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Reserve Forces and Cadets’ Associations - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:08 pm on 27th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Burnett Lord Burnett Liberal Democrat 6:08 pm, 27th January 2020

I draw the attention of the House to my entries in the register of interests, and the whole House should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, for calling this debate at such a crucial time for the reserve forces and cadets in the light of the proposed changes to be made to the Council of the Reserve Forces and Cadets Associations.

I have two general points on defence which I hope the Minister will be able to deal with in her reply. First, there is a strategic defence review in the offing. Does she have a timetable for this, and what opportunities will noble Lords have to consider and debate the proposed review? Secondly, will the military covenant be given statutory force, and when will the necessary legislation be brought to the House?

On the main thrust of the debate, I am sure the whole House is united in support for the reserves and cadets, both of which link the Armed Forces with their parishes, villages, towns and cities throughout the United Kingdom. The House has heard from the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, explaining the structure of the RFCAs, whose personnel are largely unpaid volunteers from diverse walks of life. They also enhance and reinforce the important link between civilians and the Armed Forces. Given the shrinking manpower in the Armed Forces, this is more crucial than ever.

Service in the reserves and cadets is of great importance, not least because it gives an opportunity for individuals to serve their country in the Armed Forces, which they can do while concurrently pursuing their studies. The links that RFCA members have with the civilian population are invaluable, not least because they assist in the retention of the good will of employers who release their staff to serve. Reserves are vital for reinforcements in combat and, furthermore, service in the reserves enables individuals who have served in the regular Armed Forces to transfer to the reserves and to retain and hone their skills.

In a debate also called by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, on 21 June 2018, I cited the case of two regular Royal Marines who left the corps and joined the reserves—namely Corporal Seth Stephens, a member of the Special Boat Service reserve, posthumously awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross for outstanding bravery in Afghanistan; and Corporal Matt Croucher, awarded the George Cross for outstanding bravery while serving in a commando unit in Afghanistan.

Before I close my speech, I will say a few words about the Cadet Expansion Programme. This has been a great success, a combined operation with cross-party support. The Ministry of Defence, the Department for Education and the Treasury, which funded the programme partly through Libor fines, all deserve credit. The RFCAs played an active part in bringing about this success. It was launched in 2012, and by November 2019 the CEP 500 target was met five months early when the 500th cadet unit began parading. The vast bulk of the 258 new CEP schools are state-funded schools. It is already clear that there is overwhelming and compelling evidence demonstrating that cadet forces can make a huge and positive contribution to social inclusion, social mobility and the well-being of young people.

The Minister, in her comments on the draft report, is rightly extremely complimentary of the RFCAs. The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, has told the House that the RFCAs are happy to see the council put on a statutory footing and to take certain additional safeguarding and other measures, but that the national and regional councils should remain volunteer led. Drastic change, as envisaged, should be resisted. I remind the House of the changes made some years ago in the system of Army recruiting. The results have been disappointing, to say the least. This is not an isolated example of where drastic change has resulted in failure. I hope the Minister is able to reassure us that the councils will remain volunteer led and retain their responsibilities.