My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, for this debate. I have a few declarations of interest that go beyond the register. I am the Lord Lieutenant for County Fermanagh, and therefore a vice-president of the Northern Ireland RFCA. We also host a veterans charity at home, which is eligible for government grants, and my wife is on the RFCA.
Northern Ireland, with 3% of the UK’s population and 7.7% of the reserve liability, is over 90% recruited. The reserves and cadets have survived and been recruited from both communities through 40 years of the Troubles. This has been enabled by the independence of the RFCA and the fact that it is an arm’s-length body.
The tailored review recognises the value in Northern Ireland. Against the background of the lack of devolved Administration support, the Northern Ireland RFCA delivers additional output: for example, it reaches places that the MoD simply could not get to, has employer engagement in both communities, and has links with youth. Additionally, the cadets benefit from not being entirely within the military circle in Northern Ireland; presenting a non-military face of defence is crucial in areas where regional sensitivities must be considered. The Northern Ireland RFCA has developed a youth outreach programme. Last year, 60,000 took part in it; it is the biggest such programme in Northern Ireland, in both communities. RFCAs have a role in relation to the Armed Forces covenant. In Northern Ireland, due to the position of some political parties that do not recognise it, that is even more important. In Northern Ireland, it is the RFCA, with its arm’s-length status and informal but extensive networks, that enables it to work where the MoD cannot.
There is also a unique partnership with the Department for the Economy and Invest Northern Ireland, which includes creating opportunities for the military community as a whole. Overt support by employers is difficult in the Province, but the RFCAs have bespoke arrangements with 700 employers, which is unusual at that level.
This leads on to one part of the tailored review that everybody else has spoken about that I disagree with: the appointments through OCPA. I disagree with this as far as the regional RFCAs go. Sometimes we lose sight of the real objective and get into a regulatory trail and that is all that matters. The objective is to facilitate the provision of Reserve Forces to back up the regular Army and other forces, and to do other tasks to support the cadet organisations, which are the vital recruiting base for all our armed services.
The associations are key to providing the right environment in the right communities. It is their task to do this by being involved and having links in all areas. I believe that the current system of appointment to the boards has achieved this, especially during the provision of reserves during the conflicts in the last 30 years, where the Army, or the Armed Forces, have been undermanned. In fact, the results, during a period of very poor manning, have been quite extraordinary.
The key to this has been, I believe, the quality and wide civil experience of the boards. In Northern Ireland, for instance, currently we have the pro-vice-chancellor of Ulster University, the head of Children in Northern Ireland, an ex-chief nursing officer, an ex-chief police officer, an ex-finance director of a food processing company in Londonderry, which is a divided place, and a senior member of HMRC. I believe that people with this seniority and experience cannot be gathered in any other way. I have some experience of OCPA and there appear to be serial applicants who apply for anything that comes up—a few days a month for a small remittance. This effectively will cut out and disfranchise the seriously able and senior volunteer membership that has enabled the success of the RFCAs to work in culturally and politically sensitive areas.
In addition and in particular, I ask the Minister where the lieutenancies will stand. Similar to the rest of the UK, the eight Lords Lieutenant in Northern Ireland, who are vice-presidents of the RFCAs, and more than 100 DLs in Northern Ireland all work to support the reserves and cadets as volunteers. Do we do away with this valuable network? We cannot afford to do that. With these changes in the composition of the RFCAs, I fear we will lose the quality and ethos of their service.