My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord De Mauley for tabling this Question for Short Debate and speaking to it with his usual clarity. Like all noble Lords, I strongly advise the Minister to exercise caution in this area. I remind the House that I have been a member of an RFCA in the past.
My fear is that yet again the MoD is being tempted to concentrate on form rather than function—a desire for a generic process rather than a recognition of the pragmatism and product that a bespoke design can and does generate. Time and again, the RFCAs’ structure and operating methods having been challenged, but it has always ultimately been conceded that their unquestionably unique character must be retained. This does not break the guidelines, but merely exploits the guideline provisions to recognise difference.
Defence needs what the RFCAs provide. When others, for example SaBRE, the DIO and the Recruiting Group, have tried to take over the role, the results have been at best suboptimal and at worst near catastrophic. As for Capita, why is it still involved in the Armed Forces at all? All noble Lords have heard the horror stories. Privately, I know of two cases of potential officers who have been rejected, or nearly rejected, for trifling sports injuries which servicepeople would likely incur during their career in any case and which certainly would not adversely affect their PULHHEEMS rating.
There is a very serious misconception about military recruiting. Whether regular or reserve, military service is not simply a job whereby the employer offers remuneration in return for a certain amount of work over an agreed number of hours. Military service is an unlimited commitment, for which no amount of remuneration could possibly compensate if that commitment is fully called in. My noble friend Lord Faulks made an exceptional point.
I draw the House’s attention to a further danger of centralising the function of the RFCAs. Suppose, God forbid, it becomes necessary to rapidly expand the volunteer reserves, especially the land forces. It would take time, knowledge and contacts to put the necessary infrastructure in place. This would not be difficult for the RFCAs as currently organised.
Indeed, an important activity of the RFCAs is property maintenance. The feedback I get from regular officers about the DIO is too vitriolic to repeat to your Lordships’ House. For instance, one complaint concerns keeping buildings on the defence estate unused when there is a use for them, simply because no funding is available for the statutory inspections—electricity and asbestos inspections, for example. Thus these buildings are allowed to deteriorate instead of being used for defence-related purposes The RFCAs manage a diverse estate comprising many relatively small properties. “Mega propman” contracts are completely unsuitable for this type of work. They result in high costs for trivial works, which also take a long time to complete.
I hope my noble friend the Minister will feel able to use her good offices to maintain the status quo with respect to the RFCAs.