My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, for initiating this important debate. I declare my interests as an honorary officer in the Royal Naval Reserve and as a vice-president of the Marine Society and Sea Cadets. For a number of years I served on the City of London RFCA and was privileged to serve as president when Lord Mayor of London in 2015-16.
Almost 10 years after the start of the successful Future Reserves 2020 betterment and expansion programme, the Reserve Forces are now absolutely vital to defence. As we speak, reservists are delivering operational effect. Some are deployed on operations abroad; others, such as the hugely successful cyber reserves, are delivering vital capability here in the UK. The reserves are now well recruited and, most importantly, provide a vital link from defence into the wider community, including employers. We can all be justly proud of the great contribution of the reserves to our nation’s defence, and indeed also of our superb cadet organisations.
The draft report we have been hearing of has not been published—nor have I seen a copy—but I am hearing considerable concerns regarding some of the recommendations from both regulars and reservists. I do not need to go into them because we have heard them.
Reservists are remarkable people. We all know in our own lives how difficult it is to balance career, family and other commitments, but reservists take on additional demanding duties that require time, energy, commitment, physical fitness, additional organisational flair and more—and do not let us forget that they can also, like their colleagues in the regulars, be called upon to make the final sacrifice.
It is incredibly important that reservists know that they have the support, back-up and understanding of the RFCAs. They know that the RFCAs consist primarily of volunteers, who share the volunteer ethos with them and typically have served themselves in the regulars or the reserves. RFCA personnel know the challenges, difficulties and satisfactions that our reservists experience. The involvement of the lords lieutenant and the deputy lieutenants links directly to the Crown—which, again, the reservists totally relate to.
We have heard how the RFCAs are typically manned by individuals of high achievement and the highest integrity. This is critical also for the local businesses, large and small, local authorities, civic society, trade unions and other entities that support the reserves, the cadets and, importantly, the Armed Forces covenant, in this instance, particularly, building and maintaining relationships which the department and the Armed Forces lack—and they do this for neither reward nor recognition.
It is hardly controversial to suggest that the nation is very well served by the regional structure of the RFCAs. Independent and impartial, rooted in their communities, they are ideally located to develop and maintain relations with the local population and local businesses and interests. Given the calibre of individual involved and their local involvement, they work with sensitivity to address local needs and sentiment. As the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, noted, they have been especially successful in working with the devolved Administrations, managing to maintain consensus on matters where a direct approach from the MoD could easily lead to friction.
This regional footprint and close ties to their respective communities is seen by RFCA customers as a key strength, with regional variance and nuance in delivery and engagement. The regional approach works.
There is perhaps an understandable focus on the Army, but it is generally accepted that the services get a pretty good service from the RFCAs, and something which is not always remarked on is that the RFCAs also do a great deal to support the single services in their work to engage society in the most general sense. One example of this is the work they do on employer engagement for the purposes of supporting all the tenets of the Armed Forces covenant, not just the recruiting and retention of reserves.
Currently the chairs and board members work for the RFCAs pro bono. They are steeped in the volunteer ethos, and they understand the Reserve Forces and the huge pressures that apply to their members. Will someone who applies online, who is perhaps a regular applicant for paid government advisory appointments, who may have no experience of or particular previous interest in the Reserve Forces, do this better than an experienced volunteer who is already in post?
Why, at this time of financial challenge for the Armed Forces, would you pay new people to do something which is already being done to the highest standard, as is widely acknowledged, and unpaid? We should be genuinely concerned about whether those recruited under the OCPA guidelines would offer the same experience, commitment and independence of mind. There is a risk of “them and us” emerging as a factor.
All of this is not to suggest that improvements cannot be made, but the perceived weaknesses can be addressed in a straightforward way, without wholesale change. To echo the noble Lord, Lord West, surely it is not beyond the wit of man—for which read “government”—to put the council and the RFCAs on some sort of statutory footing.