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Reserve Forces and Cadets’ Associations - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:54 pm on 27th January 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence 6:54 pm, 27th January 2020

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord De Mauley for initiating this debate and affording this House the opportunity to discuss the important work of the Reserve Forces and cadets’ associations. I am grateful to all noble Lords for their contributions.

I should perhaps declare an interest as a deputy lieutenant of the county of Renfrewshire. I say to the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, and the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, that there is no plan to end the role of the lieutenancies in this context.

A number of your Lordships referred to the review that the Ministry of Defence has been undertaking during the past 12 months. The review report is not yet in the public domain, which occasions me some discomfiture. I am not being evasive but, as your Lordships will understand, I am unable to discuss the report specifically. I do not propose to respond to questions about it, but I am happy to refer to the associations in general terms, more specifically to the valuable work they do, and to the identifiable issues that have emerged.

As the president of the Council of RFCAs, my noble friend is a strong advocate for the reserves and the cadets’ associations, as are many other Members of this House. I echo my noble friend’s points about the value of the work done by the RFCAs in three important areas: supporting and growing our cadets across the UK; ensuring that our reservists and cadets have safe and modern facilities where they can train and develop valuable life skills; and promoting the benefits that supportive employers and the Armed Forces family can enjoy together through the Armed Forces covenant and the employer recognition scheme. In the context of supporting and growing our cadets, the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, sought clarification about strength. As at 1 April 2019, there were 85,620 community cadets, an increase of 1,240, or 1.5%, since April 2018. A conjoined issue is safeguarding, which the noble Lord also raised. Safeguarding young people is our priority. We have robust procedures in place, including mandatory security and background checks for all adults who work with children, rigorous disclosure procedures and regular safeguarding training. The noble Lord also raised a point about the Armed Forces covenant; I shall write to him about that.

In the MoD, we are very grateful to the RFCAs for the work of the external scrutiny team, whose annual reports play a crucial role in ensuring that the reserves are not left to fall back into the relative decline evident in 2011. We are also grateful for the annual health check of the MoD-sponsored cadet forces. This is a valuable part of the cadet governance process, which provides senior management in the MoD with an independent view of the state of the cadet forces.

As our Armed Forces modernise and reform, especially through the Future Reserves 2020 programme, the RFCAs are a key partner to Defence—I repeat: a key partner—in maintaining and developing links with the communities in which they are based and with society at large. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and my noble friends Lord Attlee and Lord Colgrain about that. The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, referred to the important role—I think it is a great role—played by the cadets on ceremonial occasions, which is a manifestation of their worth and relevance.

The RFCAs’ evolution and growth since 1908, which has seen them taking on new tasks on a tri-service basis, has cemented their place as a key contributor to defence delivery. That is thanks in no small part to the commitment of their vibrant and active voluntary membership and executive staff, the regional networks, and the links that the RFCAs have within their communities. The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, spoke eloquently about that aspect.

We recognise these important strengths and reaffirm Defence’s commitment to the RFCAs: they are, and should remain, a key and trusted partner. That message has been received loud and clear. However, there is also a recognition that, as our Armed Forces evolve with the modern world, so too must their key support mechanisms. When you believe in something, as Defence believes in the RFCAs, that should not blind you to areas where improvement is required. Because of that belief, and the desire to support and enhance, it is important to recognise that change may be necessary. I fear that some noble Lords see the MoD as the bogeyman in this. I will try to place the issue in context. The review of the RFCAs is due to be considered at the MoD executive committee in the coming days, and I do not intend to pre-empt or guide its considerations here, ahead of the report’s publication in the coming weeks. I will instead attempt to analyse and clarify some relevant issues for the House.

The Reserve Forces Act 1996 sets out how associations can be set up and what their roles are. The legislation outlines the flow of executive authority and allows the associations to convene a joint committee—in this case, the council of the RFCAs—for any purpose in respect of which they are jointly interested. Over time, the council has become the primary point of contact for Defence, through which all MoD funding for the RFCAs is channelled. However, in law, a joint committee, as constituted under the 1996 Act, does not have separate legal status—a point fairly acknowledged by my noble friend Lord De Mauley and the noble Lord, Lord West. However, in practice the council operates as though it is a separate legal body, employing staff and operating bank accounts. However, as it has not been incorporated or otherwise legally constituted, legal responsibility for any financial or public liability resulting from council activity falls to the council board members personally. That is an onerous and significant degree of risk to individuals. I am sure noble Lords will agree that this exposes those board members to an unacceptable level of personal liability.

The nub of the issue is this: it results in a situation whereby decisions on spending public money can be—and in some cases are being—taken by some persons who are not accountable to the MoD Permanent Secretary, who is the department’s principal accounting officer, with all the consequent legal responsibilities of that office. This model, and the practices that have developed in the 24 years since the Reserve Forces Act was passed, are therefore not compliant with Managing Public Money, because regularity and propriety cannot be assured. A number of noble Lords suggested we just amend the existing legislation to place the council on a statutory footing, but that would not solve the issue of financial compliance. The two issues go intrinsically hand in hand and need to be addressed together through classification. Having said all that, I listened with great care to what my noble friend Lord Faulks said. He raised some important points and I undertake that they will be explored.

My noble friend Lord De Mauley, who has had sight of a draft of the review report, has suggested that the proposals contained in it could have an adverse effect on the voluntary membership, causing the associations to suffer a loss of talented and committed people. Defence agrees that this is something to be avoided and I reassure noble Lords on that point. We stand by to work with the constructive and committed leadership of the RFCAs, over a generous period of time, to ensure that we create an environment where the volunteer ethos and value is celebrated and supported by Defence, in order that there is little or no impact on this vital function of the RFCAs.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton of Richmond, asked about reserve strengths. As at 1 October 2019, the trained strength of the FR20 volunteer reserve population was 32,760, an increase of 500— or 1.5%—since October 2018.

I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, who raised the broader defence and foreign affairs review. That is a No. 10 initiative and there is no further information available about it at the moment. He also raised putting the covenant on a statutory basis. I reassure him that that was in the Queen’s Speech, but there is no specific further information on it at present.

Anxieties have been expressed, and I hear them, but it is right that Defence seeks to manage natural anxieties around compliance, accountability and, importantly, diversity and representation, which were not very prominent in the debate. It is also true that Defence wishes to preserve and improve the RFCAs. We value them, we want them and we wish them to offer more, not fewer, opportunities to serve our nation. I think that seems both positive and creative.

The review process has facilitated an analysis and an understanding of what, in terms of compliance and acceptable practice, seems to be deficient. I do not think it is a weakness to identify such issues; it would be a weakness and a failure by the MoD to the RFCAs not to recognise these challenges and be prepared to deal with them, especially in an organisation which is so vital and so welcome to Defence. But I reassure your Lordships that the review process has certainly shone a beaming light on the great strength of the RFCAs—I think that has been universally acknowledged during the debate and it is acknowledged from this Dispatch Box.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord West, that this debate has provided an invaluable forum for comment, and it will be studied closely. I hope this House can further debate the review itself in due course, once it has been published. I look forward to the RFCAs and their champions engaging constructively with Defence throughout the process of consideration and implementation of the review, strengthening the relationship between Defence and the RFCAs and ensuring that the many mutual benefits that they can can deliver will continue enhanced long into the future. I hope that, if I have not served to reassure all noble Lords on every point on which reassurance was sought, I have managed to explain why I think there is a strong and good relationship that the MoD wants to nurture.