My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, who is an unofficial noble friend from our days in the coalition Government, both for introducing this debate and for persuading me that I really did want to chair the cadet inspection team. In the short time that I have been doing it, I have found it both fascinating and rewarding. I have been really interested in the wide variety of contributions today, and regret that the pressure of time means that I will not be able to reference speakers.
My late husband went from air cadet to Air Marshal, having a gliding licence and a pilot’s licence while still at school. He was always a staunch champion of cadets, was a long-term president of the London and South-East Region Air Cadets, and was a rare airman to serve a term as president of the council of the Combined Cadet Force Association. I declare an interest as a council member of the Air League, which supports and funds air cadets, and I sponsor an annual Youth in Aviation event here in the Lords—an inspirational event where young people with an interest in aviation, often from very disadvantaged backgrounds and some very disabled, display their achievements in the air and their passion for aviation.
An additional interest is as vice-president of the War Widows’ Association. We are always grateful to the reserves and cadets who take part in our annual remembrance service at the Cenotaph on the Saturday before Remembrance Sunday. Their professionalism is always greatly appreciated as we remember the men that we see no more. They carry the standard, play in the band, march and wheel the wheelchairs with professionalism and friendliness. In the context of war widows, perhaps I might ask the Minister what provision is made for the care and support of the families of reservists who lose their lives or are injured in the course of their service.
I have another connection as a past master of the World Traders livery company. As a past Lord Mayor, the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, knows well that the Lord Mayor and the livery companies of London are staunch supporters of the cadets and the reserves. We award prizes and give financial support, and in return the cadets are frequently on show at livery and Mansion House events, where in these imposing and intimidating places they display courtesy and competence in carrying out their duties.
As we have heard, the cadets are of course dependent on the reserves, who supply many of the dedicated and hard-working staff who enable the young people to achieve so much. I hear the concerns over the review, although I was pleased to hear the continued commitment to provide a challenging and stimulating contemporary cadet experience that develops and inspires young people in a safe environment. Could the Minister say how the recruitment of those volunteers bearing up?
Our inspection team operates under the aegis of the council of the Reserve Forces and Cadets’ Associations, of which the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, is president. Our task is a gentle form of Ofsted: we visit cadet units at work and at camps to check on the welfare of the young people and to hear about any issues from the staff. We also keep an eye on the training programme, both for safety and for relevance, while being well aware that part of the value of cadets lies in managed risk. Swinging from ropes, shooting, sailing rafts across rivers and of course flying all carry hazards, but undertaking them under watchful expert eyes mitigates the risk and leaves the young people with a huge sense of achievement and self-respect.
It is really good news that the Government have launched the cadet expansion programme to introduce more cadet units into state-funded secondary schools and has committed £50 million from Libor fines to cover set-up costs, uniforms, equipment and training to grow the total number of cadet units in schools across the UK to 500 by 2020. I believe that number has been met; can the Minister say how it is set to increase? We know that some who join the cadets have only ever worn trainers and have never sat at a table for a meal. Exposure to hard shoes and table manners can come as a rude shock, but one which prepares them so much better with life and social skills for a more ambitious life.
It is a source of concern that air cadets have been woefully short of actual flying. There have been problems with both gliders and training aeroplanes, such that many air cadets have missed out on the air part of their cadetship. Can the Minister say if these problems have now been sorted? Are air cadets now able to gain glider and pilot licences, as my husband was?
Has further thought been given to the strange edict of a few years ago when an overnight ban was put in place for an age barrier for flying instructors? We know from this place that professional competence does not stop at 60, and very many highly experienced and utterly competent instructors were effectively sacked. Surely that policy needs to be reviewed. Has it been and, if not, will it be? Pilots tend to be a healthy breed who are well aware of safety requirements. They should be well able to decide themselves when they are no longer as effective as they should be and to choose their own time of retirement.
I am sure that all those speaking and many others in this House are acutely aware of the value of cadets and the importance of ensuring that they continue to be funded and supported. The opportunities they afford to enrich young lives are very significant. I look forward to the Minister’s reply and hope that she is as enthusiastic in her support as those who have spoken.