee headed by the national chief executive would replace the council as the overall authority. National and regional councils would become purely advisory organisations. All appointments would be via an OCPA-compliant process—the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments—instead of election by the membership. In many cases, willing volunteers would be replaced by salaried individuals. The membership would be disenfranchised, though allowed to call themselves “associates”.

RFCAs are strictly non-party political, but there is an analogy here with a political party or a national charity. Suppose the national chief agent were put in charge, with regional agents reporting directly to him or her and the volunteer officers consigned to an advisory role. The loss of talent and commitment at all levels can easily be imagined. Yet, at a time when the Armed Forces are arguably more culturally isolated than ever before, this one strong defence bridgehead into civic society is threatened, critically risking damage to the delivery of the covenant.

Were the draft report’s proposals to go through, they would drive a coach and horses through valuable links to civic society which are at the heart of the Armed Forces covenant—one of the few remaining areas of policy where there is a broad consensus across Parliament and the devolved Administrations. It would also appear to typify the attitudes which the Prime Minister’s aide Dominic Cummings has firmly in his sights, as he says in his blog:

“The government system … is a combination of, inter alia: 1) extreme centralisation of power among ministers, officials … 2) extremely powerful bureaucracy (closed to outside people and ideas) defined by dysfunctional management incentivised to spew rules rather than solve problems”.

The draft report on the RFCA review proposes a solution to a purely bureaucratic issue by pulling down a successful structure and pulling up some of defence’s last remaining roots in the civilian world, which serve it so well. The perceived weaknesses can be addressed in a straightforward way without the wholesale change proposed, as has been explained to those driving the changes, with the council of the RFCAs being a legal entity under primary legislation. The RFCAs are happy to see the council put on a statutory footing; indeed, this would require much simpler amendment to primary legislation than the much more drastic surgery proposed under the review. The national and regional councils should remain volunteer-led, rather than a de facto extension of the MoD. The changes proposed in the review would, in my judgment, fatally undermine the very strengths that the report extols and seeks to preserve.

As Sir Roger Scruton, the philosopher who, so sadly, recently died and whose funeral took place on Friday, once said,

“good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created … the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation slow, laborious and dull.”