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Reserve Forces and Cadets’ Associations - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:58 pm on 27th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Houghton of Richmond Lord Houghton of Richmond Crossbench 5:58 pm, 27th January 2020

My Lords, I welcome this short debate on the health of the nation’s Reserve Forces. I declare a specific interest in reserve matters, based on my leadership of the 2011 independent commission that reviewed the country’s Reserve Forces as follow-on work to the 2010 defence review.

It is worth recalling that the context of the review that I led in 2011 was a set of Reserve Forces in accelerating institutional decline. Our reserves at that stage were primarily being used as individual operational augmentees for service in Iraq and Afghanistan. We were failing to make an attractive offer to encourage reserve service more generally. The reserves still had very much of a Cold War feel about them; they were still structured for supporting major intervention operations. The potential utility of the reserves for modern homeland security, UK resilience, cyber defence and stabilisation was not at that stage remotely recognised. Perhaps more seriously, at that stage we were not exploiting either reservist talent or the nation’s volunteer ethos to the full. We were failing to create a more cost-effective regular/reserve manpower balance, and we were actively contributing to the erosion of the vital links between our Armed Forces and wider society.

Why did this situation come about? To an extent at least, because, at a time of scarce resources and high operational demand, what I might call central authority saw the reserves as assets not to be sustained but plundered. Some might recall that reservist pay was taken as a savings measure. Alone among developed nations at that time, we viewed reserves as a quaint, historical, inefficient luxury, not the vital expression of society’s voluntary contribution to national security.

So, although I know little about the detail of the review that has stimulated this short debate, like other noble Lords I am instantaneously made anxious by it. I understand that, as others mentioned, the review concludes that the current devolved mechanism for the governance of reserves and cadets—the RFCAs—offers excellent value for money. Moreover, as we have heard, defence has entrusted the RFCAs with additional roles to deliver wider engagement with society and the business and civic worlds.

However, somewhat remarkably, the review also wants to neuter the local autonomy of the RFCAs. It wants to supplant the benefits of a regionalised, delegated model with a centralised system, or so I am led to believe. Why? As far as I can ascertain, as has been pointed out, it is purely to satisfy the bureaucratic requirement for the senior governing body of reserves and cadets to be put on a statutory basis. That is fine, but why does this need a dramatic upheaval of the entire decentralised model?

My fear is that a bureaucratic nicety involving a minor issue of governance is being used as a vehicle to centralise the governance of reserves and cadets. In doing so, it risks adopting a system devoid of localised sensitivity and insight, in turn risking a return to a mindset that, as I well remember, nearly brought about the collapse of reserve service 10 years ago. I therefore join other noble Lords in asking the Minister whether she can reassure the House that such a risk is not being contemplated.