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My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord De Mauley on introducing this timely debate today. I should declare an interest as honorary air commodore of 600 (City of London) Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force and my interest in the reserves and cadets as a deputy lieutenant of Hertfordshire and as a lieutenant of the City of London. I also have three years’ experience in the CCF and 10 years’ service in the TA.
I urge the Minister to be cautious in adopting a review which could be described as using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, with probable damaging consequences. As the draft review itself acknowledges, the RFCAs are actually working pretty well and it might be wise to heed the old maxim, already quoted by other noble Lords, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The draft review contains some important and sensible recommendations—for example, placing the Council of the RFCAs on a proper statutory footing, but surely such change could be achieved without the radical reorganisation presaged by the draft review. To change the 13 autonomous RFCAs into a single non-departmental public body would be to risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In 2007, the Cabinet Office took the view that the RFCAs did not fit into any of the classifications for arm’s-length bodies and that, in particular, they were not non-departmental public bodies. What has changed since 2007? The draft review offers no new evidence as to why the RFCAs should now be put into a Whitehall straitjacket.
The review claims that the RFCAs are not genuinely unique and unclassifiable and therefore, change is necessary: the status quo cannot be maintained. However, the Cabinet Office handbook Classification of Public Bodies: Guidance for Departments states:
“It is possible that for reasons associated with function or services, there may be a small number of ALBs that cannot be classified into one of the main categories without adversely impacting on the body’s ability to fulfil those functions/deliver those services.”
I do not think that anyone who has served in the Reserve Forces could hold the view that the RFCAs are not completely unique. There are no other bodies anything like them. I strongly believe that the unique nature of the RFCAs should permit them to continue to operate as unclassified ALBs. The Reserve Forces today play an increasingly important role as a fully integrated part of the Regular Armed Forces. The cadets provide opportunities for young people to serve their country, teach leadership and other skills to tens of thousands and provide a continuing source of recruits for the Regular Forces. They bridge the gap between the military and civilian communities. That gap has become much greater, given the much smaller numbers of personnel and establishments in the Armed Forces today.
The involvement of lord lieutenants would also diminish or even disappear if the RFCAs were to become mere advisory bodies to a centralised NDPB. I doubt that the application of OCPA appointments procedures would improve the leadership of the RFCAs. Paragraph 5.6.4 states that as the RFCAs are regularised into a single NDPB, future appointments should be fully compliant with OCPA procedures. However, I believe that the present system produces the right people to do this job. The proposed changes would result in increased costs, as many of those appointed under these procedures would expect to be remunerated.
I do not believe that many of the people who do this work on a voluntary basis at present would be willing to go through the OCPA process; nor would they be willing to give up their time for organisations shorn of most of their authority and independence. I consider it most unlikely that their replacements would have anything like the local connections that have ensured that our Reserve Forces and cadet organisations are today relatively well recruited and in such good shape. I ask the Minister to think again and take time to find a better way forward for the RFCAs to be brought up to date without condemning them to radical surgery of the kind which so severely damaged the St John Ambulance Brigade.
Lastly, the county fora, which provide a local focus with which many reservists identify, would wither on the vine, and other sub-associations, such as the City of London association, of which the lord mayor acts as president, would quickly lose their significance.