My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, on securing time for this debate on our Reserve Forces, a subject that often gets overlooked when the focus of attention is elsewhere.
However, it is a simple fact that our Armed Forces—the Army in particular—could not have done all that they have done in recent years without a significant contribution from our Reserve Forces. During the course of the extended and very difficult campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, some 10% of the manpower of each successive brigade group that deployed for a six-month tour came from the Reserve Forces; in some deployments, the proportion was higher.
Moreover, some operational deployments that were hitherto conducted by regular units have been conducted by reserve units—something very much to the credit of, and demonstrative of the commitment of, our reservists. It is also worth remembering that, as our Regular Forces decrease in number and visibility, our Reserve Forces and cadets are the public face of the military. For example, in cities, towns and villages on Remembrance Sunday, it is invariably Reserve Forces and cadets that appear on parade.
The importance of our Reserve Forces up and down the country is at the heart of one of the major concerns that brought about this debate, as the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, and other noble Lords outlined. To those closely involved with the administration and organisation of our Reserve Forces, the current governance structure of the network of Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Associations—the RFCAs—up and down the country works well. There is a strong belief that, as the noble Lord, Lord West, said, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
However, it would appear that the Ministry of Defence believes that the RFCAs’ structure is not fit for purpose and wishes to make some quite fundamental changes. The so-called tailored review of the RFCAs which is looking into these matters has concluded that there are issues around the legal status of the Council of RFCAs, the financial arrangements and the classification of the RFCAs themselves. But like other noble Lords, I question whether these are real issues or simply a commentary on the way that our reserve forces are administered and organised—a bespoke and pragmatic process that has hitherto worked well but now does not appear to fit neatly into Cabinet Office, Treasury and Ministry of Defence templates.
On the issue of classification, as recently as 2007, the Cabinet Office concluded that the legal position of the Council of RFCAs and the RFCAs themselves was clear, stating they are properly established under the Reserve Forces Act 1996 and have Crown status. Moreover, the Cabinet Office stated that they were not a non-departmental public body with all that that entails; but now the MoD is arguing that the RFCAs should indeed become a non-departmental public body. What has changed in 12 years to cause this about turn? I would suggest that nothing has fundamentally changed about the RFCAs, although much has changed in terms of good practice. What has changed is the MoD’s desire to force the RFCAs into a convenient template.
However, one must assume that the MoD’s underlying concern is rooted in financial governance, as set out in the policy document entitled Managing Public Money. It would seem that the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, as the overall accounting officer for defence money, does not believe that he has sufficient control over the RFCAs and so is arguing for—and perhaps even demanding—significant change. To my mind, the change being argued for is itself inappropriate and, if implemented in the manner envisaged in the tailored review, would do untold damage to the volunteer ethos of the RFCAs and weaken the sense of localism that underpins the support network of our reserve forces and cadets. That said, I can understand the Permanent Secretary’s desire to ensure that he can fully deliver on his accounting officer responsibilities. The National Audit Office rarely takes prisoners these days, especially where defence expenditure is concerned.
However, the solution to the Permanent Secretary’s problem is not the recommendations of the tailored review; instead, it should be a simple application of the MoD’s own budgetary hierarchy. Were the Council of RFCAs to become a higher-level budget within an appropriate top-level budget, and the RFCAs around the country to become intermediate higher-level budgets or basic-level budgets, accountability would be ensured, sensible delegation would remain in place and local initiative and enthusiasm encouraged. I have been a top-level budget holder as the Army commander, held a higher-level budget as a divisional commander, and held an intermediate higher-level budget as a brigade commander. The system is tried and tested, works well and is understood. Would the Minister be kind enough to explain in her closing remarks why this model is not being considered for our Reserve Forces?
There is another dimension to the tailored review recommendations which shows just how out of line with reality they are. The report states that, “Consideration should be given to remunerate RFCA Board and Regional Council members to attract applicants with a diverse mix of military and professional knowledge, skills and performance.” Such a recommendation is little short of downright insulting to the hundreds of volunteers in the existing RFCA structure and network who freely give of their time and expertise—